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Board member pushes open meetings

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a two-part series about the School Board. The second story can be found here.

A Suffolk School Board member is speaking out about open committee meetings and what she perceives as unfair treatment against her by other board members — and has hired an attorney.

Sherri Story, the Chuckatuck Borough representative who took office in January, said she believes meetings by standing committees of the School Board should be open unless the items on the agenda would otherwise require it to be closed.

There is an ongoing “myth,” as Story called it, that if only two members of a body are appointed to a committee, it can be a closed meeting. In reality, the state’s Freedom of Information Act says that standing committees of a public body are to be open meetings. The misconception about two members comes from a different part of the Act stating that two members can get together informally and talk about public business, but three or more would require a public meeting.

Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, agreed. She noted that the definition of a meeting is three or more members of the body, or a quorum if less than three.

“If they have a two-member subcommittee, then a quorum is two people,” she said. “Those meetings need to be open.”

Story said it’s important to her that the committee meetings are open.

“Any standing meetings we have need to be open,” Story said. “I think transparency really helps the community get involved and understand how the board is thinking about things. It better projects an image that we want the community to get involved and are willing to take input.”

After taking office in January, Story began pushing for open committee meetings.

Story said the School Board attorney, Wendell Waller, agreed in a letter sent to the School Board members that the law requires open meetings. However, Story did not feel comfortable sharing the letter due to attorney/client privilege. Division spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw also stated in an email that she would not share it for the same reason.

The School Board has five standing committees, only four of which currently have appointees. The Pupil Personnel Committee always meets in closed session, as the discussion centers around the discipline of specific students and other exempt topics.

Story said she believes the other four committees, however, should be open as a matter of course.

Bradshaw stated in an email that the Policy Review Committee, the only one of the committees to which Story is appointed, has met five times so far this year. The first four times — Jan. 9, Feb. 7, Feb. 20 and March 28 — no public notice was given of the meetings, she said.

The Legislative Committee was just approved in May, and members have not been decided yet. Bradshaw stated that to the best of her knowledge, the City Council Liaison Committee and Finance Committee have not had any meetings since January.

During the regular board meeting in May, however, Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney appears to reference a recent meeting of the Finance Committee.

Bradshaw was not able to provide details about that meeting by press time.

The purpose of the board’s City Council Liaison Committee, which includes the chair and vice chair, is to meet with the City Council’s education committee, which includes Mayor Linda T. Johnson and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett. Johnson said Tuesday the four have not met so far this calendar year, because quarterly joint meetings of the entire bodies seem to be working well. When the committee does meet, it will be a properly publicized open meeting, the mayor said.

Reached by phone Friday and asked to answer questions on the topic of open meetings, Vice Chair Dr. Brooks-Buck pointed out that a Suffolk News-Herald reporter was at the Policy Review Committee meeting on June 3. She declined to answer questions about the other meetings.

Board member Karen Jenkins was reached by phone Friday and agreed to a Monday interview. She called back later Friday, however, and said, “I think it would be best if we talked with everybody. I don’t want to be one individual giving opinions.”

Board member David Mitnick gave his opinion on open committee meetings on Friday.

“I don’t think open is a bad thing,” he said. “It allows for transparency.”

Mitnick said he does not believe anybody has been trying to hide anything — they are just doing it the way it’s always been done.

“It’s just never been brought up before,” he said.

Rhyne, with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said this misconception has happened before throughout the state.

“This is not the first time that I’ve seen a public body create a small subcommittee and been tripped up by FOIA,” she said.

Board member Tyron Riddick declined to comment.

Chair Phyllis Byrum and board member Lorita Mayo did not return messages seeking comment.

At the June 3 Policy Review Committee meeting, Waller stated that committee meetings would be open to the public from now on.

“All meetings of standing committees and advisory committees shall be open to the public, except where a closed meeting is permitted under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” he said. Waller added that the School Board website would be used to notify the public of the meetings.

Bradshaw reiterated that position in a Monday email this week. “The School Board intends to have its standing committee meetings open consistent with FOIA, including public notice,” she wrote.

The next Policy Review Committee meeting is set for 3 p.m. June 27 in the school administrative offices at 100 N. Main St. It is listed on the school division’s website.

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