by Ivan Foley
A closed session for the Platte County R-3 Board of Education took “closed” to a level beyond the norm. . .and beyond what appears to be allowed by the Missouri Sunshine Law.
A posted executive session meeting of the board began at 6:30 p.m. Monday evening at the school’s new District Education Center (DEC), but a Landmark reporter who showed up for the meeting found the entrance doors to the building locked at the posted start time.
Nearly 15 minutes after the meeting had begun, The Landmark reporter who was still standing outside the door finally gained access when Tina Zubeck, secretary to the board of education, happened to be leaving for the day and allowed him entrance. The reporter had repeatedly knocked on the outside door to no avail. The board was meeting in a second-floor conference room.
Another Landmark representative showed up as Zubeck was getting in her car in the parking lot, and Zubeck then unlocked the (DEC) door again to allow the second Landmark representative access into the building.
Conducting a meeting--even a closed session--with the public locked outside the building runs contrary to specific language in the state’s open meetings law, says Jean Maneke, a Kansas City-based attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law matters for the Missouri Press Association.
“It doesn’t take much interpreting, the language is clear. They have to allow access into the building,” Maneke said Tuesday.
“They have to leave the building open for someone to sit and wait (throughout the closed session). When you read the language, that is absolutely clear,” Maneke added.
Maneke was referring to Section 610.022.3 of the law, which states: “The public governmental body may only close a portion of the meeting facility, allowing space for the public to remain and attend any subsequent open session.”
Maneke said “it doesn’t matter” that there was no open session agenda set to take place following the executive session.
Though she is the board secretary, Zubeck does not often sit in on executive sessions. In those instances, minutes are often taken by the board president.
Zubeck said the doors to the DEC remain unlocked until 6 p.m. each day.
Entrance doors to the new building are equipped with an electronic locking/unlocking system. Staff can enter after 6 p.m. by entering a pass code, she said.
Zubeck explained no arrangements had been made to allow public access into the building Monday evening while the board was in its session.
“On a regular board meeting night, we have it wide open. I have to check on how (her superiors) want to do it during executive session meetings,” Zubeck said Tuesday.
According to Maneke’s interpretation of the law, the only option for R-3 is to in some way provide the public access into the building during meeting times, regardless of whether the meeting will contain an executive session.
Maneke pointed out that even in a situation like Monday where the only item listed in the meeting notice was an executive session, the board must first begin the meeting in open session. While in open session, a motion must then be passed to go into executive session.
Bob Shaw, board president, indicated he did not have an explanation as to why the exterior doors were locked during Monday’s meeting.
“I’m not fully familiar with how that building works yet, frankly,” he said.
Asked how he personally gained entrance to the building for Monday’s meeting, Shaw said he “was let in.” He said he then held the door open for some other board members who were following him inside.
When asked if having the doors locked during the meeting violated the Sunshine Law, Shaw answered: “We’ll check with our legal counsel on that.”
Shaw is an attorney who in his private practice two years ago successfully litigated against the City of Platte City in a highly-publicized case in which elected city officials were found guilty of violating the Sunshine Law.
When asked, Shaw said school board members do not have pass codes to the door locking system.
Shaw said that even on occasions when the only item on the agenda involves an executive session, the board starts in open session and then a motion is made and passed to enter into a closed session.
Shaw and Zubeck late Tuesday referred any further comment about the situation to the district’s legal counsel, John Cady of the law firm Cady and Campbell of Platte City. Cady had not yet returned a phone call from The Landmark at deadline.
In addition to improperly having the entrance doors locked, Maneke pointed out the school district’s posting of Monday night’s meeting also was flawed. The notice of meeting said: “The executive session will be used to discuss personnel matters as authorized by Section 610.021 (2) RSMo.”
Even though the notice’s wording indicates the meeting is closed due to personnel, the (2) cited by the district’s notice indicates closure due to discussion of “leasing, purchase or sale of real estate.”
When subsequently questioned by The Landmark, Zubeck indicated the citing of the (2) allowable closure was a mistake. The correct citation would have been either (3), which deals with hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees; or (13), which deals with individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings, or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment.
Zubeck’s comments in a phone conversation with The Landmark indicated the closed session dealt with “applicants for employment,” which would be in line with the district’s ongoing search for a new superintendent to replace Dr. Mark Harpst, who is retiring July 1.
The school board has indicated a desire to finalize the hiring of a new superintendent at its regular monthly meeting on Dec. 18.
Zubeck recently told The Landmark the school board has interviewed five candidates for the position.
Another special meeting of the school board is set for this Thursday evening at 8:30 p.m. at the DEC. It will feature an executive session to “discuss personnel matters as authorized by Section 610.021 (3) and (13) RSMo,” the district’s notice states, an indication the superintendent search is set to be the topic once again.