Inside Report for Feb. 6, 2013

The question of whether the Iberville Parish School Board recently violated the state’s Open Meetings Law is now before the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

Laura Gerdes-Colligan, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, confirmed via email Thursday the office had received a complaint from School Board member Darlene Ourso but could not comment further on the matter.

Ourso said she filed the complaint Jan. 24 despite being told by Iberville Parish’s Assistant District Attorney Scott Stassi the board hadn’t violated the Open Meetings Law when it approved a new 13-member redistricting plan.

Ourso accused certain board members of trying to circumvent the law, based on text messages she received, and presented to the board Dec. 17, from fellow board member Tom Delahaye.

In the text messages, Delahaye claimed he had the eight votes he needed from the 15-member board to approve a new redistricting plan that would make it tougher for Ourso to get re-elected.

The state’s Open Meetings Law prohibits proxy voting, straw polls or telephone polls.

“As long as (straw polls) don’t replace voting at a meeting, it is OK,” Stassi said Sunday.

During the board’s Jan. 14 meeting, Stassi noted his office could not prove that a majority of the board had met in secret and made a “binding decision” regarding the redistricting plan.

“I took it upon myself to contact most of you, (and) no one said they participated in a meeting outside of this body,” Stassi said at the meeting.

“Did you think that was going to actually happen?” board member Dorothy Sansoni interjected. “You think I’m going to incriminate myself by saying, ‘Yes, I was one of the eight?’ ”

“I wouldn’t think you would,” Stassi replied. “But if someone would give me one slither of information that there was such a meeting, I would push forward.”

Stassi said the board would have violated the law if a majority had met and made a decision about the redistricting plan without bringing it up for public discussion at a regular meeting.

Stassi used a 2007 case — Mabry v. Union Parish School Board — to support his argument. In that lawsuit, Judy Mabry, then the school superintendent, accused the school board of violating the Open Meetings Law when it decided not to renew her contract.

Mabry alleged board members had met in private and made their decision without public deliberation.

In its 2007 decision, upheld on appeal, the 3rd Judicial District Court ruled Mabry failed to prove the School Board had violated the law because the evidence showed only casual conversations had taken place between board members about her employment contract before it was discussed and voted on by the full board.

Stassi also said casual conversations among board members do not necessarily solidify votes; board members have the right to change their minds when votes are tallied.

The Iberville School Board approved the redistricting plan on a 10-3 vote. Delahaye has said he had assumed there would be enough votes to approve the plan based on observations he made at a previous meeting.

“There is no blatant violation of the straw poll issue if you call people and ask how they feel about a certain issue because they still have to come before this board and vote,” Stassi told the board. “(The redistricting plan) was publicly discussed and you voted and the 13-member map carried the day.”

The issue before the Attorney General’s Office, which can issue only advice, not a binding decision, is whether such straw votes are legal.

Westside bureau chief Terry L. Jones covers Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes. His email address is tjones@theadvocate.com.