RENO — The Washoe County School Board broke the state’s open meeting law during a session in October when it cut off a woman who was criticizing the school superintendent, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office said Friday.
It’s the second time in less than a year that the board overseeing schools in the Reno-Sparks area has been found in violation of the law related to dealings with ex-Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
Martinez, who currently is one of four finalists to become superintendent of public schools in Boston, was fired last summer, reinstated after he filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit and eventually left the job Nov. 4 as part of a settlement agreement.
Senior Deputy Attorney General George Taylor said in a formal opinion Friday that Karen Dunaway should have been allowed to continue her criticism of Martinez for his firing of School Police Chief Mike Mieras during the Oct. 28 meeting. Dunaway, who recently had retired as a school police dispatcher, was cut off when she began to explain that Martinez had provided misleading information about the reasons Mieras was fired.
The new opinion says preventing Dunaway from speaking out on a matter of public interest violated her First Amendment rights as well as the open meeting law.
The board’s lawyer, Randy Drake, and its acting chairman at the time, vice president Barbara McLaury, were wrong when they claimed Dunaway couldn’t criticize Martinez in the public forum because he had not been given prior notice that his conduct would be addressed during the session, Taylor said.
Taylor said then-board member David Aiazi was correct when he interjected at the Oct. 28 meeting that such prior notice is required if a board member was making the critical comments, but not in the case of a citizen offering public comment.
“Chairperson McLaury’s decision to stop Ms. Dunaway’s comment was an unreasonable restriction on public comment and a violation of Ms. Dunaway’s right to speak on a matter of public concern,” he wrote in the five-page opinion that he said is required to be placed on the agenda of the board’s next meeting.
John Mayer, current school board president, said in a statement Friday there are no penalties resulting from the opinion. McLaury had stopped Dunaway because Martinez’ lawyers earlier had threatened to take legal action against the school district “if the board directly or indirectly considered the professionalism, character or integrity” of Martinez at that meeting, he said.
The attorney general’s earlier opinion issued in September said the board held an illegal closed meeting when it announced in July that Martinez had been “relieved of his duties.” In that case, each of the six board members present at that meeting was fined $250.