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Wisconsin School Board Attorney Tells Journalist to Stop Recording Public Meeting

A Wisconsin school board attorney told a reporter to turn her recorder off “for the purposes of open discussion” last week.

Luckily, the reporter asserted her right to record a public meeting.

And a citizen in attendance, a former local politician, also stood up for the reporter’s right to record.

And attorney Mary Gerbig didn’t push the matter anymore, allowing Door County Advocate reporter Samantha Hernandez to continuing recording the meeting, which one would think would be encouraged by school board officials rather than discouraged.

After all, what better way to ensure accuracy than to record every word?

But Gerbig, who works for the Davis & Kuelthau law firm, didn’t stop there.

She also refused to release the resignation letter of Kirk Knutson, who resigned from Gibraltar Secondary School under mysterious circumstances last month.

So now it’s evident that Gerbig is either clueless about Constitutional law as well as state public records law or deliberately ignoring both to cover up for her client.

Either scenario is extremely irresponsible as her role should be to prevent the district from liability, not ensure it.

According to the Green Bay Gazette (which apparently owns the Door County Advocate):

The Gibraltar School Board’s business was interrupted briefly Monday evening after the board’s attorney apparently advised President Fred Anderson to ask a Door County Advocate reporter to remove a small recording device from the table and turn it off.

Reporter Samantha Hernandez placed the recorder on the board’s table as the panel was beginning its meeting. Nothing was said about the device for 14 minutes as Anderson introduced attorney Mary Gerbig and conducted other business.

Gerbig, who works with the Green Bay office of the Davis & Kuelthau law firm, advises the board on personnel and open records issues, Anderson said.

As the public comment portion of the meeting was about to begin, Anderson said Gerbig suggested withdrawing the recorder “for purposes of open discussion.”

“I’d like to say that this is a public hearing and I believe that I have a right to record it,” Hernandez said.

“It’s a meeting of the Board of Education, and that it’s the board’s meeting, not a public meeting, these are public comments that are taken by the board (in this) session and that because it is a meeting of the board, there’s not been any previous permission to tape a board meeting,” Gerbig said. “The board can make a decision down the road if the board would like to tape sessions and that may be something that you’d like to have the board consider, but this is a reporter, and at this point I’m just going to ask that she please remove that from the table.”

The exchange drew gasps from the crowd assembled for the meeting, and former Ephraim Village President John Cox stood to say Gerbig’s comments were “inaccurate” with regard to the public’s right to make recordings at open meetings.

“The press and anybody else has a right and it has to be accommodated. It’s quite clear in the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as written by the attorney general,” Cox said. “I’ll stop it there, but you know what the rule is, and I do, too. … Please don’t take us down that road.”

Hernandez did not turn off the recorder, which was used to verify the accuracy of quotes in reporting the meeting.

Meanwhile, the school district on Gerbig’s advice refused to give Hernandez a copy of former principal Kirk Knutson’s resignation letter, which was submitted to the board and unanimously approved during its regular open meeting of Nov. 24.

The letter is one of several items that the Advocate requested Friday in a request for public documents related to Knutson’s departure. Gerbig said the letter was part of the Advocate’s open records request and would be handled when the district responds to the overall request.

 

On her firm’s website, Gerbig is described as the following:

Mary serves as counsel to public and private sector employers on a wide array of human resource issues. She serves as counsel to numerous school districts throughout Wisconsin on general school law issues and matters involving both students and employee such as regular and special education and labor and employment matters. She represents private and public sector employers on labor and employment matters such as contract negotiations, grievance procedures, hiring/terminating employees, family and medical leave laws, Americans with Disabilities Act, harassment and employment discrimination. Wisconsin school districts and the correlating regulatory agencies.

The page goes on to list a multitude of school districts which she represents, so it’s probably not lack of knowledge that prompted her to utter such nonsense.

Meanwhile, Hernandez’s bio on her Twitter account is much shorter:

Award-winning general assignment and education reporter for the Door County Advocate. Community journalism is my passion.

The incident drew the attention of another Wisconsin journalist who operates his own blog, Jonathan Krause, a program director at WOSH Radio in Oshkosh, who runs his own blog called My Two Cents.

While this situation still resulted in the public–through the media–retaining access to the proceedings of their elected officials, it shows the constant battle that reporters have to wage to keep you informed. I’ve got several awards on the walls of the Newsroom for exposing open meetings violations right here in Oshkosh (although the violators were never punished). And the state Court of Appeals found that a Fond du Lac County judge was wrong in banning members of the media from his courtroom for evidentiary hearings–a practice that I had personally objected to on two occasions in separate cases. Our own School Board here in Oshkosh has adopted a practice of holding a private public hearing before its regularly scheduled meetings (making sure not to have a quorum of members present) so that people wishing to address members “aren’t intimidated by the presence of the media (and members can say things off the records as well).

It shouldn’t matter if you are the State Legislature drafting the next two year budget–or the Gibraltar School Board accepting the sudden resignation of a popular principal (the issue the attorney didn’t want recorded in open session), those elected by the people–and the “experts” they hire to advise them–should always be conducting as much business as possible in full view of the public and the press.

Meanwhile, Knutson’s resignation continues to be dealt in a shroud of secrecy. He apparently was a very popular principal who spent 17 years on the job, enough time to know that his resignation letter will be public record, so he should refrain from writing anything he does not want disclosed.

But now inquiring minds want to know. What is it about his resignation that they don’t want revealed?

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