Mon, Feb. 17

Commentary: Mingus not trying to hold secret meeting, but district’s understanding of Open Meeting Law sadly lacking

Here is a little lesson in the difference between the spirit and letter of the law.

Thursday, and continuing into Friday, I was copied on a flurry of emails about the Mingus Union School Board violating Arizona’s Open Meeting Law. The agenda for Thursday’s meeting was not posted on the district website at least 24 hours prior to Thursday’s meeting, as required by law.

When contacted, Mingus officials readily admitted that was the case. They explained that while the meeting agenda was indeed physically posted at the primary entrance to the school, at the district office, and near the school cafeteria, it did fail to meet the legal 24-hour noticing requirement on the MUHS website because of employee oversight.

Let’s be clear on one thing: Mingus definitely was not trying to sneak one by the public or do something underhanded. Earlier in the week, without being asked, school officials emailed a copy of the draft agenda for Thursday’s meeting to local media. It was no secret the Mingus School Board was going to meet Thursday, and there was no secret about the issues they were going to discuss. They weren’t trying to hide anything.

But the sequence of events that followed the revelation about the website noticing oversight played like something straight out of the handbook of “the dog ate my homework.”

First came an email explanation, courtesy of the Mingus Union attorney, underscoring a clause in the open meeting law that states, “A technological problem or failure that either prevents the posting of public notices on a website or that temporarily or permanently prevents the use of all or part of the website does not preclude the holding of the meeting for which the notice was posted if the public body complies with all other public notice requirements required by this section.”

Hmmm. This was not a case of technology preventing the agenda of this meeting from being posted online, but human error, and there is nothing in the law addressing that. What the law does address is that the school website is the first, and foremost, place where such public notices are to be made available to the public. The law clearly states, “Post all public meeting notices on their website and give additional public notice as is reasonable and practicable as to all meetings.”

The same missive from the Mingus attorney also noted the law states school districts and other public bodies must “Conspicuously post a statement on their website stating where all public notices of their meetings will be posted, including the physical and electronic locations, and shall give additional public notice as is reasonable and practicable as to all meetings.”

If such a statement existed on the Mingus website as late as mid-morning Friday, it certainly was not “conspicuous.” In fact, admitted Mingus Superintendent Penny Hargrove, it was not there at all.

“It is not there anymore. We just noticed it,” Hargrove said Friday morning. “We made changes to our website three or four weeks ago and it must have been removed at that time.”

By 11:23 a.m. Friday, Mingus officials proclaimed via email that the problem had been solved and the school was in full compliance with the law.

Now conspicuously present on the Mingus website was the following statement: “We post public notices and agendas at least 24 hours prior to board meetings. Notices and agendas are posted at the notice board located at 1801 E Fir St., Cottonwood AZ 86326. Board meeting packet materials for a meeting of the Governing Board will be available twenty-four (24) hours in advance of that meeting, at the Mingus Union High School District office located at 1801 E Fir St, Cottonwood AZ 86326. Minutes post following board approval.”

Again, hmmm. Referencing the original explanation offered, Arizona law requires Mingus to “conspicuously post a statement on their website stating where all public notices of their meetings will be posted, including the physical and electronic locations, and shall give additional public notice as is reasonable and practicable as to all meetings.”

Hargrove earlier said Mingus physically posted agenda notices at three different sites, in addition to the electronic posting on its website. The school’s “conspicuous” notice on its website of where such agendas are posted only lists one physical location, when the law clearly states it is to state where “all public notices of their meetings will be posted.” This new notice is also rather conspicuous in that it fails to mention that meeting agendas are posted on the district website, which is the first and primary emphasis of the Open Meeting Law.

Instead of focusing on a nebulous loophole around the original problem of Thursday’s meeting not being legally noticed on Mingus’ very own website, as Arizona law requires, the MUHS attorney should instead advise school officials on exactly what is required of them under Arizona’s Open Meeting Law.

Obviously, left to their own devices, they are tripping over this one left and right.   

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