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Judge keeps state education 'Sunshine' lawsuit going

Judge keeps state education 'Sunshine' lawsuit going

January 9th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce is shown presiding in the courtroom in this March 14, 2016 file photo.

Photo by News Tribune /Fulton Sun.

A Springfield teacher's lawsuit accusing the State Board of Education of violating Missouri's "Sunshine" law is moving forward.

Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Pat Joyce on Monday denied the state's motion to dismiss the case.

"I think this needs more discussion," Joyce said.

Teacher Laurie Sullivan sued the state board Nov. 21, arguing the board violated Missouri's Open Meetings/Open Records Law when it discussed — in a closed session — which of Gov. Eric Greitens' three Southwest Missouri appointees should be seated and allowed to vote on board issues, including then-Commissioner Margie Vandeven's job.

However, Assistant Attorney General Cheryl Ann Schuetze told Joyce on Monday that Sullivan's complaint no longer existed because the board had decided Vandeven's job status at its Dec. 1 meeting.

The legal battle in the case — and in a separate case waiting to be assigned to a new judge — focuses on Greitens' decisions to appoint State Board of Education members then remove them when they said they wouldn't vote to fire Vandeven as the governor wished.

That happened twice for the Southwest Missouri seat, with Sullivan's lawsuit complaining the board should have had an open session discussion to determine which of Greitens' three appointees for that seat was the appropriate person to act as an official board member.

Schuetze told Joyce on Monday "the board doesn't have a say" in who votes at its meetings. "Only the governor" has that power, including the power to rescind appointments that have not yet been approved by the state Senate.

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The case also is moot, Schuetze said, since Greitens last week withdrew all five people he's appointed to the board, including the Southwest Missouri appointment — then resubmitted their names after the Legislature began its 2018 session last Wednesday, giving the Senate until mid-May to confirm or reject those nominations.

However, Sullivan's attorney, Duane Martin, of Columbia, argued Monday there still was a Sunshine Law violation at the Nov. 21 meeting, when the board didn't discuss during an open session the issue of who was eligible to vote.

"(Sullivan) is basically saying you need to, in open session, decide who can be in the room in the closed session," he told Joyce.

Not having that public discussion "is a violation of the law, and I told them that in a letter" before the Nov. 21 meeting — so Joyce should keep the case alive to hear arguments on the law violations, he said.

Martin's lawsuit originally sought to block the Dec. 1 board meeting where Vandeven was fired on a 5-3 vote, but Circuit Judge Jon Beetem denied that request about 11 hours before the Dec. 1 meeting began.

Joyce was assigned the Sullivan case after Martin moved for a change of judge.