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Council members respond to 'open door' violations

BY CHELSEA BOULRISSE - cboulrisse@wabashplaindealer.com

The Wabash City Council is seeking to right its wrongs after concerns arose last week about the transparency of the council in regards to interviewing candidates for the Wabash City School (WCS) Board of Trustees.

After interviewing all six candidates for the two open board seats last Tuesday, it was determined that the City Council’s proceedings were a violation of open door policy, according to the Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt.

“They reduced the applicant pool down to just two final candidates in executive session,” Britt explained. “By statute, they can’t do that. They have to hold interviews and make those decisions in public. They can narrow down applicants pool to a certain extent, but they can’t hold those decision or interviews behind closed doors.”

Council member Eric Schoening was apologetic during an interview with the Plain Dealer on Wednesday, stating that he is still relatively new to the City Council and that he was unaware that the meeting was a violation of the State’s open door law because the Council has conducted school board interviews this way for decades.

“I’m sorry we did it,” Schoening said. “In regards to what we have done in the past, as far as I knew, that was normal procedure. I was just as surprised as a lot of people were.”

Council member Bryan Dillon, who has held a City Council seat for 10 years, advised the Plain Dealer that for as long as he knew, school board interviews had always been conducted this way. When it was determined that these proceeding were in fact a violation of open door policy, Dillon admitted he and other council members were “caught off guard.”

“We didn’t think we were doing anything secret, it was just part of one of our annual duties,” Dillon said. “We’ve always done it this way and it has worked, but on the other side if we’re doing it wrong I don’t want to continue to do it wrong.”

The Council will not be required to hold interviews a second time, but Britt recommended that the Council take time during its next meeting on Monday to explain why Tony Pulley and Rob Kelscheimer were selected as the finalists for the two open seats. The Council will need to vote again, this time in public, for the appointments to be valid. Britt recommended that the Council aim for more transparency moving forward, which in practice means that school board appointment interviews should be held in public.

The WCS board is one of only a few appointed school boards in the state and the only one in the county. Although many school corporations have opted for an elected board, some members of the City Council still see value in appointing board members here.

Dillon, for example, believes that a non-elected board “takes the politics out” of the position. He explained that, for him, a candidate’s passion or agenda becomes obvious during the course of a one-on-one interview.

Still others believe that appointing school board members makes the process less intimidating.

“I believe we have some quality people out there that would not run in an election,” Council President Doug Adams said. “We’ve had quality people on our board and I don’t know if they would have run (if it was an elected position.)”