Last week’s appointment of a new Bolivar R-1 school board director — Jera Shive — placed certain aspects of Missouri’s Sunshine Law in the local spotlight.
Board president Paula Hubbert had been very clear about how wide open the process to appoint a new member would be — all with respect to that open records law, which requires “meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.” (It’s important to note no exemption exists allowing the deliberation about and appointment of a school board member to be closed.)
To that end, as members of the public, we all had access to the individual candidate applications. (Those applications remain available online at BolivarMoNews.com.)
And the Tuesday, June 4, session, during which the board as a collective interviewed applicants, was open — as was the related motion and subsequent vote. Any discussion or deliberation by the board would have needed to be conducted in the public eye, as well.
As the BH-FP reported last week, the board forewent such deliberation — at least when it came to specific discussion or debate about which candidate to select — and moved directly into a motion, a second and a unanimous vote.
We wouldn’t be worth our salt if we hadn’t asked why there was no discussion and how a prompt unanimous vote could come about without such collective deliberation. Particularly considering how vocal board members were in describing all four candidates as well qualified.
If there was no discussion or debate, how did all six end up precisely on the same page on the very first motion?
Had the board truly not found a way to get on that same page outside of the public eye, avoiding an experience that — let’s face it — could have felt more than awkward?
Hubbert did not mince words when she said no. And absolutely not.
Instead, she said, the unanimity of that first vote likely had its root in a desire to present a united, welcoming front to the candidate, once it was clear a majority was in favor. (In this case, the board opted for a show of hands vote as opposed to spoken “ayes.”)
And had a majority not been achieved, more nomination motions would have followed, she said.
The only outside meetings or discussions we know of were something Hubbert also spoke openly about.
Shive, who also confirmed, had met one-on-one with individual board members. Later, both Hubbert and another member confirmed one-on-one visiting between applicants and sitting board members was not limited to the successful applicant.
On one hand, those meetings show thoroughness, commitment and savviness on the part of applicants.
But on the other hand, they raise questions about what falls under the public’s right to know, particularly when it comes to meetings where a quorum isn’t present.
As Hubbert said, elected officials — including school board members — meet regularly one-on-one with constituents. They may also meet individually with one another. These instances are not a “meeting” as defined under Sunshine Law. And individuals of the public always have a right to speak individually with their elected officials.
However, that leads us to another question — are one-on-one meetings with board applicants really the same as ordinary visits with district patrons?
And, to be clear, there is another “but.”
The courts have held Sunshine Law does apply to meetings with less than a quorum when the government body is trying to find a way around deciding or deliberating something in public as required.
So, for example, a government body could not freely circumvent the law by meeting in a series of one-on-ones or small groups to hash out a plan that is simply put into motion later through a public vote. That would certainly be a clear violation of the intent and purpose of the Sunshine Law.
Even though the board’s action may not fall into that frame, we also wonder something else.
By the board not discussing the candidates individually and not publicly debating who is best for the district, and instead opting for a strategy of nominating and voting until a majority was reached, was the public denied something it deserved: to see how its elected officials arrived at an important decision — and to bear witness to them doing so with careful deliberation?
While unity is something to be valued, disagreement and debate ought not be avoided. They often are important factors in any collective decision-making setting, ensuring multiple perspectives are considered. We’d go so far as to say they are essential to the health of any government body.
And the spirit, if not the letter, of Sunshine Law ensures the public’s right to see that process in action.
As far as the unanimous vote is concerned, it’s certainly true that unanimity is no rare thing for this particular board.
In fact, it’s pretty much been the rule rather than the exception since the last time a vacancy had to be filled on the board back in 2016. In that case, there were three vacancies following three simultaneous resignations. And at that time, the “honor” of appointment fell to the county commissioners, whom we can all assume were more than happy to sit out this round.
None of the 2016 appointees went on to seek election, sparing the question of whether or not their appointment would have been interpreted as an endorsement come Election Day.
Whether or not Shive will follow in that precedent — and if the unsuccessful applicants will return to compete on the ballot — is yet to be seen.
But in the meantime, our congrats are due Shive, as are our best wishes for continued clear skies, as well as ample sunshine, for the board — and its public.