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10002a-definitions

15-IB10 12/1/2015 FOIA Opinion Letter to Mr. John Young re: FOIA Complaints Concerning the Christina School Board

Written on: December 1st, 2015 in 10002(a) Agenda10002(l) (1) Exemptions - Personnel10004(b)(1) Executive Session Job Qualifications10004(b)(9) Executive Session Personnel Matters10004(c) Requirements to Meet in Executive Session

OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE

Attorney General Opinion 15-IB10

 

December 1, 2015

 

VIA EMAIL

John M. Young
109 Cypress Drive
Newark, DE 19713
Jyd1988@gmail.com

 

 

            Re:    August 12 and September 18 FOIA Complaints Concerning the

                      Christina School Board                                                                    

 

Dear Mr. Young:

 

The Delaware Department of Justice (“DOJ”) received your emails alleging violations by the Christina School Board (“CSB”) of the open meetings provisions of the Delaware Freedom of Information Act, 29 Del. C. §§ 10001-10006 (“FOIA”). We treat these emails jointly as a petition for a determination of whether a violation of FOIA has occurred or is about to occur (the “Petition”).  29 Del. C. § 10005(e).  While we find that a violation has occurred with respect to the executive session of the August 4, 2015 meeting, the CSB meetings held on August 4, 2015 and September 17, 2015 otherwise complied with FOIA.

 

FACTS[1]

 

On August 4, 2015, the CSB held its regularly scheduled meeting.  The only substantive topic noticed for discussion was: “B. Personnel Matters Include a Discussion of the Superintendent’s Competencies and Abilities [See 29 Del C 10004 (b)(9)].”  According to the agenda and minutes of the meeting, the entirety of the CSB’s discussion was held in executive session.  The CSB did not hold a vote regarding the discussion of the superintendent during the meeting.  However, while in executive session, the CSB held a vote to “recommended that [the] Executive Session meeting not be recorded.”

 

On September 17, 2015, the CSB held its regularly scheduled meeting.  The notice and agenda for the meeting were originally posted on September 10, 2015.  The CSB President emailed the agenda to the Board members around 3:50 p.m. on the day of the meeting, which was scheduled for 6:30 p.m.  Attached to the email message was a final revised version of the proposed contract for the superintendent position.  The agenda itself was not revised prior to the meeting.

 

POSITION OF THE PARTIES

 

  1. The Petitions

 

We received your first Petition by email on or about August 10, 2015.  Your August Petition requests that we determine whether the CSB violated FOIA when it discussed the superintendent’s competency and abilities in executive session.  You also raise your concern that the CSB violated FOIA by holding a vote in executive session to prevent a board member from making an audio recording of the meeting.

 

We received your second Petition on or about September 18, 2015.  Your September Petition requests that we determine whether the CSB violated FOIA by distributing a revised version of the superintendent’s contract less than six hours in advance of the CSB’s September meeting.

 

  1. The CSB’s Response

 

We received the CSB’s responses on or about August 20, 2015 and October 6, 2015, respectively.  The CSB denies that it violated FOIA when it discussed the superintendent’s competency and abilities in executive session during the August meeting.  According to the CSB, this practice is expressly permitted by 29 Del. C. §10004(b)(9).  The CSB also confirmed that it only discussed the superintendent’s competencies and abilities during the executive session portion of the meeting.  The CSB conceded that it voted on the recording issue during executive session and agreed to refrain from taking any votes in executive session in the future.

 

Regarding the September 17, 2015 meeting, the CSB denies that circulating a revised version of the superintendent’s contract within hours of the school board meeting violated FOIA.  According to the CSB, the agenda was not altered and FOIA does not require the advance posting of documents to be voted upon.

 

RELEVANT LAW

 

FOIA requires that “[e]very meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public except those closed [for a permitted reason].”[2]  Pursuant to 29 Del. C. § 10004(b), public bodies may “call for an executive session closed to the public” only for purposes permitted by the statute.  For example, section 10004(b)(9) permits public bodies to meet in executive session to discuss “[p]ersonnel matters in which the names, competency and abilities of individual employees or students are discussed, unless the employee or student requests that such a meeting be open.”  However, a public body must vote at a public meeting to move into executive session, and “all voting on public business must take place at a public meeting and the results of the vote made public.”[3]

 

LEGAL DISCUSSION

The Petitions require us to determine whether the CSB’s August and September meetings violated FOIA’s open meeting requirements.

 

  1. The August 4, 2015 Meeting

 

We reviewed the notice, agenda and minutes for the August 7, 2015 meeting and conclude that the CSB did not violate FOIA when it discussed the competency and abilities of the superintendent in executive session.  Section 10004(b)(9) of FOIA permits a public body to meet in executive session to discuss the names, competency and abilities of individual employees.  According to the CSB, the superintendent is considered an employee of the school district.  Accordingly, the CSB’s discussion of the superintendent’s competency and abilities was a proper topic for an executive session discussion.

We do not agree that Attorney General Opinion 15-IB01 is controlling with respect to this matter.  That opinion dealt with the narrow issue of whether a school board may discuss a superintendent’s competency and abilities in executive session where those matters are intertwined with the deliberations and vote to approve the renewal of that superintendent’s employment contract.  The determination is limited to the unique factual circumstances of that case and our office will not find a FOIA violation has or is about to occur simply because a school board discusses a superintendent’s competency or abilities in executive session.  School boards should be able to discuss the competencies and abilities of all of their employees, including superintendents, in executive session, and may do so within FOIA as long as those discussions are severed from express discussions regarding renewal of a superintendent’s contract.

However, we find that the CSB violated FOIA when it “recommended that [the] Executive Session meeting not be recorded” while in executive session.  Pursuant to 29 Del. C. §10004(c), “all voting on public business must take place at a public meeting and the results of the vote made public” (emphasis supplied).   “Public business” is broadly defined as “any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.”   The CSB’s vote regarding its internal meeting procedures is “public business” because it relates to a matter over which the CSB has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.  Accordingly, any vote regarding the manner in which the Executive Session was to be recorded should have been held during the public portion of the meeting.

 

  1. The September 17, 2015 Meeting

 

The Petition alleges that the CSB violated FOIA because the CSB president emailed a final revised version of the superintendent’s contract to board members less than six hours prior to the CSB’s September meeting.  The Petition does not allege that the notice or agenda was revised less than six hours prior to the meeting and we find no evidence that this occurred.

 

We disagree that the CSB violated FOIA when it circulated a copy of the superintendent’s contract within hours of the September board meeting.  The CSB posted a timely notice of the meeting and the agenda, which were sufficient to the public on notice of the CSB’s intention to discuss the superintendent’s contract.  Nothing more was required.[4]

CONCLUSION

 

We conclude that the CSB did not violate FOIA when it discussed the district superintendent’s competency and abilities in executive session at the August 2015 board meeting.  The CSB did violate FOIA when it held a vote in executive session at the August meeting.  However, we find that the executive session vote did not affect substantial public rights because no law requires executive sessions to be audio recorded.  Therefore, no remediation is required.  Finally, we conclude that the CSB did not violate FOIA’s meeting notice requirements when it circulated a copy of the superintendent’s contract less than six hours prior to the September 2015 board meeting.

 

Very truly yours,

 

/s/ Katisha D. Fortune

 

______________________________

Katisha D. Fortune

Deputy Attorney General

 

Approved:

 

/s/ Aaron R. Goldstein

 

_______________________________

Aaron R. Goldstein, State Solicitor

 

 

[1] Because of the fact-specific questions raised in the Petition, we briefly summarize our understanding of the relevant facts.  Please note that we do not, in the context of evaluating petitions for determination under FOIA, operate as an independent fact-finding body.

[2] 29 Del. C. § 10004(a).

[3] 29 Del. C. § 10004(c).

[4] See 29 Del. C. §10004(e)(2)-(5) (detailing notice requirements for public body meeting notices and public body meeting agendas); Del. Op. Att’y Gen. 12-IIB13 (Dec. 21, 2012) (“FOIA requires our public bodies to give ‘public notice of their regular meetings and of their intent to hold an executive session closed to the public, at least 7 days in advance thereof.’  FOIA requires that any such ‘notice’ include an agenda notifying the public of important matters that will be discussed and possibly voted on so that members of the public can decide whether to attend a particular public meeting.”) (internal citations omitted).





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