Authorities in Noble County have taken the unusual step of arresting and charging four school board members accused of violating the Open Meeting Act.
The board members met multiple times outside of public meetings, including in June to hire a new superintendent, according to a court affidavit. They didn’t notify the public of the meeting or create an agenda, the records state, and were subsequently warned by an attorney that convening outside a public meeting would violate state law.
Under the Open Meeting Act, a majority of a public body, or quorum, can’t discuss public business outside of a posted meeting.
Three of the five board members met with their top candidate for superintendent 10 days later and discussed school finances and other business, court records show.
On a separate occasion, three board members made a decision in a series of phone calls to allow a student to bring a date to prom who doesn’t attend the school. The district policy is for a student to get approval from the school board.
Charged on Nov. 21 in Noble County are: Tracy Carter, 62, Amanda Kendall, 41, and Janet Barnhart, 65, of Billings, and Marie Holba, 68, of Red Rock. Carter left the board in July.
The purpose of requiring public officials to conduct business in the open is to affirm citizens’ right to see how their state and local officials are conducting business and spending taxpayer funds.
All elected and appointed school board members are required to attend training, including on open meeting laws.
Oklahoma Watch attempted to contact the four school board members. Carter and Kendall declined to comment. Barnhart and Holba did not respond. According to the court affidavit, the board members admitted to the Noble County Sheriff’s detective they violated the Open Meeting Act, but because they contacted the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the Noble County District Attorney after, they thought the matter “had been settled.”
Violating the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $500. But it’s rarely enforced with criminal charges.
“I’ve never been through anything like this before,” said Eric Smith, a superintendent for 20 years who was hired by Billings in July.
Oklahoma Watch asked three transparency and legal experts for examples of school board members who were charged, and they couldn’t find any in recent decades. They did find a case from 1991 in which the superintendent and members of the Gordon Cooper Vo-Tech board were charged, accused of prohibiting a citizen to tape-record a meeting. The case was later dropped.
City officials have faced more recent charges in other cases of Open Meeting Act violations.
In 2004, two Gore city officials were arrested and charged with violating the Open Meeting Act, but court records show the cases were dismissed. The then-mayor and a city councilwoman allegedly held discussions with city council members outside of official meetings to learn if they would vote to fire a public works employee.
Two Warr Acres city council members were charged with violating the act in 2007 after taking a vote that wasn’t listed on the agenda, after the city attorney warned the vote would violate the law.
In 2013, all five members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board were charged with violation of the Open Meeting Act for considering early-release requests that were not listed on public agendas. Some critics said the arrests were politically motivated. Charges were later dropped.
In 2015, three of Okemah’s city council members were arrested and accused of violating the Open Meeting Act by discussing public business among themselves after a public meeting.
Several recent court rulings have enforced the law in civil cases.
In 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld a county judge’s ruling that the Norman City Council violated the Open Meeting Act when it voted to reduce a proposed increase to the police department’s budget. The meeting notice was worded deceptively and obscured the meeting’s purpose, the judge found.
Earlier this month, a judge ruled the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority violated the Open Meeting Act when it awarded contracts for a controversial turnpike project. Opponents of the “Access Oklahoma” turnpike, who are suing to stop the project, argued the turnpike authority’s posted meeting agendas for January and February didn’t contain enough information for the public to be informed of the action being considered.
The proposed $5 billion turnpike expansion is planned to be routed through east Norman, displacing hundreds of residents whose homes are in the path. A judge on Dec. 1 ruled that because the agendas didn’t reference ‘Access Oklahoma’ or ‘Kickapoo Extension’, the contracts are invalid. Following the ruling, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority halted work on the Access Oklahoma.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.