The Manheim Township school board conspired to deliberate privately on its search for a new superintendent even as it promised greater transparency in the wake of earlier violations of the Sunshine Act, an audio recording obtained by LNP reveals.
Board President Bill Murry arranged a series of one-on-one telephone conversations with members late last week in a deliberate attempt to avoid public scrutiny and circumvent the open-meetings law, the audio recording of a closed-door meeting held Thursday night, Jan. 28, reveals.
“Tonight we are not going to deliberate the search firms. I want you to go home and think about it. I will discuss your particular feelings or which one you want on an individual basis. One by one. Part of this is to keep our butts out of a wringer,” Murry is heard on the recording telling board members.
Half a minute later, he said: “If we don’t deliberate, the meeting isn’t subject to Sunshine. OK? That’s the point.”
The private discussions, Murry is heard to have said on the recording, were designed to achieve a consensus among board members on the hiring of a superintendent search firm without having to deliberate at a special public meeting of the board tonight.
He said the board would ratify its choice tonight.
The board’s actions suggest a clear intention to bypass open meeting requirements, a Sunshine Act expert said.
“You’re not supposed to make decisions outside a public meeting. It’s that simple,” said Melissa Melewsky, who serves as media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
The board members’ actions came at the same time they were preparing a statement acknowledging earlier violations of the Sunshine Act. That statement, made public Monday, called the earlier violations a “clear oversight” and “not intentional.”
Contacted by LNP on Wednesday, Murry refused to answer questions about last week’s executive session or his one-on-one deliberations.
“I don’t owe you an explanation. I don’t owe you anything,” he said.
Board Vice President Mark Anderson said Wednesday that the board was following instructions from district solicitor Bob Frankhouser, of Lancaster firm Barley Snyder. Frankhouser was not present at the executive session.
“What I heard Bill say is (that) Bob told him not to discuss it in the room,” Anderson said. “We talked about (the search firm) over the weekend on the phone. We talked about a lot of things. I don’t know that his intention was to avoid anything.”
Frankhouser did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.
Recording of meeting
The conversation between Murry and seven other school board members was captured on an audio recording of the executive session held one week ago. The recording was delivered to LNP on Wednesday morning by an undisclosed source.
It is unclear who made the roughly two-hour recording, or if the board was aware of it. But LNP is publishing key portions of the discussion because they are relevant to what should be a public deliberation of how taxpayer money is being spent.
The board plans to vote on a contract with a superintendent search firm at a special meeting at 6 p.m. tonight, according to an agenda made public Monday.
The firm will find and vet candidates to replace Superintendent John Nodecker, who resigned last month under circumstances that were never publicly disclosed. The agenda does not name which search firm will be hired or the cost of the contract.
The 2014 search that resulted in Nodecker’s hiring cost $13,750.
Avoiding a quorum
During last week’s executive session, board members heard presentations from at least two superintendent search firms. Murry is heard on the audio recording telling board members he would call each of them the next day to ask which firm they wanted to hire.
“That’s a good idea,” said board member Todd Heckman.
If a majority of board members preferred one firm, Murry said, he would call back those in the minority to see if “they would be OK with becoming part of the majority.”
The Sunshine Act requires school boards to deliberate in public when a quorum of board members is involved.
Making individual phone calls to avoid having a quorum is “contrary to the letter and the intention of the law,” said Melewsky, the Sunshine Act expert.
“That’s obviously a big problem not only from a legal perspective, but from a public policy perspective as well. The Sunshine Act recognizes the fact that government functions better and more appropriately when the public is actively involved,” she said.
Also during the executive meeting last week, Murry is heard on the audio recording telling members that if a consensus was reached in his phone calls, “I can call up whichever firm and say OK, go ahead and get started with your processes, and then we’ll ratify [their contract] at a public meeting.”
No board members objected to the plan. In addition to Murry, Anderson and Heckman, board members Tony DeLeo, Mike Lynch, Lynn Miller, Nathan Geesey and Grace Strittmatter were present at the meeting.
Board member Stephen Grosh was not present at the meeting.
Anderson, Geesey, Heckman and Lynch confirmed Wednesday that Murry contacted them individually after the Thursday night executive session to see which search firm they preferred.
Asked about the apparent efforts to avoid the Sunshine Act, Geesey said: “We are trying to be more transparent but obviously we need more transparency. That’s one of the reasons I moved to have the discussion of the interim superintendent in public at the last meeting.”
Said Lynch: “I would like to see this situation come to an end, the problems with the whole school board and Sunshine Act. I want to see things are on a better footing with the community than they are now.”
Strittmatter, DeLeo and Grosh could not be reached by phone Wednesday.
Miller hung up on an LNP reporter.
District attorney’s response
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, who assigned a prosecutor to look into the board’s use of executive sessions but did not file charges, said he would look into the possible new Sunshine Act violations.
“This is the first we are hearing of this particular incident. We’ll gather all the information we can on it, and go from there,” he said Wednesday.
A spokesman for Stedman said earlier in the week the office would not prosecute the board’s previous violations because it found “no indication of an intent” to violate the Sunshine Act.
But in a letter to the board, the office put Manheim Township on notice that it would launch an investigation and potentially charge the school board if it found evidence of such a violation in the future.
Violating the Sunshine Act is a summary offense punishable by a fine of at least $100 and up to $1,000 for a first offense, plus court costs, and up to $2,000 plus court costs for subsequent violations.
Tonight’s meeting agenda, posted on the district website, includes an announcement that the board met Jan. 21 to review search firm information and again Jan. 28 to interview search firms.
“The board did not engage in any deliberations and took no action,” the agenda says.
It also notes that the board last week discussed candidates for the role of interim superintendent. Personnel discussions do not have to be held in public under the Sunshine Act.