CEDAR CITY — The Iron County School District has agreed to open the final Cedar High Mascot Committee meeting to the public after encountering some pressure from the public and local media to do so.
The committee was organized by district and school administrators to make recommendations to the school board on changing the Cedar High School “Redmen” mascot, a polarizing and controversial issue that has drawn widespread attention.
The issue of whether the committee meetings were subject to the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act recently came about after several citizens voiced concerns to the press that they believed the school district may possibly be violating the Act by allowing the committee to hold closed-door meetings away from public scrutiny.
Committee members have met on two previous occasions in private meetings to discuss the issue. They also plan to meet for a final meeting Tuesday night – which will now be open to the public – in order to discuss the issue further and to vote on what recommendations will be sent to the school board.
The meetings thus far have not been made public, nor is the district releasing all the names of committee members, including six students the district says need to remain anonymous, citing privacy concerns.
In addition to the closed committee meetings, the district held two public hearings on the issue in December, where more than 500 people filled Cedar High School’s auditorium. They also plan to hold another one Monday at 6 p.m. before the final committee meeting on Tuesday.
On Thursday night, Director of Secondary Education, Rich Nielsen, sent a text to St. George News stating the district’s intent to open the meeting.
“In an effort to save taxpayer dollars, and hopefully not at the expense of student involvement in the process, we are opening the committee meeting,” Nielsen stated.
The district’s decision came after attorneys with Parr Brown, a Salt Lake-based law firm known for their long-time efforts and work with the press, wrote a letter on behalf of St. George News reporter Tracie Sullivan to the school district’s attorney, Blake Ostler.
Attorneys David Ryman and Jeremy Brodis stated in their letter that the committee was considered a public body under the law and therefore subject to the Open and Public Meetings Act that would require the district to publicize the meetings and allow the public to attend.
However, according to a text from Nielsen, Ostler told the district the committee was not considered a public body and therefore did not have to follow the Act.
“The committee does not have any legislative or operational authority,” Ostler said, according to Nielsen. “It does not expend funds. It only makes recommendations and so there is no ‘meeting’ under the Act.”
Attorneys at Parr Brown believed otherwise, arguing that the committee did in fact, constitute a “public body” as defined by law as it was created under the authority of the school board who delegated its organization and oversight to Nielsen.
“The School Board cannot evade its transparency requirements by creating a sub-body, like the Cedar High Mascot Advisory Committee, to meet in private,” Brodis stated in his argument. “To the contrary, whenever that body convenes to discuss, receive comments from the public about, or act upon a matter over which it has advisory authority, it must comply with the Act.”
Brodis said in his letter that under the Act, a meeting is defined as “the convening of a public body including a workshop or executive session … for the purpose of discussing, receiving comments from the public about, or acting upon a matter over which the public body … has jurisdiction or advisory power.”
As such, the letter continued, the Act defines a “public body” as “any administrative, advisory, executive, or legislative body of the state or its political subdivisions that: (A) is created by the Utah Constitution, statute, rule, ordinance, or resolution; (B) consists of two or more persons; (C) expends, disburses, or is supported in whole or in part by tax revenue; and (D) is vested with the authority to make decisions regarding the public’s business.”
“By it’s plain terms,” Brodis wrote, “the Act is not limited to bodies that ‘expend funds,’ as your communication claims. Rather, any body that has advisory authority and that derives its authority from an entity that is created by state law is subject to the Act.”
During an interview for this story, Brodis said he did not want to subscribe intent to the district by stating they were holding “secret meetings” in an attempt to circumvent the law.
“We’re not saying this was done intentionally,” he said. “One way to look at this is, that these types of meetings are a balancing act between encouraging candor and still being accountable to the public, which oftentimes those two things are at odds. But the legislature has spoken and has said candor does not outweigh public involvement and by just delegating the responsibility to a committee does not get them out from underneath the law. Public issues must be decided in a public way.”
A letter from Parr Brown was also sent to Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson outlining the same arguments. The firm also requested Dotson enforce the law as the same statute tasks him with the responsibility to do so. Dotson did not have an opportunity to respond to the letter before the district made a decision to open the meeting.
Following the letter from Parr Brown, Nielsen and St. George News engaged in several conversations about how to move forward. At that time, Nielsen expressed a desire to open this last meeting, in part to help squash the many rumors surrounding this issue, including that the question of whether to change the mascot is already a foregone conclusion.
For the district, the issue of public access largely comes down to the privacy of the students and protecting them from any backlash that may result as a part of this process.
In order to maintain the students’ privacy while still trying to find a way to open the meeting for scrutiny, Nielsen proposed the idea that maybe the press alone be allowed to attend the meeting. Attorneys from Parr Brown, however, both felt this type of arrangement would defeat the purpose of the letter.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Paul Dail agreed with the attorneys, saying it was important the press maintain their integrity of the process by declining the proposed compromise.
“I think in a time when the credibility of journalists is at question and the press is under attack, it is even more imperative that we avoid the appearance of striking a deal that would give us exclusive access while continuing to push the public out of the process,” Dail said.
“The Act was not written for government to try and find a way to circumvent the process but instead to encourage transparency. It was also not written for the press but for the public. To accept the proposed compromise, we would be guilty of circumventing the very law that we, as the press, have been tasked to insure government follows.”
While not within the scope of their responsibilities, St. George News did attempt to address the issue of students’ privacy with the district while also pushing for a transparent process by proposing some possible solutions. One included separating the students into their own committee meeting. Another suggestion was to use technology to allow the students to participate without being in the same room as other committee members.
Nielsen, however, felt it was important for the students to participate in the meeting itself in order to facilitate dialogue. Nor did he want to separate the students into their own private committee, as he felt it was important for the students to engage with the adults.
Dail said he recognized the concerns of the district for the students but also that the changing of the mascot is a controversial and polarizing issue in the community, and he called the situation previous to the district’s decision to open the meeting “an impasse.”
“At the end of the day, it’s our job to challenge any government agency we believe is in violation of the Open and Public Meetings Act,” Dail said. “There is a great deal at stake with this issue. We feel strongly that it’s in the best interest of the district and the public for the process to be as transparent as possible.”
Following the announcement Thursday night, Dail said he was glad the district came to this decision and believed it will be better in the long run, although it may make some uncomfortable.
“These committee members have been tasked with a very difficult decision,” he said. “I hope the public – including these students’ peers – understands that and will respect whatever they decide to do.”
The committee meeting will be held Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 4 p.m. at the Iron County School District office, located at 2077 W Royal Hunte Drive. The last public hearing will be held the night before at 6 p.m. at Cedar High School.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.