Last Thursday evening the LaFollette Press was notified the Campbell County Board of Education was planning a special called meeting. Specifically, Jennifer Caldwell, who covers the board for our readers, received a telephone call on her personal cell phone 90 minutes before the start of the meeting.
We certainly appreciate the gesture board chairman Mike Orick made in making us aware of the “emergency meeting.”
However, it is our opinion that Orick’s call fell far short of the board’s obligation under law to provide adequate notice to the public. From our perspective, just because a LaFollette Press reporter was called doesn’t mean adequate notice to the public was provided.
While we are the eyes and ears of our readers, we strongly believe the spirit of Tennessee’s Sunshine Law was violated. Attorneys might successfully argue that law was not violated. That’s not the point I am making here. I want to shine the light on the “spirit” and intent.
Because we were notified, it was easy to connect some dots. Our readers weren’t given that opportunity. The urgency in which the meeting was scheduled led to a burning question – what was the topic of the meeting?
Members of the County Finance Department wanted to let board members know another development in the Martin-Bundren saga had emerged. According to officials, when Karen Bundren sent her credentials to the Tennessee Department of Education, they were allegedly Dr. Michael Martin’s – except for one critical difference. Those credentials carried her name on them. The board was informed of the lengths gone to allegedly falsify her educational merits and how finance department employees had uncovered the attempt.
Think the public had a right to attend that meeting?
It is understandable that the Board of Education was trying to get ahead of this continuing debacle. However, circumventing the public’s right to hear the information as board members hear it is indefensible. Even using “honest ignorance” of state law is a defense that falls on deaf ears. Call it an emergency meeting, call it an impromptu meeting of the minds. But you can also call it a borderline violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Under Tennessee state law governmental bodies must give “adequate notice” when a meeting is going to be held. Adequate notice is subject to interpretation. But I am certain that calling a reporter an hour and a half before the start time doesn’t satisfy the intent of the legislature.
School boards are held to the same high standards and practices when it comes to open meetings and the Sunshine Law just as other governing and legislative bodies.
But circumventing laws and regulations aside, what about ethical duty? Do members of the board not believe that the public has a right to hear information about this tale - or any other - as it unfolds?
What was the board going to do with the information? Had it taken any action last Thursday, in all likelihood a court would have overturned it, if challenged by a citizen.
Why was it so imperative for the board to meet that night? Why could it not take 24 hours, notify the public of the meeting, and then move ahead?
I suspect that a host of citizens, had they known of the meeting, would have attended.
Yes, this PhD.-forgery is a disgrace for the county school system. Do we now need to add to it because of add an open meetings violation?