Editor's note: The following is a letter from executive director Natalie Potts of the Center for Open Government, the organization that provided counsel for District 86 board member Dianne Barrett in her records dispute with District 86. On Nov. 18, after more than a year of litigation.
The Center for Open Government exists to educate government bodies and citizens alike on issues of honest, transparent government, and to assist citizens in eliminating barriers to open government. Our litigation in Dianne Barrett’s case advances these goals and the community deserves to know why we brought a lawsuit against the District and why it will continue until good government prevails.
Ms. Barrett, in her seventh year as a school board member of the , requested our assistance in obtaining information to which she was entitled but which the district was refusing to give her. It includes: (1) the transcripts and tapes of closed meetings of the board she was entitled to but unable to attend, and (2) information related to the district’s handling of special education matters, including board-signed legal documents with expenditures of funds where the board is identified throughout each document.
Surprisingly, the district utterly refused to give her access to any of this information for months, eventually providing only a limited and thoroughly redacted part of some of the records. Ms. Barrett was merely trying to fulfill her duties and look into complaints brought to her by parents regarding several special education issues.
All board members are entitled to full and equal access to information. The Center for Open Government has identified a troubling pattern by a number of local school boards, including that of District 86, whereby minority or disfavored members are treated as outsiders and not permitted the full access required by law in order to perform their fiduciary responsibilities to citizens and taxpayers of the district. It is our belief that all board members are entitled to full and unqualified access to all district documents and information, and that refusing to provide access is illegal. Therefore, we agreed to represent Ms. Barrett in her case against the district, seeking both access and direction in her permitted use of the materials. Rather than merely provide her access or defend, the district chose to counter-sue Ms. Barrett, accusing her of sharing the documents with non-board officials, something she had not done. The Circuit Court upheld our complaint, stayed the counterclaim and directed the parties to address the issues posed by federal and state laws regarding the special education hearings.
Due to the multiple briefings and hearings, the court took over 18 months to reach a decision, eventually dismissing our complaint on a pleading issue. We disagree with the court’s dismissal of the case and will seek reconsideration, and appeal if necessary.
The Center for Open Government is continuing the legal battle in this case because we believe that the courts need to declare that all board members are entitled to full and equal access, and end the troubling tactic of school boards withholding access from their own board members. A rump group of board members simply cannot be permitted to meet in a closed session that no one, not even other board members, is able to scrutinize. Government in secret is simply wrong.
The board raises the issue of the cost of legal fees, but it was the district’s decision to defend on all grounds against all documents, even the transcripts or tapes of meetings she was authorized to attend. One might ask whether blocking board members’ access is a productive devotion of the district’s resources. It is Ms. Barrett’s fiduciary duty to review all documents involving expenditures of district funds and ask why they are refusing to give their own board members access to the records they need to do their jobs. The district can avoid spending any more money on lawyers and put an end to this case by simply providing Ms. Barrett with the records she has requested.
This is not a frivolous suit. The Center for Open Government exists to advance better government practices, and will continue to fight for openness though the courts.