Attorney General Sam Olens cut a deal with the board that if it underwent the training, they would not face any legal action and would not be required to admit wrongdoing. The board voted 6-1, with board member David Banks dissenting, to accept the deal.
The training was prompted by allegations earlier this year made by Cobb residents Mike Sansone, Thomas W. Gray, Dara Fairgrieves and Tricia Knor, who all attended the session, that board chair Alison Bartlett, vice chair Scott Sweeney and board members Kathleen Angelucci and Tim Stultz conducted school board business via personal email accounts.
During the training session Thursday, which was conducted before the regular school board meeting, senior assistant attorney general Stefan Ritter provided each board member a copy of Geogia’s open record and open meetings laws, titled “Georgia’s Sunshine Laws: A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government.” Ritter also explained the law and its exceptions, such as when records may contain an individual student’s identifying details, which are exempt under the law.
Ritter told the board that anything they do, say or write on the school district’s equipment, such as a laptop computer, is subject to the Open Records law. Ritter emphasized that personal business should not be conducted on public equipment and vice versa.
Board attorney Clem Doyle said that after talking to Ritter about the deal, he invited him to conduct a training session for the board, free of charge, on open records and open meetings.
However, when board member Lynnda Eagle, who represents northwest Cobb, asked Ritter if the training on Thursday afternoon was prompted by the allegations leveled at other board members, Ritter said while he did come because of the deal the board cut with Olens, he would have come anyway.
“What brought me here today specifically was the (Memorandum of Understanding) though, quite frankly, I would have come if you asked me,” Ritter said.
Bartlett said she was grateful for the the training session, as it resolved some grey areas in the law.
“I think it was very informative and helpful,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in the law, and it’s nice to have the attorney general give us their opinion of the interpretation of the law.”
However, some board members said they had never violated the open records and meetings laws and that the memo outlining the deal to avoid prosecution should have specified that they were not involved in the alleged illegal emails.
Banks, who represents northeast Cobb, voted against the deal, saying he was never accused of meeting or discussing board business in private.
“I question the validity of this statement that paints a broad brush against every member, and my name is mentioned on the first page and I was not part of any of the complaints from the citizens of Cobb County,” he said. “I object to this document in respect to identifying the board or the district as being part of the citizens’ complaint.”
Eagle echoed Banks’ objection, likening herself to a student being punished along with misbehaving classmates.
“I took an oath when I took office. I take these things very seriously,” Eagle said. “I almost feel like the MOU might be redundant if we have not violated that. I almost feel like I’m having to agree to something, and I’m willing to do so because I care about the district. If you’re speaking to all of us as a whole rather than specific people that this may have been directed by, then that’s okay, but I almost feel that it’s a bit more symbolic than that. With all due respect, I’m an old educator. I almost feel like a teacher that’s punishing the whole class for the behavior of a few students.”
However, Morgan, who represents southwest Cobb and was also not accused of violating the laws by the four Cobb residents, did not object to the deal.
Ritter downplayed Banks and Eagles’ objections, saying the deal does not contain accusations and does not require board members to admit guilt.
“We carefully worded the MOU in this specific case to take out the sting of all of that,” Ritter said. “I will however, emphasize that whoever the actors are when it talks about ‘the board’ those are attributable actions. Nonetheless, I want to emphasize again, there is no finding in the proposed order that you or in fact the board violated the law. To the contrary … we have phrased this and toned this in a way much less sharply than some of our other MOUs, primarily as a focus on moving forward.”
For their part, two of the four people who leveled the allegations in April said they were unsatisfied with the deal, particularly that neither the memo outlining its requirements nor Ritter said the board violated the law.
“To get changed behavior, you have to realize that there was behavior that needs to be changed, and if they have not admitted to anything, then how are they supposed to change?” Knor asked.
Sansone said he felt sorry that Morgan, Banks and Eagle were not excluded in the deal.
“They got caught in this situation that they had nothing to do with,” he said. “They were deliberately excluded in a lot of these communications so its … like salt on an open wound that they got caught up in this.”
As to the original allegations, Bartlett and Angelucci said board members are now aware of how to conduct business transparently.
“We are not circumventing the law because there is no intent of this board to do that,” she said. “I think it helps to clarify the position and I feel very confident that this board is as transparent as they humanly possibly can be,” she said.
Angelucci, who represents north Cobb, said she has shut down all of her personal and private email accounts that Sansone accused Angelucci of using to conduct board business, and only communicates with fellow board members in open, public meetings. She agreed with Bartlett that the training helped resolve some of the questions board members may have had about the law.
“I think it’ll make everybody much more cognizant of what the law actually states,” she said. “I appreciated Mr. Ritter coming in and giving us that training.”
Beginning in April, north Cobb resident Sansone filed multiple open records requests with the district seeking copies of e-mails regarding board business sent or received since Jan. 6 on any email address used by any of the seven board members.
On July 5, Sansone and Gray of Acworth complained to the Attorney General’s Office that they believed Angelucci had violated the Open Records Act by failing to turn over 148 emails.
At least two other citizens, Fairgrieves of Mableton and Knor, have also complained to Ritter about actions of Angelucci, Bartlett, Sweeney and Stultz, who represents southeast Cobb.
In a July 27 letter to Sansone, Ritter explained that the board provided all documents requested and had taken corrective measures to ensure communications between public officials and citizens and each other relating to school board business are not conducted on personal e-mail accounts.