Residents sue over Newberg superintendent firing, public meeting laws

Oregon

The updated lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1

Dr. Joe Morelock was fired without cause as the superintendent of Newberg schools, November 9, 2021 (KOIN)

NEWBERG, Ore. (KOIN) — Yamhill County residents are suing the Newberg School District and certain members of its school board for violation of public meeting laws.

In an updated lawsuit filed against the district and four school board members, it states that David Brown, Brian Shannon, Renee Powell and Trever DeHart were in violation of public meeting laws in regard to the board retaining a secondary attorney and the firing of Newberg superintendent Joe Morelock. You can find the full lawsuit at the bottom of the page.

Beth Woolsey, Greg Woolsey, Jeff McNeal, Kathleen McNeal, Meghan Rogers-Czarnecki, Stefan Czarnecki and Elizabeth Gemeroy were all named as individual plaintiffs in the suit. All of the plaintiffs are listed as “Residents of Yamhill County, Oregon, living within the boundaries of defendant Newberg School District 29J.”

The attorney

According to the lawsuit, “on information and belief” at some time prior to Aug. 24, Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart met or conferred outside of a public meeting to discuss and agree to retain attorney Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel to the board of directors.

The suit referenced an agenda published by the district on Aug. 18 for its upcoming Aug. 24 board of directors special meeting and executive session to “‘Consult with counsel concerning the legal rights and duties of a public body with regard to current litigation or litigation likely to be filed.’”

“The agenda failed to include notice that the board of directors intended to vote to retain supplemental legal counsel or that board members had already consulted with Tyler Smith or had discussed among themselves the hiring of Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel prior to the August 24, 2021, meeting,” added the suit.

The day of the school board special meeting, Shannon emailed Morelock notifying him that the executive session would include making a motion to add Smith as supplemental legal counsel representing the board, said the document.

It also said that Morelock quickly emailed Shannon and Brown – copying Smith – raising concerns that voting to retain Smith at the executive session would be a violation of public meetings law.

According to the lawsuit, Smith emailed Morelock asserting that there would be no violation of public meetings law because the selection of an attorney is not something that requires a board vote.

“Tyler Smith continued that the board would be in a public session prior to the executive session, so any vote to retain his services could occur at that time,” added the complaint.

The document states that Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart voted to hire Smith as supplemental legal counsel to the board during the executive session.

After Smith was hired, the events were discussed at the board’s subsequent retreat meeting, the lawsuit added.

“When the three other members of the board raised concerns regarding violations of the public meetings law by the vote to retain Tyler Smith, defendant Powell refused to comment, while defendant Brown said it was a really troubling time and the board needed protection as a result of threatened legal action against the board,” said the document. “Board member Brandy Penner then asserted that all four board member defendants knew that they intended to hire Tyler Smith prior to the meeting and that it was not a publicly noticed matter – none of which denied this assertion.”

According to the lawsuit, board member Rebecca Piros explained that it would be expensive to retain Smith at $300 an hour.

“It was disclosed that Tyler Smith had already performed approximately seven hours of legal work at the request of the four Board member defendants,” the complaint said. “Defendant Brown asserted that it was not expensive to hire Tyler Smith, claiming there was a legal budget of approximately $36,000 to pay for legal services to the board, including Tyler Smith.”

The Newberg School District’s administration told KOIN 6 News to refer to the school board for comment on this amended complaint.

KOIN 6 News also reached out to the Newberg School Board and the individually named school board members for comment but did not hear back by deadline.

Following the money

According to an invoice obtained by KOIN 6 News through a public records request, Tyler Smith & Associates P.C. billed the district $1,500 for five hours of work at $300 an hour on Aug. 20.

The work included him researching and drafting a memo requested by the school board “On contours of first amendment law in relation to teachers, students, staff and schools” along with continuing to research and draft advice memo.

Three days later, the district was billed $660 for Smith to “Research and draft potential policy for district to review to protect kids against bias in the classrooms and school.” The invoice said the activity took two hours and 12 minutes to complete at the same hourly rate.

The invoice said Smith also reviewed an email on Aug. 24 about Morelock “denying board’s ability to obtain legal advice.” He then went on to research the process and superintendent’s ability to deny the board legal advice and deny counsel from being in an executive session on legal matters, noted the document.

The activity also listed a phone call with Newberg School Board Vice Chair Brian Shannon about the board requesting counsel to be at the meeting blocked by the superintendent. Smith went on to draft advice to the district in an email and copied the superintendent and board regarding law on public meetings, agendas and executive session.

After Smith attended the executive session to advise the board, Smith billed the district $720 for two hours and 24 minutes worth of work at $300 an hour.

In total, Smith charged the district $3,240 for billable hours in August.

Complaints

The lawsuit said that the defendants violated Oregon public meetings law because it failed to provide notice of the defendant board members’ intent to discuss and vote to retain Smith on its published agenda for its Aug. 24 meeting along with failing to provide notice to three other board members of their intent to discuss and vote to hire Smith.

Other alleged violations include the defendant board members willfully discussing and voting to retain Smith at the executive session; willfully meeting with each other and/or discussing prior to the executive session; and failing to permit public access to or public comment prior to the board’s vote to retain Smith as supplemental legal counsel.

The lawsuit notes that Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart are jointly liable because they were aware of the requirements of meetings of governing body to be open to the public and “intentionally disregarded those requirements.”

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs request a declaratory judgement to acknowledge that the defendants made the decision to retain Smith in violation of public meetings law.

They also request a judgment that the agreement to retain Smith is void because “It was the result of intentional disregard of the law or willful misconduct by a quorum of the members of the board.”

“Plaintiffs are further entitled to an order demanding that all fees and costs paid to Tyler Smith as a result of the aforementioned vote be repaid to the Newberg School District 29J by defendants Shannon, Brown, Powell, and DeHart,” the document said.

Superintendent firing

The suit referenced the district publishing an agenda on Nov. 5 for the Nov. 9 board of directors’ executive session and regular meeting. However, it said that the agenda did not include the dismissal of Morelock to be discussed.

A day before the executive session, around 3:40 p.m., the complaint said that the district prepared the agenda for the 5 p.m. executive session on Nov. 9.

“The agenda was then made available to the general public less than 24 hours before the session was to be held and no explanation of the urgency for holding the meeting was provided. No information was provided to the public indicating that the dismissal of Superintendent Joe Morelock was to be discussed,” noted the lawsuit.

The document then cited an email on Nov. 8 Brown sent to the other board members explaining what the executive session would cover: Gail Grobey American flag being taken down, Dundee teacher lawsuit concerning Mike Gunn complaint and superintendent complaints.

KOIN 6 News obtained a copy of that email through public records requests and confirmed that the items mentioned in the email.

“No information was provided to all of the board members or the general public to provide notice that the board would be considering the dismissal of Superintendent Morelock,” said the lawsuit.

A day later, the suit added, Smith emailed Brown an updated packet for the executive session to cover process for consideration of complaints relating to the superintendent for both meetings. The email also requested that a copy be sent to each board member with a note to keep the contents confidential because they were attorney-client privileged and pertained to an executive session.

Other emails referenced say Brown replied to Smith’s email and included all of the board members explaining that the board would be discussing complaints against Morelock during the night’s special meeting executive session.

The suit alleges that no information was provided to the public or that the firing would be discussed and added that this violates public meetings law.

Later that night, Morelock was fired without cause in a 4-3 vote by the school board.

The action of firing the superintendent also violates public meeting law, according to the lawsuit, along with “Willfully meeting and/or discussing prior to the November 9, 2021, executive session whereby the quorum decided to dismiss Superintendent Morelock and issue a 10-day notice of termination of his employment contract.”

The plaintiffs want a declaratory judgment acknowledging that “The motion to terminate Morelock’s employment is void because it was the result of intentional disregard of the law or willful misconduct by a quorum of the members of the board.”

They also want all fees and costs paid to Morelock as a “result of the aforementioned vote” to be repaid to the district by Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart.

You can read the rest of the lawsuit below:

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