Tommy Coleman’s job as the Dougherty County Board of Education attorney already was on the line: the board recently decided to seek proposals from other firms for legal services.
Now, Coleman is calling his clients a bunch of lawbreakers.
Coleman, who has served as the School Board’s counsel for about 14 years, says the board should release records it is concealing about the two leading candidates for schools superintendent who were bypassed when the board named Dr. Joshua Murfree of Albany State University as the only finalist for the job.
“As facts regarding the decision making have become public,” Coleman said Tuesday in a letter to the School Board, “it is clear that the board has made a decision in a manner contrary to that provided by the Official Code of Georgia.
“It is my strong recommendation that the Board take every step to rectify this violation at the earliest possible time.”
Coleman revealed in the letter that although the board had not taken official action naming three finalists, it had directed the consultant assisting it with the process to notify three candidates that they would be selected finalists if they so desired. Coleman did not address the conflict of interest by board member Anita Williams-Brown who pushed for Murfree to be hired while not disclosing that she has had a business relationship with him through a non-profit arm of the church she pastors in Hawkinsville, Ga.
The board meets at noon today in the school administration building at 200 Pine Ave. Board Chairman David Maschke said there are two agenda items: Coleman’s letter and board member Michael Windom’s request that the 5-2 decision to name Murfree a finalist be rescinded.
The board, meanwhile, still must decide whether to follow through on its previously stated assurance to the public that Murfree and any other finalists that might be selected be presented in a forum with citizens before the board hires a superintendent.
The board was prodding through the long process of culling through 37 applicants, interviewing an undisclosed number of them behind closed doors, when it hastily decided last week to select Murfree as its only finalist. The board would then be able to hire Murfree 14 days, according to state law. The vote was five (Williams-Brown, Vice Chairman James Bush, Velvet Riggins, Milton “June Bug” Griffin and Michael Windom) to two (Chairman David Maschke and Emily Jean McAfee).
“I believe that the board has a responsibility to the public and the system employees and the students to properly complete the selection process,” Maschke said Tuesday, “and to allow us the opportunity to introduce the selected finalists or finalist to the public in order to engage the public because it’s such a significant community decision.”
According to an objective ranking of the candidates by the Georgia School Board Association, which the Dougherty County system paid $8,000 to help identify and hire a superintendent, Murfree ranked 34th of the 37th candidates. The association based its assessment on criteria established the School Board.
Board members who were contacted by the Journal this week refused to divulge information about the candidates, including the number that were interviewed.. Murfree, Bush, Williams, Riggins and Griffin did not respond to e-mail requests for interviews or answer telephone calls.
Maschke said he doesn’t fully understand Coleman’s conclusion that the board violated the state open records law and that he looks forward to getting “more information and less legalese” from the attorney Wednesday.
“If I understand it right, it is his assessment that he thinks that we violated the law — not necessarily intentionally, but that’s what his opinion is,” Maschke said. “It certainly is important coming from the School Board attorney and we need to fully understand and comprehend what it is that he is saying. I’m waiting for the balance of the explanation, which will be coming at the meeting tomorrow. I’m going to listen very carefully tomorrow.”
Responding to a question, Maschke said that he hopes to have an opportunity to learn more about Murfree because “I don’t really know all that much about him as a candidate because we never got to the second round of interviews.”
“The second round of interviews were going to be longer (than the one-hour initial interviews),” Maschke said. “They were going to be longer interviews with more direct and specific questioning” on topics such as how existing personnel would be affected by a new administration and the candidates’ views on the relationship between board members and the superintendent.
Maschke said that more than three candidates would interviewed, but he refused to say how those candidates were selected. He also wouldn’t reveal the outcome of the calls made to two candidates who had been deemed to be among the top candidates who had been interviewed and that they may be selected as finalists.
“It’s my understanding of the process led by the Georgia School Board Association that that’s something we’re not supposed to discuss,” he said.
Following is the full text of the letter to the School Board from Coleman, Albany’s former mayor and a partner in the firm Perry & Walters:
“Ladies and Gentlemen: As you know, there has been a great deal of discussion in the community and in the press regarding the Board’s decision to name only one finalist for the position of Superintendent of the Dougherty County School System. The Board has received a number of requests for documents utilized by the Board in making this decision. Among the requests you have received are the ‘three finalists’ for the position. After careful consideration of Georgia Law, and a great deal of thought and consultation with other attorneys, it is my opinion that the Board must release information with as many as three positions of those persons the Board feels are most qualified to hold this position. It is my opinion that the Board’s action to designate only one finalist at the meeting of last Wednesday violates Article 4 of Chapter 18 of Title 50 of the Official Code of Georgia.
O.C.G.A. 50-18-72(a)(7) provides in part that before a final vote is taken to fill the position of an executive head of an agency, the agency shall “release all documents which came into its possession with respect to as many as three persons under consideration whom the agency has determined to be the best qualified for the position and from among whom the agency intends to fill the position.” These names must be released at least 14 calendar days prior to a final vote. Prior to the release of any names, the agency may allow such a candidate to decline from further consideration rather than have the documents pertaining to that person released. The code further provides that in that event the agency shall release the documents of the next most qualified person who does not decline the position. If an agency has conducted its hiring and appointment process in public, the delay of 14 days is not required.
You will note that the code section does not provide for the designation of finalists. It provides for the release of documents of as many as three candidates who the Board determines to be the most qualified to hold the position. While I was not present n the executive sessions regarding the selection process, it would appear that from press reports that at least two other Board members have indicated that there were other ‘finalists.’ In addition, it is my understanding that the GSBA representative who conducted this search was asked to, and in fact did, call three individuals that were under consideration, to notify them that they could possibly become a finalist and offering an opportunity to withdraw prior to disclosure to the press and public. These facts would clearly lead one to believe that the individual designated was not the only one among the 37 candidates qualified to hold the position of School Superintendent. Consequently, others should have been released who were determined to be qualified prior to the selection of the Superintendent.
To my knowledge, this section of the Open Records Act has not been litigated. The phrase ‘as many as three’ is at best ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. There is no question that this portion of the statue is inartfully drawn. However, should you read the statute in its entirety and review the entire process, it is clear that the General Assembly meant for agencies to release those persons who the Board determines to be the most qualified to hold the position and from whom an agency intended to make its selection. The statute goes on to describe a process for replacement of a qualified person who declines to have their information released by the next most qualified person. Of course, none of this would have applied if the Board had elected to conduct the search in public in which all information about all candidates would be subject to public disclosure.
As discussed previously, there has been no litigation regarding this portion of the Act. However, the Courts have repeatedly held that the Act would be liberally construed in favor of public documents. It has been the Court’s position that the public has the right to inspect those documents that are in the public’s interest. Clearly, the Court would find that the naming of a Superintendent of the Dougherty County School System was in the public interest.
Violation of the Open Records Act can be enforced against persons or agencies having the custody of the records. In addition, the Attorney General has the authority to bring either criminal or civil action. Violation of this act is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of $100.
Not having been privy to the decision making of the Board it has proven difficult to determine what actually occurred and under what circumstances. However, as facts regarding the decision making have become public, it is clear that the Board has made a decision in a manner contrary to that provided by the Official Code of Georgia. It is my strong recommendation that the Board take every step to rectify this violation at the earliest possible time.
As always, I am available to assist the Board in their attempt to correct this matter should they choose to do so.”
By Kevin Hogencamp