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School Board defends secret meetings

April 18, 2001

School Board defends secret meetings



By TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

School Board meetingsPhoto: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Washington County School Board President J. Herbert Hardin said Tuesday afternoon that Monday's unannounced meeting was legal because the board was carrying out an executive function, a provision allowable under the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

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Six hours later, Hardin said the meeting wasn't an executive function but was a meeting called by someone from outside the school system.

"It was a meeting with a person that wanted to talk with us, and we did that," he said. Hardin refused to say who called the meeting, or to provide any other details.

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When describing the meeting as an executive function earlier Tuesday, he said the Monday meeting was a discussion about the internal operating functions of the school system but said he could not reveal the specifics of the meeting.

"It deals with the internal workings of the school system and the School Board," Hardin said.

He went on to say that an executive function could be as short as 10 minutes or could last much longer. He compared the meeting to School Board retreats, in which internal operations are also discussed.

Hardin said the board has met several times without public notice.

"We do have to do some things in private session," Hardin said Tuesday afternoon. "Not everything the Board of Education does has to be in an open session."

Hardin said that in some situations the board cannot "expose" its "inner thoughts."

The Open Meetings Act states that an executive function can be held in a closed session without notice when a public body is administering law, a rule or a regulation.

Hardin said Tuesday night the board did not discuss policy at the Monday meeting.

"It had nothing to do with policy. It had nothing to do with regulations," Hardin said.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett said Monday he was not informed of the meeting and did not attend.

Hardin said the superintendent is not always included in its meetings.

"It can vary," he said.

On Monday afternoon, School Board Vice President Bernadette Wagner called the meeting a planned executive session.

An executive session may be closed to the public when the board discusses issues such as personnel matters, to protect the privacy of individuals and to consider matters including state investments, litigation and public security matters, the Open Meetings Act states.

The Herald-Mail has requested under the Maryland Public Information Act the dates, times and locations of all Board of Education meetings, including work sessions, regular business meetings, retreats, and meetings held under executive function from Jan. 1 to the present.

In August, the School Board met in an executive function with a developer proposing a Wal-Mart Supercenter near Funkstown.

In the meeting, the board endorsed a plan to install a 6-foot wall between the store and Funkstown Elementary School. A Funkstown woman filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board believing the meeting should have been open to the public.

The Compliance Board ruled in the School Board's favor, but stated that because a meeting may legally be closed, it does not mean that it has to be.

"Before closing a meeting under the executive function exclusion or other basis in the Act, a public body should think about the public perception and other implications of closing and whether a closed session is really necessary for the effective conduct of public business," the Compliance Board's opinion stated.

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