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Court rejects litigation, personnel excuses for closed meeting

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Court rejects litigation, personnel excuses for closed meeting 12/15/97 KENTUCKY--A county board of education violated the state Open Meetings Act…

Court rejects litigation, personnel excuses for closed meeting

12/15/97

KENTUCKY–A county board of education violated the state Open Meetings Act when it closed sessions to discuss reorganizing the central office staff, the state Supreme Court in Frankfort held in late November.

In a 6-1 decision, the high court ruled that the board and its members improperly invoked the “pending litigation” and “personnel” exemptions, and declared that all action taken at the meetings regarding the reorganization was voidable.

The Floyd County Board of Education held several closed meetings in late March and early April 1993 in connection with the general reorganization and restructuring of the board’s central administrative office. Minutes of the meetings indicate they were closed to discuss personnel matters.

Prior to the last of four meetings, three school administrators, who stood to lose their jobs depending on which reorganization plan was adopted, had circulated copies of a complaint which they indicated they were contemplating filing in court if their jobs were eliminated.

After learning that their positions had been abolished, the administrators appealed the board’s actions. When the board refused to reinstate them or rescind the reorganization plan, they filed suit in circuit court in Prestonsburg.

At a hearing before a trial judge, the board argued that, although its attorney was not present at the secret meetings, they had been closed not because of personnel matters, but to discuss pending litigation — the administrators’ threatened suit. State law permits closed meetings for either purpose.

The trial judge ruled in June 1993 that closing the session under the pending litigation exemption was proper. The appellate court reversed, holding that the board could not go into closed session in order to engage in a general discussion about personnel matters. It also rejected the claim of a discussion of pending litigation.

The Supreme Court found that the closed-door sessions “improperly concealed matters otherwise appropriate to the view of the public.” The pending litigation exemption is inappropriate because the record indicates that the board discussed the reorganization plan and not pending litigation, the court wrote. The personnel exemption does not permit closing a meeting when matters affecting more than one employee are discussed. (Floyd County Board of Education v. Ratliff; Counsel: Earl McGuire, Prestonsburg)