ONTARIO - The Malheur Enterprise is suing the Ontario School Board over its repeated refusal to release documents relating to the censures of Vice Board Chair Eric Evans and former member Derrick Draper.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is representing the Enterprise in that organization’s first Local Legal Initiative case in the state of Oregon. The initiative launched in 2020, aiming to support local newsrooms in their work holding government officials accountable.
“The public has a right to know details about misconduct allegations that led the Ontario School Board to censure several board members for violating its nondiscrimination policy," said Ellen Osoinach, the Oregon attorney for the Reporters Committee.
"The school board's refusal to hand over the records requested by the Enterprise not only violates the state's public records law, it also deprives the public of important information about elected officials' documented abuses of power. We urge the court to order the Ontario School Board to promptly disclose the requested records at no cost to the newspaper," Osoinach said.
The lawsuit presents three times in 2021 when the school board denied records requests from the newspaper regarding complaints filed against school board members and resulting investigations. Evans and Draper were. the subject of a 2019 investigation following allegations of harassment and calls for their resignation from 14 unidentified district administrators.
School Board Chair Renae Corn asked for written questions about the lawsuit and hadn’t responded with answers or a comment by Friday morning.
In March, Ontario School District Superintendent Nikki Albisu complained to the school board about what she said was misconduct by Evans and Draper. In May, Ontario Middle School Principal Lisa Longoria also submitted a complaint against Evans and Draper, adding Board Director Craig Geddes to hers. Last November, Jodi Elizondo, a principal at Ontario High School, had submitted a complaint against Draper.
Concerning these investigations, on April 8 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, contending those documents could be withheld from the public because they related to internal communications.
On April 20, the school board censured Evans and Draper in a public meeting, condemning their conduct. Draper quit during the executive session. The board wouldn’t release any details about Albisu’s complaint or the results of the investigation that led to the extraordinary censure.
Frankel subsequently asked for the record of communications between board members and Albisu. The board denied the request, saying it was doing so to protect personal privacy.
The board also said the documents were protected from public disclosure because they involved communications with the board’s lawyer.
“There’s just clear case law on that and guidance that says, you can't cover up those kind of investigations by hiring an attorney,” Osoinach said. “You can't use an attorney to dodge what you would otherwise be required to release.”
On June 7, Enterprise editor Les Zaitz requested the investigation reports into the complaints made by Albisu and Longoria. At this point, neither the public nor Longoria herself had details of the board’s findings.
The board denied his request, again citing attorney-client privilege.
Zaitz reached out to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for help obtaining access to the records for the community’s benefit.
“The school board put us in this position. We didn’t go looking for a legal fight here,” Zaitz said. “As the newspaper in Malheur County we represent the citizens, we represent the taxpayers. To hold public officials accountable, that is particularly important and our work is to report on their conduct and their investigations as part of our watchdog duty.”
The case will go before a judge in the Malheur County Circuit Court.
Former School Board Chair Mike Blackaby resigned in July of 2020 after board members refused to release the investigative report on Draper and Evans following the allegations in the anonymous letter. The report had been prepared by an attorney, and the school board released the report in full two months later.
Blackaby said he stands by his statement upon resignation that the public should have had access to a copy of the report, and that the school board should be transparent in its voting process.
“Legal advice I’ve been given that I agree with is that the meeting of a school board should be done in public, and not any other time,” Blackaby said.
News tip? Reach reporter Abbey McDonald by email at [email protected]
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