The Oregon Government Ethics Commission will formally investigate whether Willamette Education Service District Board members violated public meeting laws while hiring a new superintendent.
The case began in April, when the Statesman Journal reported that the board had discussed new Superintendent Dave Novotney’s candidacy, hiring and contract in illegal closed-door sessions over a 10-month period.
State law allows public bodies to hold such closed-door meetings, called executive sessions, but only under certain conditions set out in the statute.
In an interview, WESD’s attorney, Paul Dakopolos, admitted that the meetings violated the statute, but took the blame, saying he assumed the board had met those conditions when he suggested the closed-door meetings.
The ethics commission enforces the Oregon Public Meetings law. Commission Director Ron Bersin asked staff members to gather information about the possible violations in early May, and the commission voted May 31 to open a preliminary review.
On Oct. 11, the commission heard the results of that review and voted unanimously to pursue a formal investigation into possible violations by board Chairman Ken Hector; Vice Chairwoman Anne Wylie; members Phil Frey, Larry Trott, Frank Pender, Alex Sanchez and Mark Trumbo; and former members Dixon Bledsoe and Rick Kimball.
By statute, the investigation must be complete within 180 days. Board members could be fined as much as $1,000 per violation, Bersin said.
WESD Board members are being represented by Morgan Smith, an attorney for the Oregon School Boards Association.
In a letter to the commission, Smith said the allegation that there had been no public discussion of the superintendent hiring process before a contract was offered was false.
“In fact, on May 22, 2012, the board discussed in public their options for filling the vacancy for superintendent, including whether to engage in an active recruitment or to ask Dr. Dave Novotney to become acting superintendent instead,” Smith wrote.
However, in their report, the ethics commission investigators responded, “A review of the audio of the 5/22/12 public WESD meeting conducted for this preliminary review reveals no such discussion.”
The preliminary review also found that WESD did not record or keep minutes of its executive sessions, as required by state law and its own policies.
WESD officials declined to comment.
tloew@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6779 or follow at Twitter.com/SJWatchdog
See this story at StatesmanJournal.com to read the preliminary review reports and see previous coverage of Willamette ESD.