Anniston school board to consider what documents it will let meeting visitors see
by Laura Camper
Aug 07, 2012 | 3574 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Should visitors to Anniston Board of Education meetings have access to the same background information on board agenda topics as board members themselves?

That question is expected to be taken up at the board’s Thursday meeting in the context of what’s known as “agenda packets” — the background information about the items the board members will be discussing at the meeting.

However, the board president is resisting the idea of making the information available to the public, even though open-records advocates say it is required by law. The packets are provided to the board members in advance of the meeting to give them a chance to review the material, pose any questions and make an educated decision about the issue.

The issue came about because at the July 24 board meeting, member Bill Robison proposed that meetings become more transparent to the public. The former Anniston mayor proposed the superintendent provide copies of the agenda packets, minus personnel information, for attendees of the meeting to read over before the meeting begins.

“Unless one of us really elaborates about the thing, they don’t know what we’ve done,” Robison said.

On Wednesday, Robison said the proposal was prompted by a resident who requested more background information on the issues discussed at the meetings.

“What I’m looking for is that we will be able to put out three or four packets,” Robison said. It “will flesh out some of that stuff.”

Board president Mary Harrington disagreed with the proposal.

“We were told … that putting this information out before taking action on it is irresponsible,” Harrington said. “Anything we do up here is nothing until we approve it.”

Board member Arthur Cottingham, though, asked the superintendent to look into the proposal.

“I know that as a parent and PTO member sitting on the other side, when I came to the board meetings, it was like a foreign language,” Cottingham said. “I had no idea what was going on. I think we do need to be more transparent.”

While the local school board discusses the issue, the Alabama State Department of Education already releases its information before its work sessions and meetings.

“We always provide packets as people walk in,” said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, public information manager for the department.

The work-session packets can have a wide variety of information in them, including copies of multimedia presentations created for the meeting. The meeting packets may be smaller and include only the resolutions for attendees to read them in full, she said.

Residents can also request the information in the packet before the meeting.

“The materials are given to the board ahead of time as well,” Valdes-Hubert said. “If the board has been given that and made notice of it then we usually have no problem with that.”

According to the Alabama Open Records Act, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”

According to Dennis R. Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, a public record is a document needed, created or used by public officials in performing their duties. The documents in a board packet clearly fall under that definition, he said.

Exemptions from that law exist, but they wouldn’t provide a blanket exemption for the packets — only an exemption for certain documents, Bailey said.

“There are 85 statutes that exempt certain documents — tax returns are examples, juvenile records are another example,” Bailey said. “But the idea that you can’t see any board packets in advance is not consistent with the Open Records Act.”

The matter has also been broached with the Alabama attorney general. In 2000, then-Attorney General Bill Pryor released an opinion stating documents and agendas used by the Medicaid Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee and the Medicaid Review Committee are public records; and the public and press are entitled to receive them at the same time as the committee members.

“Because the committee uses its documents and agendas in furtherance of its duties, those documents are public records,” the opinion states. “Once documents are made available to the Medicaid committee, they become public records that the public and the press are entitled to receive.”

Star staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.

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