CCSB avoids open meetings prosecution
by Lindsay Field
lfield@mdjonline.com
December 09, 2011 12:11 AM | 2325 views | 9 9 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — The Cobb County School Board avoided prosecution Thursday by participating in a free, hour-long training on open records and open meetings laws, but some board members expressed resentment at the implication that they violated the law.

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.
Comments
(9)
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To LCE
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December 12, 2011
Refresh our memories, Lynnda; wasn't it you and David Banks that voted 51 times in executive session?

Be careful; your ORR is now in full swing.

Nice shoes.

Don't Trust
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December 09, 2011
This is a great example of why you don't trust the government to investigate the government. Clearly, there was a violation, yet there will be no punishment. Politics and politicians truly make me sick and there are truly no worse, more egotistical politicians than these small timers that make up school boards. And it is not just in Cobb County, but everywhere.
anonymous
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December 09, 2011
Clearly there was not a violation or there would be an investigation. Did you not hear the gentlemen say they didn't break the law? Maybe restore the trust needs to move on and start looking for candidates. Otherwise, crawl back under your rock and go away.
Mike S
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December 09, 2011
Very accurate and precise article. Thanks Lindsay.
anonymous
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December 17, 2011
There are many rumors that a number of emails from 'other' board members have been passed through their personal emails.

For example, David Banks email to members of the Cobb delegation when he tried to hijack the new maps. Horror of horrors, it has been suggested that the names of many balanced calendar supporters have been copied. I guess the old saying about living in a glass house may be true.
Cobb School Parent
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December 09, 2011
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. The gang of four knew exactly what they were doing, and they got caught. No repercussions for misbehavior...that's the example we want to set for our kids and community, right!

I sure hope Sam Olens will give me an MOU if I ever break the law. Sounds like a good friend to have.

Thank you Ms. Bartlett for making a joke out of our district. You'll go down in history like Clinton who made a mockery of the Office of President.
@Cobb School Parent
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December 12, 2011
To follow your logic, that would mean you are a whining, small minded, malcontent duck that did not get their way.

No one got caught because they weren't guilty of anything; perhaps someone should start publishing your FB posts, all 600 pages; do you think at this point the AG and Sec of State would care to know what you and your Restore the Trust gang have been doing as a non registered PAC collecting money to try and influence elected officials?

You want your calendar; you don't care what lies and innuendo you have to spread to try to extort what you want out of people who feel just as passionately about not going to school at the hottest time of the year as you do about having vacation breaks dispersed throughout the year.

IT IS A CALENDAR; get over it, get a life.
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