WEBSTER COUNTY, KY (4/11/12) – A Webster County Board of Education appeal heard in Webster County Circuit Court on Thursday yielded no change in the outcome of a decision Judge Rene´ Williams handed down previously regarding the board’s challenge of a petition to have a tax the board adopted for the purpose of new construction recalled.
District administrators initiated the challenge at the direction of the board, but Williams determined the action to file the lawsuit against Webster County Clerk Valerie Newell was illegal because the board didn’t include a decision to vote on the lawsuit in the minutes of the meeting from which the legal action. Despite school board attorneys’ arguments in court and documents they filed that such a vote wasn’t required for the initiating of a lawsuit, Williams in her previous ruling disagreed with their interpretation.
At a Webster County Board of Education meeting in late March, members voted in favor of having the district’s attorneys file a “motion to alter, amend, and make additional findings of fact” regarding the question as to whether the petition was successful. Board members and school district officials had alleged the petition committee failed to follow several required steps in the petition process, and claimed that the question on the petition wasn’t the right question to secure a recall, as it apparently took in other parts of the board’s tax increase last August that weren’t recallable.
Although it had been indicated the new motion would be filed in a higher court as part of an appeal process, it led to a hearing last Thursday in Williams’ courtroom.
Williams issued a ruling on the new motion the next day. In it, she affirmed her previous decision and overruled the motion.
“This court reiterates that it did not address the merits of the basis of the plaintiff’s lawsuit, i.e the sufficiency of the petition for recall,” Williams wrote in her ruling. “As previously stated in the court’s order of March 16, 2012, once the court determined that the plaintiff violated the Open Meetings Act, by initiating this action, that issue (the sufficiency of the petition for recall) could no longer be addressed as the lawsuit challenging the petition was dismissed.
“The plaintiff states that the court did not address KRS 61.848(5) that finds an action of a public agency that does not substantially comply with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act is merely voidable, not void,” the ruling continued. “The plaintiff asked the court to make appropriated findings and conclusions explaining why said statute does not apply to the case at bar and the facts upon which it relies to support said conclusion. The court finds that the statute in question does apply. However, the court found that ‘no’ action was taken at the (Webster County Board of Education) meeting in November. There was no vote taken in open session and there was no record in the minutes that a consensus was reached by the board to initiate this action. The plaintiff argues that it ratified said ‘action’ at the January meeting; however, the court ruled in its March 16, 2012, order that the board could not ratify something that did not occur. Further, based on the statute cited by the plaintiff and the reasons set forth above, the court finds that any attempt to ratify the conversation that took place in the closed session, regarding initiating the current litigation, are voidable and the court hereby finds them void.”
Williams in her ruling also addressed the board’s request “to make additional findings of fact” regarding the legality of the petition’s success as well as a request to elaborate on when a board can and can’t vote on specific issues.
“Contrary to the plaintiff’s interpretation of the court’s March 16, 2012, order, the court did not rule that any action by a Board of Education must have an actual vote,” Williams stated in her ruling. “The court did find that whether or not to initiate a lawsuit was the type of action that required a vote in open session. The institution of a lawsuit involves the expenditure of funds by the board. Those funds come from the citizens of Kentucky in the form of tax dollars. Therefore, this type of action is the ‘public’s business’ and therefore, the public has a right to know what is going on. The public has a right to know how its elected officials are handling money, particularly in this case if the money is being used to benefit the children in the school system. Plaintiff’s counsel stated that the discussion regarding the initiation of the lawsuit took place in closed session because it was a controversial issues and so the public would not know how the board members voted. Failure to vote in open session on such issues violates the purpose and spirit of the Open Meetings Act. This was the finding of the court — it did not rule that KRS 61.805 did not apply.”
Williams also reiterated a previous statement made in the March 16 ruling: that Kentucky law states a school board “can only speak through its minutes,” and that the board’s minutes from the meeting that prompted the lawsuit don’t reflect a vote to actually seek legal action against Newell.
“The plaintiff contends that none of the board members expressed a contrary intent to initiate litigation to challenge the petition; however, as stated in the court’s order on page nine, (Webster County Board of Education) members (Tim) McCormick and (Steve) Henry both indicated that they opposed the decision at the November meeting to initiate the current action. The plaintiff also acknowledged such dissension. Further, the court found on page nine of the March 16, 2012, order that based on such opposition, that it was unclear what ‘consensus,’ if any, was reached at the November meeting. The court reiterates that because the minutes from said meeting did not reflect a recorded vote in open session, and that because there was opposition, the court found that it was impossible to determine whether any consensus was reached at the meeting regarding the initiation of the litigation.”
Finally, Williams addressed the board’s request to clarify the distinction between a federal case attorneys for the board apparently cited, and the cases Williams cited in her previous ruling. She again referred to the fact the board’s November minutes don’t reflect a vote to take legal action, and stated that “Kentucky courts are not bound by federal courts as to the interpretation of state law.”
“Therefore, for the reasons set forth above, the court finds that the act attempted to be performed by the plaintiff is voidable and the court voids said act,” Williams wrote in conclusion. “The court overrules the plaintiff’s motion to alter, amend, and make additional findings of fact. Further, the court adopts and incorporates its order of March 16, 2012, in this order.”
The Webster County Board of Education’s next regular meeting is scheduled for April 30.
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