Mehlville school board votes 5-2 to reject Franz’s proposal to record closed sessions

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Board of Education will not record its closed meetings, with most members saying they did not see any transparency problem in the district that recording could solve.

At the board’s Nov. 7 meeting, Secretary Rich Franz proposed an amendment to the board’s existing closed-session policy to add audio recording of such sessions. The board voted 5-2 against recording, with President Mark Stoner and Franz in favor.

A few of the board members questioned the need for recording at all.

“What’s the purpose … What (is the) benefit?” board member Ron Fedorchak asked. “What wrong do you want to try to right?”

“What message are we trying to send?” Franz said. “I don’t believe we’re trying to solve a problem, I believe we’re trying to make an existing good situation better than it is. And I think we owe it to the taxpayer and to the community to be as transparent as possible.”

Fedorchak and board members Larry Felton and Elaine Powers said they feared that recordings could be made public by a judge if a member of the public wanted to hear them.

Franz disputed that contention, noting that the same rules that currently govern the board’s existing closed-session written minutes would protect recordings: they could only be released by order of a judge.

The board has not had a problem with community members suing to request access to closed-session minutes.

Former school board member Walt Bivins tried four times after he was elected to the state Legislature to get a law passed mandating that closed sessions be recorded, saying that it would ensure that government officials could not discuss topics in closed sessions that should be reserved for open discussion.

For that reason, all government bodies in Illinois are required since 2004 to record closed sessions under the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Locally, the Crestwood Board of Aldermen voluntarily records closed sessions and, in a decade of the policy, has never had the recordings legally challenged.

Audio recording would further the board’s commitment to transparency as set out in its annual goals and as endorsed by Superintendent Eric Knost through his town-hall meetings, Franz noted. It could also protect the board from liability over closed-session decisions, without creating any more liability than already exists, he added.

“As far as the cons are concerned, audio recording causes board members to be less likely to share their opinions honestly due to the possibility of being held accountable for what is said in closed meetings,” Franz read from the subcommittee report he and Felton submitted after they met last month on audio recording.

“Audio recording increases the legal liability of board members due to the possibility of being held accountable for what is said in closed meetings,” he added. “And audio recording does not allow for the erasure of comments made by board members in closed meetings when they may later wish to change or delete their comments.”

Knost did not give a recommendation or take a position on recording, although when board members wavered about whether to approve Franz’s amendment with the idea of adding restrictions to it after later legal review, he urged them to instead take a final up-and-down vote on recording.

Tesson Ferry Township Republican Committeeman John Judd asked board members to record closed sessions at Knost’s town-hall meeting last month, saying it would add transparency and protection for officials and staff.

Fedorchak questioned whether the board’s attorneys would want to offer legal advice if closed sessions are recorded, or whether a property owner could request the audio of a meeting to learn what price board members said they would pay for his property.

“From a legal perspective, my concern is, I’m trying to figure out what the problem is we’re trying to solve,” Felton said. “In seven years on this board, there has never been any — I mean anyone – that’s ever asked us to do this. Across this state, this is very, very rare … My main concern with this is that this is a discretionary act that we’re taking to record 21 subjects that the state allows us to discuss in private.

“They do that because most of the time they deal with jobs, they deal with people, they deal with children, and they’re things that we have to get right. And when we have those discussions, I don’t think we should be encumbered by a tape recorder, with the presumption that someone’s going to get their hands on it.”

Felton serves on the Executive Committee of the Missouri School Boards Association, or MSBA, which recommended against approving the recording proposal, he added. Felton said the organization told him recording closed meetings would make the audio a “very easy commodity” to be used in court.

Based on information Felton relayed from the MSBA, Powers worried that an entire audio recording could be released by a judge in response to a request for only one of the topics discussed.

“Other states do record it and apparently they’re successful with it,” Felton noted. “But I don’t see a problem or situation where this solves any problems for us — I see only opportunities for mischief and opportunities for things to be taken out of context.”

Stoner said the board should vote whether to record meetings, then task Knost or district staff to develop a specific, revised policy before the next meeting.

Powers leaned toward that option, since she was willing to vote for a policy that would exclude certain topics from being recorded, including personnel issues and information from a child hotline.

“It would be really strange to vote on this, to have me have the attorneys draft policy and bring it back, and you vote against the policy that we paid for,” Knost said, instead urging an up-or-down final vote on recording sessions. “I think the question to be called is that you’re either going to agree to record or not.”

“I don’t see a problem, and I don’t see what we’re solving, so I think it’s a waste of time for Dr. Knost to pursue this,” Fedorchak said. “But I think overall, just recording the entire closed-session meetings and violating the protections for the school district, I think it’s the wrong idea and I encourage everybody to vote no and not waste the superintendent’s time.”