At a special school committee meeting on Tuesday night, members Joe Markey and Meg Tyler were cleared of an allegation made at the Feb. 3 meeting that they violated the Open Meetings Act by hosting a Zoom meeting. January 30 regarding the district mask. politics with a resident who is considering running for the committee.
Resident Lori Nickerson filed the complaint with the state attorney general’s office on Jan. 31, the day after the alleged violation. In his statement, Nickerson said Markey and Tyler participated in a Zoom conversation with resident Christopher Melton. Nickerson said it violated the Open Meetings Act because “the purpose of the Zoom meeting was to discuss and deliberate on strategy regarding the school committee’s upcoming business.”
A quorum of three school committee members was not present on the Zoom call in question, so it did not constitute a violation, according to the attorney reviewing the case. However, some of the correspondence between members shed light on officials’ use of social media and how conversations on a general topic could be perceived by some as more specific in nature.
Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh led an investigation into the matter after the committee voted unanimously that she would. She had 14 working days from the date of receipt of the complaint to respond to the investigation, and the response is due in the AG’s office by Friday.
She said she compiled “all digital and electronic correspondence” from Markey and Tyler, including emails, texts and social media posts that included the topics of the masking and coming out of the mask mandate. The superintendent noted that Tyler and Markey “very willingly” sent all requested information to central office for review.
All members of the school committee were given a list of questions to be answered by legal counsel, the superintendent added, and everyone complied with the answers.
On February 1, school council chair Nancy Cavanaugh and the superintendent met with attorney Nancy Campany for advice ahead of the school council meeting at which the complaint was raised.
“I hope that by transparently sharing the process we have in the news here tonight, it will allay any public concerns about our compliance with the Open Meetings Act as a committee,” the president said. She noted that this will show that the committee has “taken some steps to restore confidence in the process that we are using here.”
After analyzing the information and the complaint, Campany said there was no violation as there were only two committee members present.
“One thing I want to make clear is that there is no prohibition in the law on public meetings and members communicating about committee business with members of the public,” Campany pointed out. She said meeting a citizen is “perfectly regular and habitual” and communicating with people is part of their role as members.
A violation could also occur if two members ask a person to express their thoughts to another member of the committee, according to Campany.
“Based on the Zoom meeting itself, it does not in itself appear to have violated the Open Meetings Act,” she said.
However, Melton’s Facebook posting of the Zoom meeting raised questions about whether it was an attempt to communicate Tyler and Markey’s views to other committee members. Campany said it was a closed Facebook page and no committee members were members of this group, which she did not name.
Campany said no member of the committee had seen Melton’s message. Markey and Tyler told him they didn’t know Melton intended to quote them on Facebook.
She noted that one of the things the GA office will be looking for is intent. Based on her analysis, she saw no intention in either the Facebook post or Zoom to communicate opinions to other committee members.
“But we should note that sometimes the Attorney General has had rulings where he has said that, to the extent of the investigation that is made, if further information comes to light that might suggest that there have been deliberations in outside of a public body, they should take steps to address these situations,” Campany continued.
She noted that “some communications may constitute involuntary deliberations.” There might be casual comments that might appear to be potential deliberations. There were brief text messages between Markey and Tyler as well as Markey and Nancy Cavanaugh on the subject of the school mask policy.
Campany recommended that the information from the conversations be read into the minutes for the sake of transparency. She also suggested that committee members get additional training on the Open Meetings Act. It appeared there was some misunderstanding of how the attorney general interprets the law on open meetings, which Campany says is “becoming more detailed every day.”
She provided a draft response to the complainant and a draft covering letter to the Attorney General, which the committee reviewed during the meeting and unanimously approved. The letter stated that all communications would be made public.
Tyler said she liked the idea of training in public assembly law, and Nancy Cavanaugh agreed.
Markey said all potentially concerning emails should be read aloud to make them public. He also volunteered to summarize his conversation.
“One of the things we’ve always pushed as a committee is transparency,” Nancy Cavanaugh said, noting that this issue was “inconvenient” for everyone involved.
All texts and emails were read aloud by counsel for capture as part of the public record. The exchange between the chair and Markey related to putting the potential downgrade option on the February 3 meeting agenda and a change in the wording of the message on the agenda.
Tyler and Markey provided copies of the same text exchanges on a news story about calls to unmask children. Markey asked how to get people “off Facebook and into meetings” to discuss their opinions on the subject. Tyler also mentioned the school calendar vote, and Markey shared a link to a letter to the editor.
Markey also emailed as a parent to members of the Board of Health, Superintendent, President and City Manager Norman Khumalo about the possibility of testing students when they return to school on the sixth day after having eu COVID-19 may have legal ramifications.
Those communications, taken together, “could potentially create an issue with the open assembly law,” Campany said. However, they are now part of the public record, which should mitigate this argument.
Markey and Tyler read summaries of their conversations during Zoom on the school masking issue. Markey noted that other people were invited to Zoom, but only Tyler and Melton attended.
“I collected this from [Melton’s] response and stories: people are afraid to speak up,” Markey said, noting that there had been a drop in emails received at the school committee during this period.
Markey referred to “the deterioration of social norms” caused by the pandemic and the resulting polarization. He added that people should write letters and attend meetings, which he encouraged Melton to do “because it makes a difference”.
“I don’t respect the fact that some members of our community who disagree with the opinions of others slide into incivility,” he continued. This behavior can make others afraid to speak up on issues about which they have strong opinions.
“Fortunately, I have the guts and courage to stand up for what I believe is right for students, teachers and schools,” Markey continued, “while others engage in what I consider mean-spirited behavior. “
Tyler said the nature of the Zoom conversation was casual.
“I would just like to ask all of us to be more careful in using social media,” she added, “and to believe what we read on social media without consulting the sources themselves.
“All of a sudden we were publicly condemned and harangued, and the investigation hadn’t even started yet,” Tyler continued. “And I think that was very hurtful for both of us.”
She also asked the committee to consider placing an “absolute moratorium” on its members using Facebook.
The school committee will hold its regular meeting on Thursday.