JEWELL - Oregon's ethics watchdog has ruled that Jewell School Board held four illegal secret meetings during the aftermath of the John Seeley controversy.
But the Oregon Government Ethics Commission won't punish any of the eight past and present board members with financial penalties because they said they were acting on their attorney's advice.
The revelation came after a six-month investigation sparked by a citizen's complaint. The ethics commission ruled that only four of the 20 executive sessions that were subject to the probe were considered improper.
Oregon's public meeting laws allow government boards to exclude the public in certain circumstances when personnel, real estate purchases and pending litigation is to be discussed. But the topics are narrowly defined. Board members who don't follow the rules may face civil penalties similar to fines.
The meetings concerned Jewell leaders' move to replace Seeley, the embattled superintendent, with a series of interim administrators, Mike Tiedeman, Jim Mabbott and Jerry Jones, who is still in place. Seeley, who was relieved of his leadership role, was the subject of an extensive investigation over his use of district funds and separate concerns over his treatment of his daughter.
The Ethics Commission's ruling Friday sets in motion a 20-day appeal window.
Ann Samuelson, former vice chairwoman of the Jewell School Board, said she will contest the commission's findings.
"We did not do anything outside of our attorney's instructions," Samuelson said. "We did exemplary work in a difficult situation."
She and former school board chairman Karl Meier were recalled from their positions in a May 2008 election, in part sparked by the controversy. Four others involved in meetings are no longer board members; two remain, including the current chairman, Alan Foster.
The probe, conducted by the Ethics Commission, scrutinized records and interviewed all participants to determine if any laws were broken. During the process, documents reveal the board members said they were acting on advice of the district's counsel, Nancy Hungerford.
Ron Bersin, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, said that according to Oregon law, the lawyer's involvement in the board's actions prevented the assessment of any monetary penalties.
"Since they were all under the advice of an attorney, there can be no penalty," Bersin said.
However, the board "discussed the selection of Interim superintendent without satisfying prerequisites" in the executive session provision of Oregon Public Meeting law, according to the investigators' report.
October 2006 - when many of the meetings occurred - was a turbulent period in Jewell's history. The board removed superintendent and principal Seeley and his wife, kindergarten teacher Laura Seeley, from their positions pending a criminal investigation and charges that their own daughter had been abused.
The alleged abuse led to a deal where charges were dropped against Laura Seeley and just one charge remained against John Seeley for which he served 18 months probation. The daughter moved out of state and contact with her was banned. Another charge against John Seeley, for misuse of school funds, was eventually not pursued for lack of evidence.
Samuelson, the most high-profile of the board members because she also is a Clatsop County commissioner, defended the actions of the board. "This was a child abuse situation, and secrets must be kept. There was no other way to do it," she said.
Without a superintendent, board members struggled to keep the district operating, Samuelson said. The contested private meetings were held in an effort to keep the schools open, she added. The position has been filled on a temporary basis ever since.
It was Lauren Jacobsen, a Birkenfeld resident, former board member and former independent contractor for the district, who accused the group of conducting illegal private meetings that spanned more than 112 years.
After Jacobsen's complaint to the state, the commission took 180 days to interview witnesses and review documentation.
Jacobsen said Monday she was optimistic that the commission's findings could bring change and healing to a community that has been struggling.
"I am very, very hopeful that this is going to create resolution and that there will be some positive learning to go forward," Jacobsen said. She also said she was pleased to hear that civil penalties were not brought against individuals.
"No one is born knowing everything," she said. "I just wanted them to learn so they could correct it." Jacobsen added she'd be happy if future boards could learn from the error as well.
Of the men appointed after Seeley, Tiedeman eventually left the district and Mabbott served briefly. Jones is filling the interim position, and a search is under way for a permanent superintendent.
Samuelson's attorney, Roy Pulvers of the Portland-based law firm Hinshaw and Culbertson, said it is important to note that the commission found no one person more guilty than another, though some members had more individual violations based on the number of meetings they attended.
"The commission decided not to pursue any individual violations," Pulvers said. "Ann has gone to considerable expense personally, and put time and money into something she's not responsible for."
The respondents now have 20 days to alert the commission if they wish to request a contested case hearing, said Bersin, executive director of the commission.