Public record lawsuit results in legal victory in Blackfoot

By Nate Sunderland

The Post Register’s recent legal victory against Blackfoot School District 55 was a tribute to the strength of Idaho’s sunshine laws and transparency in government. At the heart of the story was a nearly $220,000 payout from District 55 to former Superintendent Scott Crane – a deal struck during an illegal executive session.

While the discovery was satisfying; the victory wasn’t complete. In fact, the bigger truth was lost when the board, on the advice of its attorney and under threat of a lawsuit from the former superintendent, reaffirmed the questionable deal and refused to discuss its reasons for agreeing to part ways with the superintendent and pay him off with taxpayers’ funds.

Scott Crane’s abrupt retirement

It was no secret that the Blackfoot school board and Crane didn’t get along. The deteriorating relationship was a frequent on-background topic discussed by district staff. Still, it came as a surprise when, in January 2012, the board voted 3-2 not to renew Crane’s contract for a third year.

The board’s explanation was vague and filled with references about employee confidentiality. Publicly, board members denied any displeasure with Crane.

On April 24, Crane unexpectedly announced his retirement. He denied that he was forced out by the board. Instead, Crane said he wanted to move on, collect his pension and take a superintendent job in Moab, Utah.

Board members also denied forcing Crane to retire. They expressed shock at the announcement. It was obvious more was going on but no one wanted to talk about it. The story might have ended here if not for the actions of substitute teacher Joyce Bingham.

Payout contract

Bingham heard rumors that Crane received a large payout to leave. She questioned the board and was rebuffed.

“I was told it was (a) personnel (issue) and that it would not be discussed and that I needed to not ask any more questions about it,” Bingham said.

Her unease grew, when, by chance, she discovered a $105,428 contract payment made to an anonymous source while reviewing the district’s July 2012 budget. That payment was made the day after Crane left office.

Bingham requested a copy of the contract and was refused because it was a “personnel issue.”

Continued rumors caught the attention of local news media, including the Post Register.

The newspaper began reviewing budgets, meeting minutes and making numerous records requests. The April 24 minutes showed the board made an agreement with “Employee B-2012” during an 8-minute executive session.

Not so coincidentally, that was the same date Crane announced his retirement.

A majority of document requests filed by local media were denied; the board cited personnel issues. Eventually, on the recommendation of its attorney, District 55 confirmed that Employee B-2012 was Crane. District officials, board members and Crane refused to discuss the agreement, however.

While we had no direct evidence, Bingham and the Post Register began acting on the assumption that the Crane agreement and the $105,428 contract payment were related.

Open meeting violations

Convinced the Crane agreement was public record, Bingham put her money and reputation on the line by suing to force the district to reveal the document. The Post Register, working closely with Bingham, joined the lawsuit shortly after.

“Too many members of governing bodies in Idaho are either ignorant of our sunshine laws or simply flout them, and when our information requests for corrective action go unheeded we have no choice but to seek a court mandate,” Post Register Publisher Roger Plothow said.

The Post Register also sent District 55 notice of its belief that the board violated open meeting laws by making an agreement with Crane during an executive session.

The lawsuit was an unqualified success. Sixth District Judge David Nye determined the contract was not a personnel record and ordered its release within three days. He ruled that a clause inserted into the contract stating that it would be placed into Crane’s personnel file and not disclosed under the public records law was invalid, and that inserting such a clause can’t make what was clearly a public record somehow fit under the personnel records exemption.

“Everything about this case smacks of a public agency trying to hide its decision-making from the public,” Nye wrote in his December ruling.

The released separation agreement stipulated Crane receive nearly $220,000 for the remainder of his contract. The document contained instructions to be hidden in Crane’s personnel file and included a nondisclosure clause preventing Crane or the board from discussing it.

After the judge issued his ruling, the board called a special meeting.

At that meeting, district attorney Dale Storer admitted the board violated opening meeting laws during the April 24 executive session. The board also admitted a violation March 13, when, according to Storer, Crane first outlined his separation agreement. The violations occurred because neither of the executive sessions had been called to discuss Crane’s retirement.

“After consulting with our legal counsel, we find that we did err …and got into a discussion that we shouldn’t have had,” board Chairman Scott Reese said in December.

As per Idaho Code 67-2347(1), Reese declared his intention to “cure” the infringement by “declaring that all actions taken at or resulting from the meeting in violation … (are) void.” The board was given a month to void the contract or reinstate it during an open meeting.

District officials, the board and Crane still refused to discuss specific reasons for the contract. The board did, however, stand by its decision to create the contract.

Aftermath: Recalls, resignation

The revelation that District 55 paid its former superintendent $220,000 to retire, and then hid the evidence, caused massive public outcry in Blackfoot. Dozens of angry residents spoke at board meetings demanding an explanation. But residents never received one.

During a January board meeting, Crane’s attorney’s made it clear that if the board voided the separation agreement or revealed the circumstances leading up to the agreement, Crane would sue the district for breach of contract.

Trustee Taylor Johansen took a stand and argued the public had a right to know why the district agreed to the contract.

Johansen implied Crane forced the district into the agreement by threatening a lawsuit if they did not agree. A payout was cheaper than a lawsuit, he said. Johansen refused to elaborate on the Crane’s threat without the permission of legal counsel.

Amy White, the district’s interim attorney, advised the board that since the action regarding the open meeting violation wasn’t commenced within 30 days, the contract wasn’t automatically voided. “The Idaho Supreme Court … has held that unless an action, which is in violation of an open meeting act, is challenged in 30 days, the action is valid and stands,” White said in January.

She recommended the board not discuss its reasons for the contract. The board voted to reaffirm the separation agreement as legally binding and announced the matter was closed.

It was a frustrating end. Nothing in the Open Meeting Law prevented the board from explaining its actions or choosing not to reaffirm the contract. Still, a limit longer than 30 days to challenge illegal closed meetings would allow more recourse and review.

We may never know why the board agreed to the contract, but the board’s actions did have consequences.  Recall efforts recently were initiated, two board members resigned and another has opted not to run for reelection.

The remaining board members will stand for election in May.

Nate Sunderland is a reporter for the Idaho Falls Post Register who covered the Blackfoot School District story.