COVINGTON --The Newton County Board of Education held an apparent illegal closed meeting Tuesday to discuss the vice chair writing columns for the Citizen.
Before Tuesday's monthly meeting, the board met for executive session, and after discussing personnel and pending litigation, board Chairman Eddie Johnson asked Newton County School System Superintendent Gary Mathews to leave the room and send in attorney Kent Campbell, according to board Vice Chair Jeff Meadors.
Meadors writes a weekly column on education for the Citizen.
Meadors claims that Johnson brought up concerns with him about writing an opinion column for the Citizen, as he has done since January. Meadors said Johnson and Campbell spoke to him about writing in opposition to House Resolution 1162 that dealt with local board control, even though the Newton BOE took a position against the measure earlier this year, and said that a few Newton teachers had complained about some issues brought up in a column even though Meadors claimed it wasn't directed at any local teachers but rather statewide and legislative issues.
"My articles come from more than 25 years of experience," Meadors said Thursday.
Additionally, Meadors said that Campbell asked him to remove his board affiliation from the signature line of his column, and Meadors felt he also was implying that he should stop writing altogether because some board members were concerned that the general public assumed he was expressing the feelings of the entire board.
"(The columns) are my own opinion," Meadors said, adding that elected officials, such as state Rep. Doug Holt and Rockdale County Board of Education member Brad Smith, also write opinion columns for the Citizen that include their elected affiliations.
Meadors said Thursday that he does not share confidential matters in his columns and normally covers national, state and local educational issues.
"I work hard to support our schools," Meadors said, adding that he also is a strong supporter of local teachers.
When asked by the Citizen if the meeting was held during executive session, Meadors said that all five board members were present at the time of the meeting, the doors were shut to the meeting room and no vote had been taken to end the closed session.
Under Georgia's Sunshine Laws, school boards are required to transact business in the open unless members are discussing employee personnel matters, pending litigation or real estate acquisition.
"A lawyer is entitled to meet in a closed session with a local government agency only to discuss pending or threatened litigation. That is not what was happening here, and thus it would be illegal to conduct a closed meeting with the lawyer present to simply discuss the writing of a newspaper column by a board member and what is reflected as a part of that column," said David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association.
Meadors said Friday that it's his opinion after the fact that the meeting was a violation of the Open Meetings law.
"I regret this distraction from our system goals and student achievement, yet the board chair, after admitting that he never reads the paper, essentially spearheaded a witch hunt based on incorrect assumptions about my columns and he chose a meeting that violates the right to notice and the keeping of minutes of the Georgia Open Meetings Act," Meadors wrote in an email Friday. "He sent out the superintendent and co-opted the school board attorney to direct me to contact the Newton Citizen and 'insist' that they remove my board affiliation from my columns. This is the third meeting where the topic of the Newton Citizen has been a focus ... where at least one individual has spoken about investigating the newspaper.
"Since there was no substance to any claims of the chairman related to my columns, and since he took issue with a column where I mentioned the hiring of friends and family in school systems, my personal opinion is that this violation of legal meetings was fueled by a disgruntled system employee," Meadors added.
When asked by the Citizen on Thursday to comment on the issues brought up with Meadors and with regard to holding an executive session meeting to discuss those issues, Campbell and Johnson refused to comment, saying they do not publicly discuss items handled in executive session.
There is no legal restriction on public discussion of matters that are handled in executive session.
"It is totally within the discretion of a government member whether to disclose what is said at a closed meeting. There is no penalty for doing so, and any attempt to penalize would have serious Constitutional problems due to the restriction on free speech," Hudson said. Also, there are "rights of a government member to speak to the public, including his constituents, about whatever occurs in the course of a meeting -- opened or closed."
Mathews would not comment on the issue.
"I have no comment at this time, as this is a matter amongst BOE members or else I would have been included in the executive session," Mathews said Thursday.
Sunshine Laws provide penalties for noncompliance with the Open Meetings law, including anyone who knowingly conducts or participates in such a meeting being guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $500. Public officials may also be subject to recall. The Attorney General also may bring civil or criminal action to enforce compliance.