A sworn statement by a Missouri Board of Education member appointed by Gov. Eric Greitens appears to support allegations that the board violated the state’s Sunshine Law.
Springfield teacher Laurie Sullivan, who originally filed a lawsuit against the board late last year, is asking a judge to reverse the board’s decision to fire Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven over the alleged violation of Sunshine Law.
In filings presented to a Cole County judge Tuesday, Sullivan argues that the board discussed issues in a closed meeting that should have been open to the public. During that closed meeting on Dec. 1, the board voted to fire Vandeven.
Duane Martin, Sullivan’s attorney, said it’s clear that the Sunshine Law was violated during closed meetings on Nov. 21 and Dec. 1. Thus, he contends, the actions the board took are invalid.
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“We’re asking a judge to void all actions in (those meetings), which would include the firing of Dr. Vandeven,” Martin said. “I’ve been practicing since 1995. I have rarely seen such an open and shut case.”
Sullivan’s allegations appear to be bolstered by statements made by board member Eddy Justice during a deposition recorded by Martin.
Justice, who was appointed by Greitens in July, said that on the night before the Nov. 21 board meeting, he met with three members of the governor’s staff and Springfield resident Jennifer Edwards at the Baymont Inn in Jefferson City.
The topic of discussion was the next day’s closed meeting, Justice said, which had been called specifically to fire Vandeven.
The next day, Edwards was sworn in as a board member to replace Tim Sumners, whom the governor had removed from the board because he resisted the push to oust Vandeven.
During that closed session, the governor’s appointees fell one vote short of firing Vandeven.
On Dec. 1, the board met again. This time the Greitens appointees were successful in firing Vandeven during a closed session.
Justice said during his deposition that things beyond the hiring and firing of Vandeven were discussed during that closed session, including fourth-grade reading proficiency and issues associated with students with dyslexia.
The board also voted, according to Justice’s deposition, on whether Sumners and Melissa Gelner, another board member removed by Greitens, should have been allowed to participate in the closed session.
Board President Charlie Shields said Wednesday that he recalled Justice making a motion during the closed meeting to “clear the room” of Gelner and Sumners, who were joining the meeting that day by conference call.
The motion pertaining to Gelner and Sumners participating in the meeting “passed 5 to 3,” Shields said. “That action you could argue was not appropriate for a closed session.”
Justice declined comment on advice from his attorney.
Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in response to questions from The Star about how a Sunshine Law violation in that meeting might affect the vote that fired Vandeven that “the department does not comment on pending litigation.”
David Roland, director of litigation with the Freedom Center of Missouri, a Libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency, said there is a lot of uncertainly about what the judge might do.
The law allows a judge to void actions taken by a public governmental body during a closed meeting if those actions are not related to the reasons for the closed meeting, Roland said.
The judge in this case will have to resolve whether whatever else took place during the closed meeting was related to the Vandeven vote, Roland said.
“As long as that vote was itself validly taken,” he said, “it is unlikely to get voided simply because other parts of the meeting were improper.”
Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said if a violation of the Sunshine Law occurred, a judge would have to determine whether the public interest in the enforcement of the Sunshine Law outweighs the public interest in sustaining the validity of the board’s actions.
“The judge is the one who decides how important the illegal discussion was, whether it was critical that it happen during a time when proper notice wasn’t given and whether the lack of urgency means that the discussion should not have taken place,” she said.
The board currently doesn’t have enough members to form a quorum and thus can’t officially meet or conduct business. Greitens withdrew all five of his appointees shortly before the legislative session began earlier this month. He then immediately re-appointed them to give the Senate more time to consider whether to confirm them.
Opposition to the governor’s attempt to oust Vandeven had already put his board nominees in jeopardy. Several Republican senators have vowed to block all five appointments.