Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Does the Open Meeting Act permit a school board to meet 80 miles outside its district?
Question from the public: Our school board recently called for a special school board meeting. The board was to discuss school safety, stimulus money, general operational procedures, facilities/master growth development, and departments. Is it OK for a special school board meeting to be held on a weekend at a resort approximately 80 miles from our school district, so long as the special meeting is posted?
I disagree that it’s OK for a school board to conduct a special meeting 80 miles from its district. I believe it violates the spirit and letter of the Open Meeting Act.
That also seemed to be the belief of the Attorney General’s Office a decade ago.
Under the Open Meeting Act, meetings must be held at “specified times and places which are convenient to the public.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 303)
For example, a county excise board’s meeting at a courthouse locked and closed for the Labor Day holiday did not comply with the Open Meeting Act, the state Supreme Court held in 1984. (Rogers v. Excise Bd. of Greer County, 1984 OK 95, ¶14, 701 P.2d 754, 761)
The board’s “failure to hold the meeting at a place convenient and accessible to the public” was a willful violation of the Open Meeting Act, the court said.
I would argue that a meeting site 80 miles from the district is not convenient to the public.
The Open Meeting Act stresses, "It is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)
That policy seems thwarted by conducting the meeting 80 miles from the district’s voters.
In spring 1998, the head of the AG Office’s civil division said the thrust of the Open Meeting Act is that a strictly local organization would be prohibited from holding a retreat outside its jurisdiction, according to an article by Wayne Trotter in the FOI Oklahoma Newsletter.
"It's a common sense deal. You need to have your meetings where your constituents are," Vic Bird reportedly told public officials and the public attending an open government workshop conducted by the AG's Office.
"The whole purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to facilitate democracy," Bird said.
On a different note, if I were a voter in the school district, I would ask if the school board is spending tax dollars to meet at a resort 80 miles away -- especially if it could meet for free in its own building or regular meeting hall.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Journalism