Mannford school superintendent claims Open Meeting Act complied with by listing all district employees on agenda for executive session; Concerns also raised about closed sessions in Norman, Broken Arrow

Mannford School Superintendent Steve Waldvogel told the local newspaper on Monday that the Open Meeting Act may be complied with by listing all district employees on the agenda for an executive session to discuss personnel even if only a few would actually be discussed.

Meanwhile, the Broken Arrow School Board on Monday night discussed behind closed doors the "organization of district administration" without listing specific employees on the agenda.

Then in Norman on Tuesday, the City Council was scheduled to discuss "various workers' compensation cases" in an executive session during a special meeting. No information regarding the cases was listed on the agenda.

These executive sessions seem to violate the Open Meeting Act for the same reason: The agendas fail to provide the public with sufficient advance notice of what will be discussed in the closed-door sessions.

In Mannford, the agenda for the school board's April 11 meeting did not include the names of any district employees even though an executive session was listed to "consider and possibly act upon the following personnel issues: (1) Submitted resignations; (2) Upcoming renewal of certified and support personnel; (3) Employment of special education teacher; Authorized by 25 O.S. 307 (B)(1)."

Waldvogel told the Mannford Eagle on Monday that the school board had offered a list of all district employees and contended that any one of those could be discussed in the executive session.

That contention is nonsense.

A 1997 attorney general opinion says agenda items for an executive session under the personnel exemption must include either the employee's name or job title if it "is so unique as to allow adequate identification."(1997 OK AG 61, ¶ 5)

A 2006 attorney general opinion emphasized, "Limiting the exception to the discussion of particular individuals protects the confidentiality of current or prospective public officers or employees and preserves the public’s right to be informed about government processes." (2006 OK AG 17, ¶ 9)

The purpose of listing the name or unique title is to identify the specific employee to be discussed. That requirement wouldn't be necessary if a public body could simply list ALL employees, as Waldvogel contends, to camouflage who actually will be discussed behind closed doors.

Listing all employees provides the public with no more actual advance notice than not listing any would. That's why the 1997 attorney general opinion didn't provide it as an alternative to keeping secret the names of those who would be discussed.

In Broken Arrow on Monday, the school board's agenda did not list employees to be discussed even though one statutory authorization listed for the executive session was the personnel exception.

The other statutory authorization listed was the Open Meeting Act's exception for "Discussing any matter where disclosure of information would violate confidentiality requirements of state or federal law." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307(B)(7))

How that exception applied wasn't explained on the agenda and isn't obvious.

According to The Broken Arrow Ledger, the school board approved reorganizing the administration by:

  • Appointing new high school and middle school principals;
  • Promoting the executive director of curriculum to a cabinet-level position as the district’s chief academic officer;
  • Moving a principal to director of instructional services; and
  • Naming the Performing Arts Center director as the executive director of fine arts.

Those are all personnel actions. The names of those employees should have been listed on the agenda.

In Norman, the City Council's agenda did not list the specific workers' compensation cases. The exception cited was attorney-client privilege. However, the agenda listed five cases involving the city of Norman. Why weren't the compensation cases specified?

(Click here for a previous posting regarding the attorney-client exemption under OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307(B)(4).)

And don't forget that the Bernice Board of Trustees held executive sessions on March 14 and April 11 to discuss creating "a town maintenance" position even though the 2006 attorney general opinion prohibits closed-door sessions to discuss "a job opening for a public officer or employee when no particular individual is to be discussed."

These attorney general opinions aren't new. The elected officials -- school board and city council members alike -- are expected to know the state Open Meeting law.

In Mannford, Waldvogel told the newspaper that if the school board violated any laws they would deal with it.

More important, however, is what the district attorneys for each of these towns will do about it. Violating the Open Meeting Act is a crime. The public must rely on the district attorneys to uphold that law.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.