Don’t shut public out of meetings

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register 

WHEELING, W.Va. — With all the talk about back-room scheming and secret plans to replace Superintendent Dianna Vargo, one might have thought Ohio County Board of Education members would be especially careful about meeting behind closed doors.

But no, they were not careful on Wednesday morning, when they held a “work session” to discuss the process of hiring a new superintendent. They posted a sign on the entrance to the building where they gathered, informing the public the meeting was “For Board Members Only.” A uniformed police officer was stationed there to ensure neither the public nor the press went inside.

West Virginia’s open meetings law is clear:?When members of a public body such as a school board meet with a quorum present, they must do so in public. They are permitted to go into a closed session – but only to discuss matters specified in the law. Before going into a private gathering, they must specify in public why they are doing so.

None of that happened Wednesday.

Public bodies have used a variety of ploys in attempts to get around the open meetings law. One is to insist a closed session was no more than a “work session” and thus not subject to the statute.

But work sessions are not exempt from the open meetings law, State Ethics Commission Executive Director Rebecca Stepto told our reporter.

One board member told our reporter the Ethics Commission was contacted prior to the meeting, and an attorney there said a training session such as that planned would not fall under the open meetings law. Again, that is not what the commission’s director said – apparently relying on precedent from previous ethics rulings.

One way or the other, the public and press were shut out of a meeting which, if merely for training, should not have required secrecy.

Enough controversy has resulted from the board’s 3-2 vote not to renew Vargo’s contract without members adding to it by meeting in secret about a replacement. If, as board President Shane Mallett said, the idea is to move in “a new direction,” a good start would be to comply with the open meetings law and not give the public any more reason to be suspicious of what is going on in Ohio County schools.

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