Friday, April 29, 2011

Inside Scoop Fights for Public Access When Bland Tries to Throw Audience Out

HELENA-WEST HELENA-The Inside Scoop Online's Reporter Andrew Bagley stood in the gap in favor of the public's right to attend school board sessions when School Board Attorney Vandall Bland tried to throw the audience out after a crowd reaction to a question he posed during an employee hearing.

Vandall Bland
Bland had opened the meeting by threatening the crowd with being ejected if they made "outbursts."  Three hours later, Bland was questioning long-time employee June Fears, who was appealing her layoff as the district's Technology Specialist.  During that questioning, Bland asked in reference to those with less seniority that Fears was saying should have been sent back to the classroom instead, "Isn't that your niece your talking about?"  The crowd responded with a loud chorus of "Ohs" that lasted less than 10 seconds.  Bland interjected, "That's it.  You guys are gone."

At that juncture, Bagley, who was the only reporter from any news outlet in the room, rose to object to the public being ejected.  He said, "I must object for the record.  The public has a right to be here.  You can't close this meeting.  The employee wants this hearing to be open.  The lawyers are in the room.  The Freedom of Information Act makes clear that we have a right to stay."  As the exchange unfolded, Bland and Bagley ended up less than one foot apart.  However, despite the school board maintaining that a "hearing" was not a "meeting," the public was allowed to stay for the rest of Fear's hearing thanks to Bagley's objection.  After a brief recess while Bland and the Board considered what to do, the hearing resumed.

Andrew Bagley
After the meeting, Bagley remained committed to public access.  He said, "The First Amendment and the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act are our legal protection in this democratic system.  Access to the meetings where our public officials debate and deliberate is essential to any democracy.  The rule of law is essential to any democratic system.  Those were the principles I have stood up for since my days at the Phillips County Progress and will continue to stand up for today at The Inside Scoop Online."

Bagley went on to say, "This should not be interpreted as picking one side or another.  I am standing for the rule of law.  Mr. Bland was incorrect in this case.  I remain an ardent support of the public school system.  I recognize that financial difficulties must be overcome and that means serious cuts.  These are not easy decisions, but the answer is not to circumvent procedures to shut out the public.  We don't live in a dictatorship.  This is still the United States of America.  Let's follow the law.  Let's follow the proper procedures.  Then, let's rally behind the district with a loud Go Cougars!  I wish nothing but the best for our public schools in the Helena-West Helena School District."

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