BY the time the state Board of Education meets again next month, the least board members and state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi can do is better familiarize themselves with Oklahoma's open meeting laws.
Last week's meeting was chaotic in many ways. Shouting and other poor behavior by the board, which is chaired by Barresi, has been well documented. No one can force the grown-ups to act as such. But they can and should be compelled to follow the law.
At least three times, board members voted or initiated votes on matters not listed on the agenda: a decision to form a subcommittee to study applications for the open position of the department's legal counsel, a vote to pursue an attorney general's opinion on a financial and personnel matter, and a vote to make one of Barresi's rebuffed hires leave the premises by a certain time.
Barresi has said she will ask for an attorney general's opinion related to at least some of those votes. But the review needs to be even more broad.
Much of the initial ruckus at the meeting involved three potential employees Barresi recommended for hire. But none of the names nor the positions they were to fill were listed on the agenda. Instead, the meeting's posted agenda listed a “Report on Department personnel changes” as an item on the consent agenda.
Previous attorney general opinions have addressed the issue, determining that agenda items must be clear and simple enough to determine what will be discussed and voted on. An advisory document on the attorney general's website offers specific guidance: “... the best guide for writing a proper agenda item is to prepare it so that an ordinary citizen with no specialized knowledge of a particular board's prior actions or deliberations will be able to understand from the agenda what the public body will be doing at the meeting. Public bodies often ignore this rule by preparing overly brief, topical agenda items such ‘contracts,' 'personnel actions,' or 'warrants and claims.' Although such agenda items may appear clear to a board member or staff person who has enough background information to know what particular contract, warrant or personnel matter is at issue, a citizen without any such background information will not be able to glean the precise nature of the proposed board action from reading such topical items.”
At minimum, violating the law means votes taken on improperly posted items could be rendered void.
There is no good excuse for the department and the board's failure to follow the letter and spirit of the law. We're sure the attorney general's office will be glad to help make sure they don't repeat that mistake.