The Newton County Board of Education remains largely silent following what Georgia law indicates was clearly an illegal executive session held March 20, that violated not only state code but several of the board's policies as well.
According to co-chair and District 1 representative Jeff Meadors, what started as a legitimate executive session prior to the monthly board meeting quickly turned wayward when Chairman and District 2 representative Eddie Johnson reportedly asked Superintendent Gary Mathews to leave and BOE attorney Kent Campbell to come into the room. Meadors said none of the board members made a motion to leave the closed session and the doors remained shut.
Georgia's Open Meetings Law requires, with the exception of a few items (land acquisition, personnel matters - discussion only, not votes, and the discussion of pending litigation with the board's attorney) that all meetings be open.
State Attorney General Sam Olens has the ability to charge board members civilly and criminally who "knowingly and willfully" violate the law, although a formal complaint must be filed with the attorney general's office before this can happen. Even then a claim would not immediately result in charges. Instead, the more likely result would be mediation led by the Attorney General's office to see if matters can be resolved prior to a suit being filed. A complaint does not have to come from a member of the board or the superintendent. Complaints can be filed by any concerned individuals.
Meadors said the meeting, led largely by Johnson, had to do with a column he had written in The Citizen newspaper that dealt with nepotism. He said attorney Campbell didn't advise him to stop writing his columns. But Meadors claims Campbell did instruct him to disassociate himself from the BOE when doing so.
"Something to the effect was stated by the chair that we have a "paper problem." He held up a copy of one of my columns and it went from there," Meadors said in an email. "Then, Kent (Campbell) stated that while he did not want to interfere with my first amendment rights that he was directing me to "insist" that the Citizen remove my board affiliation from the columns."
According to an email from Meadors, the meeting came "out of nowhere," and in the past, he has been praised for his columns.
"Dr. Mathews acted very surprised and left (when asked by Chairman Johnson)," Meadors said. "I have received outstanding support from faculty, staff and leadership, as well as elected and appointed officials. I feel elected officials have a right to write.
"I have strong opinions and expect rigorous debate, but I have never pretended to speak for a collective body. It's not even within ethics or law to do so."
With the exception of Meadors, the other four board members have declined to comment.
District 4 representative Almond Turner declined, saying he was directed by attorney Campbell to remain mum. District 3 representative Shakila Henderson-Baker said she had not been advised the meeting was not an executive session, and therefore would not comment on it. And District 5 representative Abigail Morgan Coggin said in an email, "I am bound by a code of ethics and am not at liberty to address matters discussed during executive session."
Johnson also cited the board's code of ethics, saying it did not allow him to comment on items discussed in executive session, further muddling the situation. A close reading of the board's code of ethics reveals Johnson appeared to violate several of them, starting with requesting that the superintendent leave the room before the discussion regarding Meadors' column.
According to the code, the board is bound to "recognize that the local superintendent should serve as secretary, ex-officio to the board and should be present at all meetings of the board except when his or her contract, salary or performance is under consideration."
Mathews also declined to comment on the matter, saying that he was not included in the meeting and "thus, have no comments to render."
Attorney Campbell said he does "not discuss or comment on matters raised in executive session," and that he would like to comment and "set the record straight," but that he was bound by the state BAR Code of Ethics to protect the confidentiality of things discussed with the BOE.
If the meeting was held illegally, and even if it was in executive session, there is nothing in the state law or the board's code that prohibits them from commenting.
The state's rules of legal ethics state that an attorney who breaches those rules could face being disbarred at the most, and disciplined in the least. Campbell also declined to comment on the possibility of being disbarred.
However, because Campbell participated in the illegal meeting, it does violate the state's legal ethics that state attorneys should not participate in unethical practices. The argument can be made that taking part in an illegal meeting falls under that umbrella.
Despite the meeting, Meadors vowed to continue his diligence toward improving education in Newton County and vowed to stay the course.
"I plan to continue to work hard, write well, vote appropriately and represent the voters of District 1 toward making NCSS a great system of which we can all be proud," he said. "We have the hardest working teachers ever with an inveterate passion for their work. I want to support them and their classrooms as long as I am in this position."
The Attorney General's office "declined to comment on the specifics of this case without knowing both sides of the case."