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Legal opinion sought on tweets at meeting

May 07, 2014 - With hashtags like "outofcontrol," "ridiculousness," and "budgetdiscussion gonewrong," school board trustees' Twitter feed at last week's school board meeting were blunt and disrespectful.

They may have also been a violation of the state Open Meetings Act.

"Board members cannot communicate behind other board members' backs during meetings," said Mike Powell of Independence Township, who called on board President Rosalie Lieblang to consult with the school attorney. "It constitutes a meeting behind a meeting. It's totally wrong."

Board President Rosalie Lieblang requested clarification from district attorney George Butler and the issue will be on the agenda at next Monday's meeting.

Butler did not return a call for comment. On Monday, Lieblang said the attorney is working on it.

According to Michigan's Open Meeting Act, "use of e-mail or other electronic communications among board members during an open meeting e-mail, texting, or other forms of electronic communications among members of a board or commission during the course of an open meeting that constitutes deliberations toward decision-making or actual decisions violates the OMA, since it is in effect a 'closed' session."

Also, "the use of electronic communications for discussions or deliberations, which are not, at a minimum, able to be heard by the public in attendance at an open meeting are contrary to the OMA's core purpose the promotion of openness in government."

Trustee Steve Hyer, who posted about 36 tweets during the April 28 meeting, said the Twitter feed did not constitute "deliberations."

The trustee, who posted comments such as "why do we need a supt if Lieblang is going to be voted to run the district" and "it's a discussion/Spanish Inquisition," did not share the Twitter feed with the board nor the public in attendance during the meeting, however.

Lieblang said the tweets were disrespectful and disappointing.

"Students follow them. It doesn't set a good example," said the board president, who learned about the tweets after the meeting, from The Clarkston News. "We wouldn't want students to act that way. We should discuss issues and reach consensus."

Board Vice President Susan Boatman agreed.

"The tweets as reported in the Clarkston News seemed unprofessional and inappropriate behavior for board members," Boatman said.

Each school board member has a laptop computer during meetings for informational purposes. Meeting packets have been electronic for about 10 years.

Board members also use them to access the district and state websites, e-mails, and other electronic documents, said Trustee Elizabeth Egan.

"I do not see a problem with using Twitter, Facebook or any social media as long as it is not in violation of the Open Meetings Act," Egan said. "Social media is very public. I think the news feed of social media adds transparency to our board. I access previously sent e-mails from the board president if there is a dispute at the table regarding who said what when."

The Twitter feed provides a way to engage community, students, and staff, Hyer said.

"Our district, our community, and our students all benefit when we are including them in the process of making decisions for the school district," he said.

The Board of Education does not vote electronically, Egan said.

"All discussion relating to a vote needs to be voiced by trustees at the table, never in secret or behind closed doors, unless we are negotiating contracts," she said.

The trustee, who posted about a dozen tweets during the meeting with comments including "this is ugly behavior" and "how many education experts are sitting at this table? I see only one #rodrocks," said she tweets to update the public.

"Social media is a popular forum to students and young professionals and gaining interest among the more mature society at large," she said. "I enjoy re-tweeting, outside of meetings, interesting links to educational think tanks as well as the many positive outcomes from our students and staff."

Recently, the trustee sent an e-mail to a State Rep. Eileen Kowall at the end of a meeting, regarding legislative action on school employee health care and standard of living.

Boatman said she does not read nor send emails and tweets during board meetings.

"I use my laptop at meetings to view the agenda items in order to make motions and to refer to the information provided in the board packet when asking questions or participating in discussion," she said.

Trustee Cheryl McGinnis did not respond to a phone call and email for comment, but said on Facebook The Clarkston News should focus on positive school news.

"After a nearly five hour meeting, the only thing the CN can find to write about is the last 45 minute rant on the superintendent nothing about the fabulous things happening in Clarkston," McGinnis said. "I don't read your paper, at least often. However, I guess I won't know if your printed version this week will highlight the great things reported in Monday's meeting that are going on in the district by our staff and superintendent. So is freedom of speech/Twitter open to everyone or just a few?"

Hyer said he responded to a few work related emails during the meeting.

"I did not send any emails or texts about any board related issues if that is what you are asking," he said.

Readers' reactions to the CNews stories "School board split after 4.5 hour meeting" and "Trustees tweet during meeting" in the April 30 edition were split.

"This is truly an outrage," posted Jane Hoisington on The Clarkston News' Facebook page. According to Facebook numbers, the post was viewed 3,814 times, generating 54 comments, which by a three-to-one margin were against tweeting during a board meeting.

Example's of the comments are:

Vicki Roobol Frame: "Makes me mad. Glad I am fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to private school. I used to believe in Clarkston schools. Now I'm not so confident."

Jon Eastman: "Completely unprofessional and childish. These people are elected officials to represent families in the district (more importantly, the students in the district), they should act like it."

Stacey Cronin Frankovich: "The whole board should be ashamed and embarrassed by all of their behavior. I certainly hope the voters remember this next election. Shame on all of them."

"The real shame is that board members' tweets are apparently the only way the public can get information on board proceedings because not every meeting is being taped and broadcast online," posted Kelli Horst.

Lieblang agreed board meetings should be taped and will place the issue on next week's meeting agenda.

The school board meets at 7 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the school administration building.

As always, meetings are covered in

The Clarkston News, as well as coverage of student programs, achievements and sports.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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