Closed Sessions Draw Scrutiny

By Jessica L. Tonn — January 23, 2007 1 min read

School board members in the Jordan school district in Sandy, Utah, could meet soon to discuss security-personnel issues that they discussed behind closed doors last fall.

But if they do, the doors will be open this time.

State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is reviewing the minutes and tapes from a series of closed meetings to determine whether the board violated Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act, which allows closed meetings by government bodies only for limited and specific purposes. If he decides that the board did violate the law, it will have to hold the meetings again in public, according to Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

Mr. Shurtleff became involved in the issue after the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City complained that the board was holding closed meetings unnecessarily.

In a December letter to officials of the 80,000-student district located 15 miles south of Salt Lake City, his office asked for the tapes and minutes of six closed meetings the board held over the course of three months in the fall. After district officials rebuffed the request, the attorney general filed a lawsuit on Jan. 5.

“The people have a right to have their business conducted in the open,” Mr. Shurtleff said in a press release announcing the litigation.

Not all of their business, the district argues.

It claims that the school board was discussing matters covered under a provision of the Open and Public Meetings Act that says a closed meeting may be held for “discussion regarding deployment of security personnel, devices, or systems.”

But in a Jan. 9 editorial, the newspaper contended that “[t]he meeting was closed in order to discuss whether to continue using school security officers or to hire ones at a cheaper cost”—a budgetary matter, not a security issue, and therefore, it said, not covered under the closed-meeting provision.

The district has since agreed to hand over the records in question, and it issued a joint press release with the attorney general saying that “[b]oth parties want to resolve this issue without court action and expenditure of funds.”

Despite the agreement, the district maintains that the board did not violate the law, according to Melinda Colton, a spokeswoman for the district.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week