The newsiest development concerning the Muscogee County School Board came before its work session Tuesday evening.
District 8 representative Frank Myers shared with the Ledger-Enquirer a copy of the letter he said he mailed Tuesday to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, asking him to investigate the board's alleged violation of the state's open meetings act.
Myers accuses the board of conducting an illegal closed session during its June 15 meeting to discuss alleged overbilling by a vendor who serviced the air conditioning units on the district's school buses. He alleges the board violated the open meetings law in two ways: convening the closed session for an invalid reason and taking a secret vote during the closed session.
The agenda for the June 15 meeting states that the closed session was called for three reasons: discuss a property matter, discuss legal matters and conduct a student discipline tribunal appeal. Myers contends one of the legal matters discussed in the closed session didn't comply with the open meetings law.
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In his letter to the attorney general, Myers referred to a conversation in an earlier closed session, officially called an executive session:
"For background," Myers wrote, "when the Superintendent first announced his decision to the Board that he intended to seek criminal prosecution in April of this year, I specifically asked legal counsel Greg Ellington why this matter was subject to an Executive Session. Ellington responded by saying this was due to the (alleged, Myers wrote in parentheses) threat of litigation from the company that the Superintendent was in the process of attempting to prosecute."
Myers, a lawyer in private practice, cited a 2001 Georgia Court of Appeals case, Claxton Enterprise vs. Evans County Board of Commissioners that ruled " a meeting may not be closed to discuss potential litigation under the attorney-client exception unless the governmental entity can show a realistic and tangible threat of legal action against it or its officer or employee, a threat that goes beyond a mere fear or suspicion of being sued."
Myers also contends that, in the June 15 closed session, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 "went around the room and asked each board member to vote on whether or not to 'tell the police to file charges.' The results were tallied, and a decision was made on the basis of the vote."
According to Olens' memo April 17 to state agencies, which Myers cited in his letter to the attorney general, the only votes Georgia law allows governing bodies to conduct in closed session are "to authorize settlement of matters in litigation and for preliminary votes on real estate transactions."
Myers wrote, "I protested when this vote was proposed, and was told this was 'only' a 'consensus.' I refused to vote in this Executive Session, and signed the attending affidavit for this meeting as 'under protest.'"
Myers' allegation wasn't mentioned during Tuesday's work session. Before board members gathered, the L-E asked superintendent David Lewis for his reaction. Lewis declined to comment, saying he hadn't seen Myers' letter and that he won't disclose what happens in closed sessions.
After the work session, Varner told the L-E that the June 15 vote in closed session "was in lieu of a consensus. It's just easier to take a vote than a consensus. Whether it's a vote or a consensus, it's just a matter of semantics. It makes no difference in anything. It's just what we chose to call it. The vote was nonbinding and in no way affected public policy. The board is allowed to provide the superintendent with direction as to legal matters, which is what we did for the superintendent during the executive session -- therefore, the consensus or the vote, whatever you want to call it."
Varner added, "There was a lot of conversation during the executive session as to whether or not a vote was allowed. So, considering Mr. Myers' participation in that discussion, it's quite obvious that the board of education was not attempting to do anything illegal. The school board's legal counsel was present during the entire meeting and participated in the discussion. Neither I nor the other board members would have proceeded as we did had our legal counsel objected or warned us that a consensus vote was inappropriate."
Also after the work session, Ellington told the L-E he disagrees with Myers' allegations.
"The board acted lawfully on both occasions," Ellington said, referring to the April and June closed sessions, although he wouldn't explain why. "I'm not going to get into legal arguments about why he is wrong, but I wholeheartedly believe he is wrong."
PROPOSED LEARN TO SWIM PROGRAM
Concerning the actual business the Muscogee County School Board discussed during Tuesday's work session, no members objected to the proposed Learn to Swim program, which the Ledger-Enquirer explained in a previous story. Superintendent David Lewis' recommendation calls for the school district to partner with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, which would use a grant from an anonymous donor to pay for all expenses while providing free swimming lessons to kindergartners at three schools: Rigdon Road Elementary, St. Marys Road Magnet Academy and Wynnton Arts Academy. The board is scheduled to vote on the superintendent's recommendation during its July 20 meeting, starting at 6 p.m.