E-mails are no way to conduct public business

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

We’ve said it before, and we’ll continue to say it until elected and government officials in Brunswick County clearly get the message—doing public business out of the public eye is wrong and violates the spirit of open meetings and public records laws.

Last week, we took Carolina Shores commissioners to task about seeking a consensus on a public matter through e-mail, only to turn around and find out Brunswick County Board of Education members have done the same.

Recently, we reported the school district had made a decision to delay student viewing of President Barack Obama’s education speech until after parents signed permission slips. We supported that decision, but we cannot, and will not, support the way they reached it.

The Beacon submitted a public records request for e-mails on Sept. 16. Superintendent Katie McGee said because of pending lawsuits and related matters, the e-mails were sent to the board’s attorney before they were released. The Beacon received the e-mails on Sept. 25.

Through review of these documents, it appears discussion about the president’s message began when board member Catherine Cooke sent an e-mail to other board members expressing her concerns about the district airing the president’s message live.

The first e-mail was a forward from her husband and county commissioner Marty Cooke who sent the “Political Propaganda and Our Schools” message to her. The original message had been forwarded to Marty Cooke from someone else.

Once the chain of events started, both Cookes continued to share opinions about the president’s message via e-mail with other board members. Some of the content in those e-mails has sparked concern and controversy among community members. It serves as an important reminder as to why it’s a bad idea to discuss such matters this way.

Catherine Cooke also asked board members about reaching a consensus to not air the speech. At least one board member, Scott Milligan, replied, as did Superintendent Katie McGee and board attorney Kathleen Tanner Kennedy.

Kennedy cautioned board members about discussing board business via e-mail. Kennedy reminded them e-mailing one another about board business would be considered a meeting and would violate open meetings law.

Elected officials should know better. Conducting public business out of the public eye is never what’s best for the public.

Board members have said they received calls and e-mails from people about the president’s speech. The appropriate venue to have this discussion would have been in a public meeting.

Although the board may not have had the statutorily required time frame to call a special meeting, we believe they could have—and should have—called an emergency meeting to discuss action on this time-sensitive issue.

Having a public meeting would have given parents and community groups the opportunity to attend and speak out about what they believed should have been done. This would have also given board members a chance to clearly explain their positions, instead of leaving it to interpretation to those who read e-mails.

Hopefully, the outcry over this decision will keep the board on its toes and in the future such matters will be discussed openly, in the public, as they always should be.