The consultant had started the session with an uncontroversial statement: “Remember, as always, we are in the sunshine,” April Griffin, the leadership consultant with the Florida School Board Association, told the five members of the Flagler County School Board as they began their day-long training session this morning. “And what that means is that, although it’s cloudy outside is sunshine in here.”
Griffin had no idea.
Fifty minutes into the training session–50 minutes that included bitter discord and at times personal rancor between board members as they debated the fallout of their disorderly Aug. 17 board meeting and related issues–the board attorney, then two board members, attempted, in violation of law, to bar any recording of the meeting.
Even for a school board that has become increasingly unpredictable, it was an unprecedented and unexpected attempt to constrain audience and media rights at a public, government meeting controlled by Florida’s open-meeting law.
“At this time, if you’re recording this meeting, please refrain from recording,” School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said. “This is a retreat. This is a board meeting and there is not an agreement to be recorded. This is not a public meeting, or hearing. So I do need to request that if you are recording this meeting that it ceases.”
“Aren’t we working in the sunshine?” Board member Janet McDonald asked.
“We are working in the sunshine, but this is a retreat being held,” Gavin said. “There are no decisions being made by this board at this retreat. This is a master board training for this board to learn and grow. And this is her program. And so I don’t know if you have given permission for the recording of your training.”
Gavin was addressing Griffin, whom the board had retained to provide what it calls “master board training,” periodic, day-long sessions designed to help governing boards work more effectively and collegially. (The school board has been working effectively, largely because it’s given Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, a Metternich at balancing the board’s warheads, wide berth. But the board has not been working collegially.)
“This is your call, not my call,” Griffin told the school board members.
Actually, it was neither Griffin’s call, nor the board members’–nor even Gavin’s, but that of Florida law, which is unambiguous on that score: public meetings are open to the public, with recordings allowed, without permission, disclosure or restrictions. The law makes no distinctions between workshops, business meetings, or “board retreats” (a conceit that gives workshops a different name). It makes no distinction between meetings where votes are or aren’t taken.
Gavin’s statement and request was a surprise, and may have been prompted by one of the people in the room broadcasting live video of the meeting on a social media platform–also protected by law.
Other than the board members, the superintendent, the attorney and Griffin, there were just three people in the room, including a reporter. (The audience doubled in the afternoon.) All three, it appeared, were recording the meeting, either with voice alone or with video. (The reporter was recording audio.) One of the three was chummy with McDonald, which may explain why McDonald initially spoke up about Sunshine. But when the reporter objected to Gavin’s request, and said the recording would not be turned off, McDonald shifted and sought to have recordings barred.
“This is a board retreat,” Gavin said. “Essentially, it is in the sunshine, I completely agree. And we have allowed you to be in here. And we are very happy that everyone is here. However, we are in the sunshine. But this is a training, and we’re going to continue to be unfettered and full. Whatever you see is going to be what you see as far as our behaviors are demeanors, etc. But sometimes, recordings of meetings, especially when it’s a training, can end up being stifled when there’s recordings. So if the board is willing to allow the recordings to go on–”
Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the board, quickly polled the board members: “You don’t care?” he asked Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin in turn. Neither cared that the meeting was recorded. Tucker, uncommitted, didn’t mind one way or the other.
“It should be unanimous,” McDonald jumped in–again, inappropriately: not for the first time, she was making up rules as she went. “Jill, do you mind?” she asked Board member Jill Woolbright.
“I do mind,” Woolbright said.
“I would not want it to be used inappropriately,” McDonald said of recordings, “because sometimes our media in the county is, it’s very–
“It’s very slanted,” Woolbright said.
“Slanted,” McDonald agreed, pushing for the ban.
When Tucker asked for a yes or no response only, Woolbright and McDonald both said no.
Absent a citation of law allowing the ban, however, the reporter was not turning off the recording. (Florida law requires a government agency to cite the relevant section of law whenever an exception to open-records or open-meeting laws is invoked.)
“And this is what we deal with all the time,” a despairing McDonald said.
It was an astounding display of contempt for the Sunshine law by the board members, none of whom–including those who said they didn’t “care” if the meeting was recorded–spoke in defense of openness and the public’s rights.
The attorney exited the room to research the matter.
Without skipping a beat, the consultant resumed the session: “The most important thing to remember when talking about civility in the way that you react is that no matter what everybody else does, you have the power to choose how you respond,” Griffin said. She talked about the golden rule, went on at length about forgiveness, communication, and the discussion again veered back to debating the Aug. 17 meeting, which Gavin and the board had recessed (there’s disagreement over who specifically recessed the meeting) when Gavin, the board’s parliamentarian, deemed the crowd was becoming rude toward speakers.
The session seemed to be going along when Woolbright interrupted: “Excuse me. So anybody can stop a meeting, right? Because we still have recording going on,” Woolbright said. “We just voted to go against what our school board attorney said, because she’s telling the recorders that they are not to record. But now we decide that we don’t care. And so I really want the meeting to stop until legally whether these people are going to record or not.”
The session recessed. Griffin continued speaking informally, about the national tenor of conversations becoming more bitter–and about her job. “My job is to help them get better,” Griffin said of the board members. “And if they need to talk about things that they’re not wanting to talk about, because you’re recording, then you’re hurting my job.”
“So that’s part of the template on which we’re operating,” McDonald said. “The incivility in the public airspace is so consistently vile, and one-sided, and so not only do we have individuals who are using their own media, but our local media is cloaked without balance, with one perspective, or by blogs, by weeklies, by the daily paper.”
The recess was called for five minutes. It lasted 28 minutes. Gavin had placed a call to Pat Gleason, the Attorney General’s Special Counsel for Open Government.
The recordings could not be barred, Gleason told her.
Gavin, explaining the situation to the board, said her “primary concern” had been the Florida School Board Association’s trademarked presentation, and that there could be copyright infringements if the presentation was somehow retransmitted without permission from the FSBA. (The FSBA consultant had raised no such objections, and no reporting about the FSBA’s materials would be a violation, as the material is used in the context of public officials’ duties.)
In sum, Gleason said the meeting–and the recordings–could go forward. If FSBA had an issue with its materials being somehow disseminated against copyright, it could take action then, Gavin said.
But there was nothing in law allowing either the consultant, the attorney or the school board members to prevent recordings.
The training session was scheduled to last until 5 p.m., with an interruption for lunch and a special 2 p.m. meeting to ratify financial decisions. The training session resumed around 2:30 p.m., starting with several more angry flare-ups between board members, especially between Colleen Conklin and McDonald, and to a lesser extent involving Cheryl Massaro and Woolbright as long-running tensions, controlled at regular workshops or meetings, bubbled over again and again. Tucker, as usual, sat back, bemused.
By 4 p.m., the board members, steered by Griffin in Oprah mode, had lowered the decibels and become less confrontational, more confessional, more revealing of personal hurts and slights, as when Woolbright spoke of the insulting emails she’s been getting about her position on masks (she’s opposed a masking mandate). “We have to have each other’s backs,” she told her fellow-board members.
Griffin, who’d already and repeatedly made the point that divided boards are more the rule than the norm across the state, had earlier described a recent case: “There was a school board in Florida–I don’t remember how long ago–that was just at each other from the dias, and being uncivil, disrespectful, just total–blaahh,” Griffin recalled. “And they had a student, a middle school student, come and read their civility policy to them in the meeting, and said, ‘This is how you expect me to behave in school. This is what we expect of you.’ Just think about that for a second. So it’s respect, restraint, and responsibility.”
Toward the law especially.