|BOE seeks lawsuit dismissal
Loudon County Board of Education wants the court to dismiss a lawsuit alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings act.
Filed Sept. 7 by county resident Richard Truitt, the lawsuit names Jason Vance, Loudon County director of schools, and the Loudon County Board of Education as defendants and charges the BOE held an illegal meeting Aug. 31.
The BOE requested summary judgment in December, Linda Noe, Truitt’s attorney, said. A hearing is set for noon March 21 in Loudon County Circuit Court.
A video recording of the meeting shows Vance, LeRoy Tate, William Jenkins, Bobby Johnson Jr., Gary Ubben, Scott Newman, Ric Best, Brian Brown and Phillip Moffett in attendance during what the board called an executive committee meeting.
Text messages sent via cellphone from Vance to various board members Aug. 29 advise there will be a discussion of board policy 1.407 at 4 p.m. Aug. 31 during “a executive committee meeting.”
Three members of the public also attended. Vance said Tate, who served as board chairman at the time, wanted to invite the three members of the public to “provide input.”
Pat Hunter, one of the three members of the public who attended, said she was only informed of the meeting shortly before it took place and that she reached out to three other people, two of which attended.
Months later, Hunter maintains the school board did not extend invitations for the meeting.
“To call that a public forum as Mr. Vance has, to call that an opportunity for the public to give input, that’s outrageous,” Noe said.
“Here is a citizen simply trying to uphold the law in the only way the law provides, and you have a board that absolutely refuses to admit exactly what the video shows — a violation of the open meetings act,” Noe said.
According to the Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-206 related to BOE executive committees, policy discussion is not among the powers and duties of the committee.
One of the definitions of a meeting, according to the Tennessee open meetings act is “the convening of a governing body ... to deliberate toward a decision on any matter.” The act defines a governing body as two or more members with the authority to make decisions or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration.
Video of the Aug. 31 executive committee meeting in which members of the BOE give suggestions on policy 1.407 and what the policy should say before being voted on by the board, as well as discussion of policy 1.403, shows a clear violation of the act, Noe said.
The BOE believes the case will be dismissed because any possible wrongdoing was undone when both policies were discussed publicly during a meeting Sept. 14, Chris McCarty, BOE attorney, said.
“If you look at the complaint, what they’re accusing the school board of is an open meetings violation in August,” McCarty said. “We revisited all those issues that Mr. Truitt is saying were improperly discussed. We deny that, but … we went over all that at the September meeting.
“Under law if you reconsider things publicly then the argument is you’re allowed to dismiss the case,” he added.
McCarty referenced the case of Neese v. Paris Special School District from 1990 as basis for dismissing the case. According to the Neese case, the Paris Special School District BOE met privately during a retreat in Kentucky to make a decision on a policy related to “clustering” that was then voted on in public.
The court of appeals in West Tennessee ruled in favor of the Paris BOE in that case, stating that the board “legally enacted the concept of clustering at a regularly scheduled meeting upon proper notice on March 21, 1989, in full compliance with all requirements of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.”
“Basically the person, Mr. Truitt, made the complaint that there were violations. Because he even made the complaint we went ahead and discussed all those things again,” McCarty said. “… It was a very long meeting and all those things were discussed. I went to that meeting, and Mr. Truitt was given the floor at that meeting to discuss all of the things he has mentioned in the complaint.”
Both policies were passed Sept. 14 by the BOE.
“I have no problem with them coming back and curing, which allows them to go ahead and adopt … those policies,” Noe said. “But we’re saying that just enables them to go ahead with those policies. It doesn’t mean they didn’t violate the law.”
Gary Ubben, board member, called the lawsuit “very sad” in a Feb. 21 report by the News-Herald related to a $20,000 increase in legal fees in the BOE budget.
“I felt it was very sad that they filed the suit in the first place,” Ubben said. “You may feel you’re on the other side of that issue, I don’t know, but we thought we had — what involved was kind of accidental. ... Nobody was making any effort to try to conceal something.”
Truitt, in a statement provided to the News-Herald, said he believes the BOE did “plan to deceive.”
“It’s sad that a school board violated the open meetings act, that’s what’s sad,” Noe said. “It’s sad that the school board won’t admit an August violation, and it’s sad that they blame an individual for trying to enforce the law. And it’s sad that they blame the individual for trying to run up the cost when one single ad in the newspaper could have prevented everything.”
According to the state’s open meetings act, “any citizen of the state” may file a suit with “circuit courts, chancery courts and other courts, which have equity jurisdiction,” in relation to violations of the act.