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Kennecke Report Suggests MCEC Violates Open Meeting Laws

For probably the first time in its history, TV cameras came to a board meeting of Mid-Central Educational Cooperative. Given that the state has yanked MCEC’s multi-million-dollar contract to run the federal GEAR UP program, given that its two (two? really?) business managers and their four children died by shotgun and were incinerated along with their $1.3-million house, and given that Governor Dennis Daugaard has ordered a thorough investigation of the head business manager’s finances and the management of GEAR UP, MCEC surely wasn’t surprised at the attention.

They didn’t seem pleased with it, either:

After discussing other grants and programs, the co-op then kicked out our camera.

“We are now declaring an executive session,” [MCEC exec Dan] Guericke said.

The superintendents have been in executive session for over an hour to meet with Mid Central’s attorney Scott Swier.

In all, the group met behind closed doors for nearly three hours.

Mid Central’s attorney tells me during the executive session the board appointed Stephanie Hubers as interim business manager for Mid Central and they hired an independent financial consultant and appointed four people to a budget committee [Angela Kennecke, “Mid-Central Takes Action on Finances, Dodges Questions About GEAR UP,” KELO-TV, 2015.10.08].

Wait a minute: MCEC took action during executive session? That can’t happen. Educational cooperatives are creatures of statute, created and overseen by public school districts. Educational cooperatives must follow the same open meeting laws as their constituent school boards and other public bodies. Public bodies can close the doors to discuss a limited set of items (personnel, legal matters, contract negotiations…), but the board (not the exec, mind you, the board) has to approve a motion specifying the reason for the executive session, and the board has to open the doors again before taking any formal action stemming from that discussion. MCEC can’t appoint or hire anybody or authorize any other action in executive session.

Kennecke may simply have worded things wrong (she’s been working awfully hard lately; I can understand the occasional slip in the closing paragraph). The AP report on KSFY says MCEC “voted afterward [after the executive session] to appoint Stephanie Hubers as the interim replacement for former employee Scott Westerhuis.” Let’s hope AP’s version is right and KELO’s is wrong.

Decisions made in executive session would constitute a violation of open meeting laws. Given the current media scrutiny, MCEC should make sure every action they take is transparent and by the book and reported that way by the suddenly and properly curious press.

12 Comments

  1. larry kurtz 2015-10-08

    chortling subsumes your otherwise coiffed demeanor, cah: I bow to you.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-08

    Thank you, Larry, but no major performance here, just reading open meetings law and questionable phrasing in the press.

  3. John 2015-10-08

    Hhum, what would the minutes reflect?

    “if you want to get the mafia, get their lawyers” – Mitch McDeere, The Firm.

    Perhaps a well-reasoned complaint or request for inquiry to the bar may be a modest start. Perhaps the judiciary is the sole refuge or remedy for what appears as serial, systemic corruption in our state government, its agents, or contractors. Better check my fire insurance.

  4. The King 2015-10-09

    Fast forward 12 months……that’s Angela Kennecke talking on 48 Hours as their local content expert as they report on the Platte murders and Gear Up financial swindle. Will the local blogger who helped reveal the facts get a spot on 48 Hours?

  5. Troy 2015-10-09

    I think this is an argument about semantics and practicality. Example: A member of a board thinks a matter has occurred that warrants firing. Board legitimately goes into executive session. They hear the facts. Some members think the matter deserves a slight reprimand. Others think it deserves firing. After full discussion, a consensus appears to be a suspension without pay. Chair asks, “are we comfortable with this?” And everyone shakes head yes.

    Was decision made in executive session? Practically yes because the discussion and information (point of executive session) led to a consensus. In reality, even if a vote isn’t formally taken, it doesn’t take ESP to discern a consensus was reached.

    But, legally no. The Board would still have to come out of executive session to formally announce decision.

    Thus, both reports are accurate. The practical decision was made in executive session. The legal decision was made in public.

    p.s. The analogy I used wasn’t perfect as personnel actions are to be done in private to protect the employee. However, it was an easy story to make the point.

  6. larry kurtz 2015-10-09

    I think this is an argument about Republican hypocrisy.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-09

    Curious, Troy: are there situations like the current scandal that might warrant forgoing the exectuvie session option? If public trust is threatened, might a board serve the public interest by conducting a personnel matter in public? Remember, SDCL 1-25-2 says may, not shall.

  8. 96Tears 2015-10-09

    Yes, Cory, it would be smart politics at this time for the board to refrain from secrecy as much as possible, even when it errs on setting a precedent of discussing new hires and appointments in public session.

    What I found strange was the board’s attorney discussing the issues after his one-hour session with them and while the board was still in its three-hour bunker mode. Very bad optics.

    This may be the time to admit my growing affection for Ms. Kennecke. That woman’s got a real spine whether it’s chasing after a bogus petition carrier or pressing a legal beagel to spill his guts about what happens behind closed doors. Angela’s a breath of fresh air and a force of nature on the beat. Back in the day when she co-anchored my opinion of her skills was fairly low. Just another rip-and-read news blatherer.

    I was wrong, Angela. You’re a tiger! There needs to be five more of you, and I wish there was someone like you working it like a dynamo chasing down Mike Rounds, Joop Bollen, the Board of Regents and the other trough hogs involved in the Rounds Racketeering Scam.

  9. Craig Guymon 2015-10-09

    Resident living within the Mitchell School District 17-2 need to contact Angela Kennecke requesting she and a KELOLAD camera man attend the next scheduled MSD 17-2 Board of Education meeting.

    Word on the street has it that very direct and pointed Teaching American History Grant comments will be shared with board members during public commentary by members living within the boundaries of the school district concerning Supt Joe Graves: (1) “Double Dipping” breach of his employment contract; fraudulent statement concerning $30,000 received form Mid Central in annual TAHG director compensation; and (3) Corresponding Supt Joe Graves cronyism and nepotism laced employment decisions surrounding Graves family members current educational contracts with Mid Central and Mitchell Technical Institute.

    Given Supt Graves being a public official, executive privileges cannot be used by the board to censer citizenship rights to share concerns with the board and community during an open public meeting. Perhaps, Kennecke could express her concerns with regards to “common core math” Supt Graves used to calculate his bogus $30,000 TAHG compensation figure.

    Badger, Out!

  10. Douglas Wiken 2015-10-09

    School boards regularly violate SD open meeting laws. But, try to get a states attorney to stick their noses into the thicket and you will get dumb stares.

    Just because they have an attorney present does not automatically mean they can go into executive session. Executive sessions should also be published before-hand so public is aware. Not all contracts qualify for executive session.

    After seeing how this is routinely violated, it may be time that executive sessions be eliminated as an option.

  11. Jeff Barth 2015-10-09

    Hey 96. I’m with you regarding Angela. 60 Minutes look out!

  12. Donald Pay 2015-10-09

    My opinion as a school board member was that we didn’t violate the open meetings law, but that the law allows far too much flexibility. This was in Rapid City, and we had Deb Holland who covered the school beat for the RC Journal. If she thought we violated the law, she would have challenged us. Citizens and the press should speak up and sue, if necessary, if the law is broken.

    Most board members don’t really know what is specifically going to be discussed in executive sessions. The Superintendent, the district’s attorney and maybe the President of the Board know, but the other members of the board have to vote to go into executive session on trust that the very general exception presented in the public session is legally correct.

    If they want to, a Superintendent can shoehorn a lot of stuff into one of the exceptions to open meetings, and there are other ways around the law, such as having less than a majority in the room as you discuss items. I think each board member has to be ethical enough to not let a Superintendent do that.

    When I was on the board most of the issues we dealt with in executive session were contract issues, student disciplinary matters and teacher grievances or firings. Anything dealing with specific students or staff has to be heard in closed session and then decisions taken in open session. I thought a lot of the contract stuff was perfectly able to be discussed in open session, but I understand attorneys don’t like to do that.

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