After successful FOIA lawsuit, Story alleges another violation

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, August 6, 2020

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At the first Suffolk School Board meeting since member Sherri Story’s successful lawsuit against the board was heard in the city’s Circuit Court alleging Freedom of Information Act violations, she has alleged yet another FOIA violation against the board.

Initially during the Aug. 6 meeting, she made her objection during a motion to allow board member David Mitnick to participate electronically in both the open and closed portions of the meeting.

After being corrected by board attorney Wendell Waller, Story made her objection to the closed meeting motion, saying the discussion of a hostile work environment complaint against her violated FOIA because it concerned discussion of a public official. She cited Attorney General opinions saying they should be discussed in open session. The motion also included numerous personnel matters.

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The board voted 4-1 to go into closed session, with Chair Phyllis Byrum, Tyron Riddick, David Mitnick and Karen Jenkins voting in favor, and Story opposed. Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck arrived just after the vote was taken, and Lorita Mayo joined the meeting when it resumed in open session at 7 p.m.

Story also said she had asked Byrum for a copy of the complaint, but did not receive it.

After the vote had been completed, Riddick asked whether he could offer an explanation for his vote to support the closed meeting, citing opinions from the FOIA Advisory Council, and adding that he did not want the board to be misrepresented as a body that breaks rules. Brooks-Buck  asked for Waller’s opinion. He noted that since the board had already voted to go into closed session, that it should do so.

The board stayed in closed session for about 50 minutes before coming out and certifying the closed meeting by a 5-1 vote, with Story voting no, this time not offering an explanation for the vote.

There was no discussion on who made the complaint against Story, or the nature of the complaint, either prior to going into closed session, or immediately afterward following the vote to certify the closed meeting.

The board then recessed until the start of the 7 p.m. reopening of the public meeting, and then six members — including Story — voted to approve the personnel report. Mayo abstained since she did not participate in the closed meeting.

Also coming out of the closed meeting, the board voted to authorize Byrum to enter into a contract for workplace investigative services for the school division by a 5-1 vote, with Story voting no and Mayo abstaining.

The Aug. 6 board meeting was the first since a Suffolk Circuit Court judge last month ruled that the board and the majority of its members violated FOIA, saying it did not provide proper notice of public meetings, the motions to go into closed meetings were too vague and certifications of closed meetings were “not sufficient.” He ruled that the board did not violate FOIA as it relates to its discussions during closed meetings or with regard to polling members by email.