Education Watch: Open Meeting Case Against Billings School Board Dismissed
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Note: Today’s Education Watch newsletter was written by Oklahoma Watch’s summer reporting intern Yasmeen Saadi.
The assistant district attorney in Noble County dismissed charges against four school board members in Billings accused of violating the Open Meeting Act. The members were arrested in November and accused of meeting multiple times outside of public meetings, including in June 2022 to hire a new superintendent, according to a court affidavit.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Landes said he dropped the case because he determined the members did not “willfully violate” the act. “Willful violation” is a term used in the statute. He said it looked like the members attempted to follow a provision in the law that allows for the continuation of a regularly scheduled meeting.
“It was probably not the best way (for the board members) to handle it, but I believe there was an attempt to handle it in what they felt was the right way,” Landes said.
All elected and appointed school board members are required to attend training, including on open meeting laws. Landes said the members agreed to do an additional training session on the Open Meeting Act. The attorney for the defendants, Clint Claypole, declined to comment.
The Open Meeting Act exists to encourage an informed citizenry and to ensure the public understands the problems and processes of the government. Under the act, a majority of a public body, or quorum, can’t discuss public business outside of a public meeting. Violating the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $500. It’s rarely enforced with criminal charges.
Willful violation is not defined in state law. However, Oklahoma courts have said a public official does not need to show bad faith or harmful intent to be prosecuted; blatant or deliberate disregard of the law is enough. A willful violation includes public meeting notices that are vague or misleading.
Transparency experts said the Open Meeting Act is not strictly enforced and there aren’t strict provisions in how the law is written.
Oklahoma State University professor Joey Senat researches freedom of information laws. Senat said it falls on district attorneys to enforce the law.
“The public relies on the district attorneys to enforce this statute as a criminal statute,” Senat said. “And I consider violations of the statute to be a form of public corruption. I mean, the statute exists for a reason, it’s an important reason. It exists so the public can see the decision making process of its elected officials.”
— Yasmeen Saadi
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by Yasmeen Saadi and Jennifer Palmer, Oklahoma Watch August 10, 2023Help us make a difference.This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.