ONTARIO – The Ontario School Board will pay the Malheur Enterprise more than $1,000 to settle a significant local public records case that began more than a year ago when elected leaders sought to keep key information secret.
Under the terms of the June 6 agreement, the board agreed to release all documents connected to internal investigations into board member Eric Evans and former board member Derrick Draper. The agreement stems from three separate attempts by the newspaper to gather records regarding complaints filed by Nikki Albisu, Ontario School District superintendent, Jodi Elizondo, Ontario High School principal and Lisa Longoria, Ontario Middle School principal against Draper and Evans in 2021.
Evans and Draper were the focus of a 2019 probe in the wake of a series of allegations of harassment and calls for Evans and Draper’s resignation from 14 unidentified district administrators.
The settlement covers the Enterprise’s legal expenses in pursuing the public documents.
The legal skirmish began in April 2021, when Enterprise reporter Liliana Frankel requested all complaints made in the past year against the board and its members on the grounds that the documents were in the public’s interest. The school board denied the request, asserting those documents could be withheld from the public because they related to internal communications.
Twelve days later, the board censured Evans and Draper in a public meeting. Draper then abruptly quit. The board declined to release any details about Albisu’s complaint or the results of the investigation that triggered the censure of Evans and Draper.
Frankel then requested records of communication between board members and Albisu. The board denied the request, asserting it did so to protect personal privacy. The school board also asserted the documents were protected from public disclosure because they involved communications with the board’s attorney.
In June, Enterprise editor and publisher Les Zaitz requested the investigation reports into the complaints issued by Albisu and Longoria. The board denied his request and again cited attorney-client privilege.
Later that same month, the Enterprise sued the school board in Malheur County Circuit Court for the release of the documents outlining the investigation into the complaints against Draper and Evans.
The newspaper was represented by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as part of its first Local Legal Initiative case in the state.
“We pursued this case because keeping government accountable to the public matters is our duty,” Zaitz said. “It should not take a lawsuit and legal costs to obtain information that belongs to the citizens, not the government.”
Because of the lawsuit, the school board released some, but not all, of the documents regarding the case in November, 2021.
Those documents revealed Albisu, Elizondo and Longoria felt they endured bullying and discrimination by school board members. The November document release added crucial context to the clash between Draper, Evans and the three district administrators.
The board, though, refused to disclose the reports of the Evans and Draper complaint investigation. In court filings the board asserted those documents were protected by attorney-client privilege.
“Throughout this process the board has followed the recommendations of our legal counsel. I believe that that is the best approach for a board in these situations. The Ontario School Board is striving to put issues of the past behind us so we can move forward and focus on the many positive things happening now and in the future,” said Craig Geddes, chairman of the Ontario School Board.
“The public now has a much better understanding of how the Ontario School District addressed serious misconduct allegations against its elected board members, all because the Malheur Enterprise fought for access to these records,” said Ellen Osoinach, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative staff attorney.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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