School board meetings in the clear

Prosecutor: Trustees did not violate meeting law

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The Kootenai County Prosecutor's Office has determined that school board members in Coeur d'Alene did not violate the state's open meeting law.

An investigation into a possible violation was initiated last spring in response to a March 27 complaint lodged with the prosecutor's office by citizen Mary Jo Finney. Finney, of Coeur d'Alene, alleged that school trustees Tom Hearn, Christa Hazel and Dave Eubanks broke the state law which prohibits the formation of public policy in secret.

In a June 6 letter to Finney, acquired by The Press through a public records request, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Bryant Bushling wrote, "...your input is appreciated and the issues that you raised are legitimate concerns. However, based on a thorough review of the available evidence, it cannot be shown that a violation of the open meeting law occurred."

Bushling advised Finney that his office reviewed hundreds of emails and portions of recordings of four school board meetings.

Finney alleged that a physical violation of the law took place in February when the three trustees traveled to Boise for two days to attend workshops hosted by the Idaho School Boards Association, meet with legislators, and attend state House and Senate Education Committee meetings.

"There is no evidence that these meetings involved any deliberative process regarding deciding issues before the board," Bushling wrote.

Open meeting laws were also violated, Finney claimed, by email. Earlier this year, Finney requested and obtained more than 1,200 of the trustees in question's emails through a public records request.

Bushling wrote that the email messages reveal that board members were aware that a citizen wanted to present a controversial, possibly contentious issue to the board, and that Trustee Tom Hearn had been in contact with this individual by email.

"However, the emails fail to show that a deliberative process by the board - a process aimed toward reaching a decision on an issue - occurred either via emails or at other venues," Bushling wrote. "The most logical inference to be drawn from the emails is that the board was attempting to plan and direct the process of hearing and deciding the issue when it would officially be presented to the board."

Finney, when contacted Wednesday by The Press, said she followed the complaint process afforded to her by Idaho law.

"In the end, he (Bushling) said that I was justified in filing that complaint," Finney said. "What they did may not have been illegal, but it wasn't ethical."

Board chair Christa Hazel said it's important to her that the school board's business be deliberated in full view of the public.

"Now I want to focus on the successful start of another school year, what's going on in our classrooms and improving our performance," Hazel said. "We have a lot of work to be done, and it needs our full attention."

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