A state court judge upheld the process by which state school board candidates are chosen Tuesday, refusing to void results of the latest board election despite violations of the Open and Public Meetings Act.
Third District Judge Anthony Quinn ruled Tuesday that the law behind the selection process is not unconstitutional. He also ruled that the committee that helped choose state school board candidates violated the state's open meetings law, but determined the violations were not extensive enough to void the committee's choices for the District 9 seat. The nominating committee voted on candidates, initially by secret ballot, and did not give proper notice for all of its meetings.
"The committee clearly violated the [Open Meetings Act] on numerous occasions, and these violations undoubtedly interfered to some degree with the public's access to the process," Quinn wrote. But the violations "only moderately damaged the Act's policies of conducting the public's business openly. By contrast, voiding the actions of the Committee would result in grave damage to the public's interest in voting on the membership of the [State Board of Education]."
Quinn ruled on a lawsuit filed by state school board member Denis Morrill against the nominating committee, the governor and the attorney general, among others. Morrill alleged that the process by which state school board candidates are chosen is unconstitutional and that the committee violated open meetings laws. Morrill wanted to see the committee's actions regarding his District 9 seat voided, allowing him to remain on the board.
In May, a governor-appointed committee decided not to forward the name of Morrill, a 10-year-incumbent, to the governor for ballot consideration. Instead, the group forwarded the names of three other candidates, one of whom will take Morrill's seat in January. According to current law, every two years a governor-appointed committee chooses at least three candidates for each seat to forward to the governor, who then chooses two candidates for each seat to appear on the ballot.
This year, the committee voted for candidates initially by secret ballot. The full results of that ballot were not released until about a week later in response to an open records request.
Morrill said Tuesday he was disappointed by the ruling. He said his attorneys are still considering whether to appeal.
"If this case doesn't have a remedy under the open meetings act, then the open meetings act has no validity whatsoever," Morrill said.
Morrill had hoped the judge would issue an injunction to keep future committees from violating the law. But Quinn instead specified that the open meetings act applies to the committee, and the violations it committed are prohibited.
Joel Coleman, who won Morrill's seat in the November election, said he thinks the declaratory judgement was the right call and will prevent future violations.
"People tend to take that seriously," said Coleman, who was a defendant in the suit.
Chris Sloan, one of the nominating committee chairmen, also thought the judge was right not to void the results of the election.
"The infractions, I didn't believe, rose to the level of invalidating a whole election," Sloan said. He said committee members did not act maliciously and had advice from a lawyer. "As a committee of lay people, we did the best job we could do."
The committee's co-chairwoman, Gayleen Gandy, said she wishes Morrill had been allowed to appear on the ballot in the first place, but she was pleased the judge found that the committee is subject to the open meetings act. Gandy objected to the use of secret ballots at the committee's May meeting.
"I do feel very strongly that Denis should have been on the ballot because I don't feel that any elected official should be removed from office without their constituents having a say in that, and that's essentially what happened," Gandy said.
In his ruling, Quinn wrote that the law mandating how state board candidates are chosen is not unconstitutional saying, "There is no evidence that private parties are able to unilaterally further their own private interests contrary to public interests." The committee is accountable to the public, Quinn wrote, and the public still gets the final say in who takes each seat during the general election.
For years, many have complained about the current process, saying it takes power out of the public's hands. State leaders, however, have been unable to agree on how to change the process: Some want a direct, nonpartisan election while others believe it should become partisan. Now, the election is nonpartisan.