Arguments ended Wednesday in a civil suit filed by persons representing the West Parkview Homeowner’s Association accusing the city school board of implementing policies that violate the state open meetings law.
Homeowners claim that the school board has erected artificial barriers to make it difficult for the public to speak at meetings or get on the agenda.
The suit was filed by John Ethel Minniefield and Jesse Smith earlier this year. It claims that the school board’s policy circumvents state law which requires school boards to provide for public comment on every agenda item before the board takes a vote.
The board’s policy requires a citizen to sign a form before the opening of the meeting stating which agenda item they want to address. Just before a vote, the board allows those who signed up before the meeting to speak for three minutes.
What’s in contention is the board’s requirement that persons sign up before the beginning of a meeting. Minniefield, Smith, and the West Parkview homeowners claim that this practice limits citizen participation to only those who came before the meeting actually begins, which is a violation of state law.
In two days of testimony witnesses detailed what they called a frustrating and time consuming method of speaking at board members on non-agenda items.
Wednesday, Judge Robert Johnson interrupted testimony several times warning that testimony about “getting on the agenda” was not the subject of the suit, because the suit alleged that citizens were not allowed to speak after signing up.
Plantiff attorney Kevin Johnson disagreed, but was overruled. He said the suit contends that the school system has erected a series of “practices” that included letter writing.
Judge Johnson also interrupted testimony to overrule plaintiffs because neither Smith or Minniefield were personally prevented from speaking at a board meeting. However, Kevin Johnson pointed out that state law allows citizens who were personally impacted “or” had reason to believe that the law had been broken to file complaint.
Judge Johnson said he disagreed with that interpretation of the law and would not allow the plaintiffs to detail methods the board uses to frustrate public participation.
“But your honor, it’s the law,” said Johnson, but the Judge insisted that he did not agree with an interpretation that allows anyone to file an open meetings complaint if they had just a “reason to believe” that the law has been broken. He said a person might be watching Monday night football and just decide he wanted to file suit because he had “reason to believe.” For that reason, the judge said he differed with the law.
Jesse Smith, testified that he had not attended the meetings when the location of the new school was discussed, but after attending community meetings and listening to the frustrating experiences of Mrs. Minniefield and others he took two actions; he ran for school board to try to change policy and he filed suit. What he heard from homeowners was the reason he believed that the policy should be challenged.
Minniefied testified Wednesday that while she was not personally prohibited from speaking at the meeting, two members of the homeowner’s association reported that they signed up prior to the meeting but were not allowed to speak.
When Kevin Johnson attempted to play recordings of meetings that document times that votes were made without public comment, the judge stopped the testimony saying that recordings did not address the claims in the law suit.
In one 10 minute interruption, the judge said while there was evidence that the board’s policy requiring letters to be on the agenda is problematic, it was not specifically alleged in the suit, but only general references were made to “Practices.”
In court Monday, before Judge Robert Johnson, the school board, through its attorney Doug Lawrence, attempted to have Minniefield’s suit thrown out on the basis that she and Smith had no cause of action. Additionally, Lawrence said the lawsuit itself did not conform with laws regarding the accumulation of actions.
Lawrence also claimed that the Minniefield’s claims required a separate “ordinary” proceeding other than a summary proceeding.
Judge Johnson overruled all of the school board’s objections, and the case was allowed to proceed.
The school board in its filings claimed that state law allows school boards to establish rules and policies concerning public participation and that its policies conform to state law.
Judge Johnson explained his reason for allowing the case to proceed by saying that while school boards have a right to make policy, those policies “cannot take the place of substantive law which states the contrary.” He said no public body can pass “political acts that deviate from the force of law that is intended for the protection of the public.”
Initially, Minniefield and Smith filed the open meetings complaint to protest the construction of the new Martin Luther King, Middle School in the West Parkview Neighborhood, which is prone to flooding.
They contend that state law rules null and void any action taken that does not comply with the open meeting law. The suit was filed to try to stop the start of the project. However, the relief they sought would have required the residents to post a multi-million dollar bond.
The residents dropped the project injunction claim, but focused their intention on the board’s violation of open meetings laws to prevent future changes without input from the residents.
Monday, two witnesses were called: Reverend Rodney McFarland, former president of the school board; Laura Jacobs, assistant to the superintendent; and Minniefield.
McFarland said the policy of requiring signups was in place when he began serving as president in 2015 through 2017. He explained that all persons who signed up to speak were recognized and that no person who did not sign up was allowed to speak at meetings.
McFarland said notices of meetings are posted on the door of the school board office as the law requires. There is no specific date that notices of meetings are posted on the door or its website, he said.
Jacobs said she prepared minutes, agendas, and maintained the sign-in sheets at meetings. She said the rules requiring signup are printed on the agendas prior to meetings and posted on the district’s website.
Both Jacobs and McFarland said signup sheets and agendas were available at the door, but citizens had to sign up before the meeting began.
Minniefield testified that citizens who want to speak at the board meeting are required to write a letter five days before the meeting and “may” be allowed to speak at the meeting if the superintendent and Board president agree on the subject matter.
She described an instance where she requested to be on the agenda, according to the policy and was initially turned down by the superintendent, but after complaining, the superintendent called her back and allowed her to speak on behalf of the West Parkview residents.
Kevin Johnson, representing Minniefield, said the board has a general practice of placing obstacles in the way to minimize citizen participation. He cited three specific dates in which the board made decisions without asking for or receiving public input.
On these three dates, Kevin Johnson claimed, decisions were made that directly impacted Minniefield and other West Parkview residents.
At times, during Monday’s proceedings, Kevin Johnson took personal offense with objections raised by Lawrence accusing Lawrence of “trying to make me look like I’m an idiot. I went to Southern University, Mr. Lawrence, and your honor (Judge Johnson) went to Southern University,” said Johnson at times raising his voice as he spoke to the judge, claiming “I know what I’m doing.”
Lawrence claimed that Johnson did not include any specifics in his suit that gave examples of “practices” that limited public participation and objected to references to “ambiguous” claims without specifics.
Kevin Johnson launched a tirade of accusations at the school board and compared its open meeting laws to the “Jim Crow” poll tax laws of the segregated south in which racists complied with the letter of the law to allow blacks to vote, but the poll tax in effect limited black participation.
Kevin Johnson claims that the district requirement that citizens sign up to speak before a meeting begins is similar in that it appears to comply with the letter of the law but, in reality, makes it harder for citizens to participate.
The city school board is the only government body locally that requires citizens to signup prior to a meeting and to write letters to give comment on non-agenda items with board approval of the subject matter. Most governments ask for citizen input before they take actions and allow citizen input at the conclusion of agendas.
Throughout the trial Judge Johnson took over and began questioning witnesses himself, rendering his opinion of their testimony. Kevin Johnson did not present a single witness whose testimony was not interrupted by Judge Johnson who gave his opinions as judge and posed questions as either the plaintiff of defense attorney.
No decision was rendered after Wednesday’s hearing. The school board did not submit any witnesses in the trial.
The judge gave both sides 15 days to file documents before making a decision.