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School board continues to ignore Sunshine Law

"Call the Tune" by Mike Anthony

We wrote last week that upgrades proposed for the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, are a step in the right direction, but additional changes are needed to strengthen the law to ensure the public's access to open and accountable government.

State Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, expects to prefile this month the "Sunshine Upgrade Act,'' which is designed to open electronic records and meetings and would prohibit secret votes via telephone or computer.

We also noted last week that a great many of our local governmental bodies thumb their noses at the Sunshine Law, particularly the provisions that permit closed sessions. Such is the case with the Mehlville Board of Education, a body that for quite some time has demonstrated questionable compliance with the Sunshine Law.

During a recent meeting of the Proposition P Oversight Committee, members were surprised when administrators announced that alternate sites are being considered for a new early childhood center that will be constructed as part of the districtwide building improvement program approved by voters in November 2000.

Since mid-2000 when the Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities recommended Phase I of the Facilities Master Plan to the Board of Education, the new early childhood center was planned to be built at the site of St. John's Elementary School.

St. John's would be razed to make way for the new center.

But district administrators now contend the cost to develop the St. John's site would be prohibitive and cite other issues that are problematic with the site. Those may or may not be valid reasons to consider alternate sites, but the real issue is why wasn't this brought to the Board of Education in open session?

Ironically, when we asked Superintendent Tim Ricker some months ago about the possibility of site development issues at St. John's, he indicated he was unaware of any problems.

Though Dr. Ricker told the Call's Alyson E. Raletz that board members have been aware of the situation since October, he didn't inform them of the problems in open session, but did so behind closed doors. And, in fact, Ricker confirmed that board members have been discussing the situation in closed session, including "contracting'' with a real estate broker to assist in finding other sites for the early childhood center. Under the Sunshine Law, governmental bodies are permitted to discuss in closed session the "leasing, purchase or sale of real estate.''

We are unaware of any provisions that permit a governmental body such as the Mehlville Board of Education to discuss problems associated with the development of the St. John's site in a closed session.

Furthermore, while governmental bodies are permitted to discuss in closed session the "hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees,'' we question the appropriateness of discussing in closed session "contracting'' with a real estate broker.

But the Mehlville Board of Education for quite some time has played fast and loose with the provisions of the Sunshine Law.

Consider these examples:

• During a closed session on Jan. 4, board member Rita Diekemper asked then-Superintendent John Cary to contact the district's legal counsel for advice about how to proceed with any individual who discloses closed-session material. We would question the appropriateness of this request as a closed-session topic and believe such a request should have been made in open session, especially considering the fact that the emergency closed session was called to discuss "personnel'' matters.

The Sunshine Law states, "Public governmental bodies shall not discuss any business in a closed meeting, record or vote which does not directly relate to the specific reason announced to justify the meeting or vote.''

• During a closed session on Jan. 21, board members considered invoices and payments to the Bickert Group Ltd., the firm assisting the board with a search for a new superintendent.

Because the Bickert Group would not be considered an employee of the district, we would question the appropriateness of this discussion in closed session, particularly when the firm is being paid with taxpayer dollars.

Shortly after he was named superintendent, Dr. Ricker discussed his plans for the district during an interview with this newspaper, including the challenges the district faced with Proposition P.

"We're probably going to have unforeseen challenges with some of our renovations ... But keeping that clear and open communication in an open environment so people know what we're doing and people understand the challenges that we face in detail enables us to be accountable for what those promises were way back when Prop P was just an idea and then became reality through the vote,'' he said earlier this year.

It's obvious that neither board members nor administrators have a clear understanding of the Sunshine Law. Their insistence on discussing such public issues as the problems associated with the development of the St. John's site behind closed doors will neither help the public understand the situation nor instill the public's confidence in their actions.

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