Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Blatant Disregard For the Law

The State Legislature has spent a lot of time in recent years beefing up sentences for various crimes--often under the auspices of "needing to send a message" to offenders.  Might I suggest they consider increasing the penalties for violations of the state's Open Meetings Laws to send a similar "message" to those we elect to public office--but who choose to blatantly act in violation of those laws.

A former teacher and WEAC have dropped a bombshell on the Neenah School District this month, filing a formal complaint with Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett alleging Superintendent Mary Pfeiffer and members of the School Board established a pattern of holding closed door meetings without public notice to discuss topics they wanted to keep out of the eyes of the voters.  Emails turned over by the District through the Open Records Law and deposed testimony from Board Members themselves reportedly show that the Superintendent wanted to discuss controversial items like changing retired employee benefits packages, budget cuts and redrawing elementary school boundaries without public input into the process.

And to do so, Superintendent Pfeiffer (who allegedly started the practice almost immediately after being hired by the Board in 2009) used one of the oldest tricks in the book: the walking quorum.  State law requires that anytime a majority of an elected body is going to be in one place at one time that public notice be given--since it is possible that they could take action on an item without anyone being aware of it.  So, Superintendent Pfeiffer and the Board apparently agreed to meet with only three or four members present--with the next three or four meeting at another time and the remaining few members coming in for a third secret meeting.  A sneaky--and illegal--way to hold a discussion or disseminate information without anyone outside the system knowing about it.

And what did those illegal discussions lead to?  Little to no discussion of those same items when the Neenah School Board met in properly noticed open session meetings--and unanimous votes on those measures--when perhaps actual debate on the board floor might have led voters or employees to ask questions themselves about what the District was doing.  Actually, it took a separate lawsuit filed by the District retirees questioning the process used to develop their revised benefits for anyone to find out about these secret, illegal meetings in the first place.

So why would otherwise up-standing members of our community engage in such explicitly illegal behavior in such a brazen fashion over such an extended period of time?  They aren't career politicians beholden to big money interests that don't want anyone to know how much they are spending to influence policy.  They aren't thieves trying to line their own pockets with ill-gotten public booty.  And they are not na├»ve political neophytes who can claim to have "no idea" that the ol' walking quorum is illegal.

The answer may lie in the aftermath of the first failed Oaklawn Elementary School referendum here in Oshkosh.  That was the one where a slim majority of the Oshkosh School Board approved going to the voters with plans for a school that was too expensive and was located too far away from where any families with children actually lived--and it was shot down overwhelmingly.  But in the discussions after that disaster, Boardmembers were told that the reason the referendum failed is that the Board and the District "failed to speak to the community with one voice".  The fact that some Boardmembers at the time questioned both the cost and the location of the proposed school "undermined public sentiment for the project" and doomed it from the start.

And since then, you may have noticed there is a lot less "dissention" in all School Boards in the area.  These bodies have suddenly become more of "one mind speaking with one voice" on nearly all matters.  It makes you wonder how they are all coming to these agreements--and if that is really good for the taxpayers.

Oh, and as far as any punishments coming down on the Neenah School Board and its Superintendent--don't hold your breath.  Similar complaints always seem to lead to agreements "to do more open meetings training" so it "doesn't happen again".  Meanwhile, next week's Neenah School Board election will likely generate 10-15% turnout--perhaps proving that we couldn't really care less who represents us.

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