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Member says school board broke W.Va. Open Meetings Act

April 20, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - A Berkeley County Board of Education member alleged Monday night that the board violated the state Open Meetings Act last year and again more than a week ago, but Superintendent Manny Arvon vehemently responded that no rules were broken.

At the school board's meeting Monday, board member Pat Murphy brought up what he said he perceived to be an impropriety at an April 2 noon meeting.

During a discussion of the upcoming year's budget, the possibility of spending $600,000 on an unspecified employee benefit was discussed. Murphy said that after the discussion, Arvon privately asked him not to release any information about the idea.

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Although pay raises for individuals can be discussed during a closed-door session, discussing raises for groups of employees must be done in public, Murphy said.

"I think we honestly and inadvertently crossed the line," he said.

Murphy said the discussion brought to mind a matter that happened a year ago, when school board members discussed in a closed-door meeting giving raises to the school system's electricians and speech therapists. After that meeting, Murphy sent a letter to the state's Ethics Commission.

"I think we violated the law a year ago," Murphy said. "And I think we're going down that same road again."

His voiced raised, school board member Rick Pill responded that the April 2 meeting was open to the public and the media. The Herald-Mail received notice of the meeting in a letter dated March 31, and the date and time were announced during a March 29 board meeting.

Nobody from the public attended the April 2 meeting, Murphy said.

Pill said he was "aghast" that Murphy did not raise his concerns until Monday night's meeting, when several school officials, members of the public and two reporters were in attendance. Murphy, however, tried to delay the discussion until the end of the meeting, after a teacher and two volunteers received awards. Typically, nearly everyone leaves school board meetings after such awards are presented.

"These accusations are pretty strong," Arvon told Murphy during the discussion.

He said he disagreed that any inappropriate action was taken, saying that anything questionable is first brought to the attention of Berkeley County Schools' attorney.

Exact possibilities on how to use the $600,000, which has been set aside in a reserve fund, are not known, Arvon said. While Berkeley County offers its employees an exceptional benefits package, Arvon said, he would like to see more benefits that equal money in employees' pockets.

He pointed out that school board member Bill Queen has asked that the amount set aside for the unspecified benefit be increased to $750,000.

"This is a work in progress," Arvon said.

He said he did not want the ideas released because nothing has been finalized.

After the meeting, Arvon categorized the discussion as election-year politicking. Two school board members, Queen and Bill Norris, are up for re-election.

"Is the pay raise election-year politics?" Murphy asked in response.

As an elected official for the county's largest employer, Murphy said his job is to abide by the law and serve employees all year.

Reading from a state code book, Murphy said the public does not yield its sovereignty to elected officials, and that people do not elect officials to then decide what is good or not good for them.

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