Public Editor

Accurate reporting of inaccurate procedure?

This is a complex one. A brief in the May 1 paper (which didn’t appear on, recounted two meetings it took to elect a new president to the Ray-Pec school board. The story read:

In three votes at the first meeting, the board split 3-3 each time between York and board member Joe Anthuis, the district said in a news release. Anderson was out of town and available on speaker phone, but he couldn't vote because he had not received the oath of office to begin his next term.

The board reconvened on April 15, and Anderson was sworn in. But this time Ruth Johnson was out of town on speaker phone. She could not vote because Anthuis requested a roll call vote, which requires members to be physically present. The board then deadlocked three more times.

Finally, York asked Anthuis to drop the roll call request to avoid meeting the next night, just before the deadline of midnight April 16 for the new board to reorganize. Anthuis did, and York prevailed, 4-3.

However, emailer Monte Olsen, a university professor who teaches courses that concern statutory requirements for Missouri’s elected officials, wrote to tell me the Ray-Pec school board itself misunderstood procedure here, on two points.

First, “Mr. Anderson didn't need to take an oath office because he was still in office. Until his successor, which is himself, takes the oath of office, he is still in office.”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: “Sometimes these boards get in a rut thinking what's customary is law. If Mr. Anderson was out of town, but still in Missouri, he could have taken his oath of office where ever he was--he didn't need to be at a school board meeting to have his oath of office administered to him by the school board secretary. Perhaps Mr. Anderson could even have had an out of state official administer the oath of office as long as it met the statutory positions, e.g., Judge, Notary Public, etc.; however, I have not researched to see if there is any case law that would preclude oaths being administered by out of state officials.

“So my overall point is that Mr. Anderson could have voted when he was out of town (assuming there was no successful motion for a roll call vote, which by the Sunshine Law, would have precluded Mr. Anderson from voting, like Ms. Johnson was prohibited in the second meeting).”

My own research on the statutes supports this contention (though I also confess that I’m far from expert, and I welcome input from anyone else with knowledge here).

So one could argue that the journalists covering stories such as this should go back and double-check the statutes themselves. In a case such as taking an oath and a roll call vote, I’d say the overall impact on the public at large is negligible. We’re mostly talking about the convenience of the members of the board in this case.

But if there were some broader public interest at stake, there’s very good reason for journalists to double-check public officials’ adherence to the statutes. I’m sure Mr. Olsen is correct that these bodies act on custom instead of research in other instances too.