Elected School Board Members Muzzled

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Casey O'Brien

Members of the Payson Unified School District board will no longer accept questions from community members or from the media outside of a public meeting in a new unwritten rule that appears to directly violate the district’s own policy manual.

Board members agreed Monday night to direct people with questions to board president Rory Huff or Superintendent Casey O’Brien. Additionally, people can request that the board place items on the agenda. Meetings usually occur twice each month.

“Our forum is the board meeting. It’s not the paper,” said board president Rory Huff.

The Monday decision stemmed from a recent Roundup article that asked board members their views on education reform. Discussion followed an executive session where the school district’s attorney advised the board on the open meeting law, which is designed to ensure public discussion before decisions.

O’Brien has said that interviewing school board members could lead to an open meeting law violation.

School district attorney Michelle Parker said that while she initially thought the article violated the law, on second glance she saw that each board member was not apprised of what the others said.

“Yes, the public has the right to know what you think,” Parker said. “If you inadvertently violate the open meeting law, you still violate the open meeting law.” Parker did not issue an opinion in open session about the board’s new unwritten policy and was not present when members discussed it.

The intent of open meeting laws is to ensure that board decisions are discussed and voted on in public. A third party can violate the law by asking four board members both what they think about a particular issue and telling each member what the others said.

O’Brien said he thinks things “work better when the media,” directs questions to him or the board president.

“And that’s not to keep you from having a voice,” he added. “I think we have to be careful we don’t let the media drive our agenda.”

Board members and O’Brien cited concerns of appearing to violate open meeting laws and wanting to present a unified front as they discussed the new “process,” as member Richard Meyer put it.

The issue was not voted on and will not appear in the district’s written policy manual.

Payson’s current media relations policy states, “to promote a positive relationship between the district and the media, the board shall provide information to the media concerning the programs and activities of the district as well as matters pending before the board.”

O’Brien said the school board is unlike Congress, where members can talk freely because they are elected to represent constituencies. In a school board, he said, members act as a body that represents the school district, and appearing unified is important.

Members of town or city councils, however, also act as a board and traditionally talk freely with residents or reporters.

All three, however, are officials elected to represent public institutions. Taxes fund O’Brien’s salary, and he technically works for the school board.

O’Brien also told board members they are not “masters of the universe,” and may not have extensive opinions on all topics. He said members shouldn’t feel put “on the spot” with questions seeking an opinion.

O’Brien also said he wanted to avoid the appearance of a board conflict where none existed, which can happen when people speak candidly.

“All of us, me included, have to be a little bit more vigilant when we’re speaking,” O’Brien said, “so when we communicate with the public we have a uniform face.”

While new board members have willingly discussed topics with the media, returning board members Huff and Viki Holmes have informally adhered to the new procedure already.

After the Roundup interviewed Huff during a previous article written when the board was discussing closing the high school campus for freshmen during lunch, O’Brien warned a reporter that speaking with board members could violate the open meeting law.

O’Brien said he should answer all questions. Huff was not the board president at that time.

Huff’s name was listed next to the media relations item on the agenda, but he turned it over to O’Brien.

Huff, when asked a question about a report that examined education reform for an earlier article, offered a limited answer, but also directed the question to the superintendent.

Huff said O’Brien knew more about such things than he did. Holmes directed questions to Huff because he is the board president.

Member Matt Van Camp said Monday he wanted to make sure both the media and the public can ask him his opinion. “There is no way Casey or Rory can say how I feel,” he said. “I’m not going to give up my First Amendment right.”

However, immediately after the meeting, he refused to answer a question about the board’s new unwritten policy.

If a member of the community, or a reporter, does have a question, however, there is no guarantee that question will appear on the agenda.

“You don’t want to just take random questions,” said Holmes.

Meyer said he could see nothing but good things coming from the new procedure, which ensures all discussion takes place in a public format.

“This is not a policy,” he said after the meeting. “This is a process to keep us from violating the open meeting law, because if we violate it, we’re subject to sanctions.”

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