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Woman wants school board fined for how it handled meeting that ended in ‘chaos’

By Ryan Patterson

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    BURLINGTON, Wisconsin (The Journal Times) — A Burlington woman has filed a complaint alleging that the Burlington Area School District board violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law in August.

The complaint, which was filed with Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson, alleges that the BASD board acted improperly in two ways during an Aug. 9, 2021, meeting that ended in “chaos.”

By moving its meeting to an undisclosed location that it did not provide advance notice of, and

By having that portion of the meeting unavailable to the public.

The Wisconsin Transparency Project law firm filed the complaint June 2 on behalf of Burlington parent Adrianne Melby, whose husband, Aaron Melby, unsuccessfully ran for BASD School Board in April.

Hanson confirmed that her office received the complaint. She declined to comment further.

The Racine County District Attorney’s Office has 20 days to investigate the civil complaint and potentially bring charges. If it is determined that the Burlington Area School Board violated the law, each of the seven board members could be fined up to $300. If charges are brought, they would not affect any action the board took during last August’s meeting.

Tom Kamenick, president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, filed the complaint. He told The Journal Times that Adrianne Melby hopes BASD board members are fined and that more people become aware of the importance of following open meetings laws.

“The more attention people pay, the more we expect that government officials will pay better attention to their legal duties,” Kamenick said.

Burlington school officials could not be reached for comment.

Peter Turke, BASD Board President, said he was not aware of the complaint when contacted Monday by The Journal Times.

“I don’t have any knowledge of that complaint, so it’s news to me,” Turke said.

Turke said the Racine County District Attorney’s Office had not contacted him about the complaint. If he was contacted, Turke said he would consult with an attorney and then cooperate with Hanson’s office. Turke said he believes that the board’s actions on Aug. 9, 2021, were lawful.

The Aug. 9, 2021 meeting began in the Burlington High School auditorium. For about an hour, the board heard public comments related to a potential face mask requirement to start the 2021-22 school year. All public commenters voiced opposition to a mask requirement.

During public comments, Turke on several occasions asked public attendees to quiet down so the board could hear speakers and so the meeting could proceed from one speaker to the next. Eventually, the board passed a motion to suspend public comments as attendees continued to yell.

The board was unable to regain control.

When he was briefly able to be heard speaking, in an effort to resume the meeting’s regularly scheduled business, Turke said, “We cannot do so … if we have chaos. This is not working for us.”

A man in the audience grabbed a standing microphone and yelled while pointing at Turke, “We are going to take over this board right now!”

While the board attempted to ask for the meeting to be recessed, many attendees refused to leave and continued to shout at the board members. The board then adjourned to a different, undisclosed meeting location within the building. Board members initially said they were moving to the school library, but parents found the library empty a few minutes later.

Police officers prevented members of the public from attending the meeting in-person at the new location.

“The Board misled the public into believing the meeting would continue in the library,” the complaint reads. “The Board posted police officers between members of the public and the location where they were meeting and instructed the police officers to prevent the public from attending its meeting.”

It was the second time in just nine months that police were called to intervene in a BASD board meeting, following a similar situation in which demonstrators demanding more anti-racism curriculum in Burlington schools shut down a meeting on Nov. 9, 2020.

Both meetings shut down by protesters were tense but ended without violence. The Journal Times is unaware of any open meetings complaints being filed related to the November 2020 meeting.

On Aug. 9, 2021, the school board met in the undisclosed room for about six minutes. That portion of the board meeting was livestreamed online before the board adjourned.

“The undisclosed classroom was not reasonably accessible to the public,” the complaint reads. “The undisclosed classroom was not open to all citizens at all times … None of the audience members without immediate access to a good internet signal would have been able to watch the online stream. By intentionally excluding the public from attending the meeting in the undisclosed classroom, the Board did not hold that portion of its meeting in open session and therefore violated (state law).”

After the Aug. 9 meeting, the Melbys and about a dozen others formed an alternative “school board” in the cafeteria, electing Aaron Melby as chairman before fading in the following weeks.

In a release from the Wisconsin Transparency Project, Adrianne Melby said she filed the complaint because “parents and community members have been demonized for attending a school board meeting on August 9th, 2021 with the gravest of concerns for their children and grandchildren … The only ones who broke the law on August 9th were the school board members.”

Kamenick told The Journal Times he has filed three or four similar complaints against Wisconsin school districts this year. He said school board meetings have become more scrutinized in recent years by sometimes unruly audiences, but that does not make it OK for school boards to break open meetings laws.

“I do not condone disruptions of meetings,” Kamenick said. “There’s no excuse to violate the law, though. If people are being disruptive, a meeting can be canceled or postponed, but when (school boards) re-adjourn, they have to do it with proper notice.”

If civil charges are not brought by Hanson against the Burlington school board, “Melby has the right to bring that action on behalf of the state, which could also make the (Burlington school) district liable for her attorney fees and costs,” according to the Wisconsin Transparency Project news release.

Kamenick said attorney costs in these types of cases often run between $10,000 and $20,000. He declined to say how much Adrianne Melby has paid him in legal fees so far and declined to say when Melby approached him about filing the complaint.

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