AshevilleNews Stories

School Board Refuses to Allow Member to Speak


By Roger McCredie-Buncombe County School Board attorney Dean Shatley has branded as “illegal” some off-the-cuff remarks made by board member Lisa Baldwin during an impromptu farewell to a staff member. But Shatley has declined to say what made the remarks “illegal” on grounds of attorney-client privilege.

At last Thursday’s regular meeting, Supt. Tony Baldwin (no kin) set aside the published agenda long enough to call for recognition of outgoing Communications Director Jan Blunt, who recently announced that she is leaving her position to pursue a master’s degree. He invited his fellow board members and others in attendance to comment on Blunt and her BOE career and teasingly said, “I hope you roast her a little bit.”

He got more than he bargained for.

Reynolds District member Lisa Baldwin, when her turn came to speak, began by saying, “I guess I would like to say something related to the communications director position. Some countries are very honest about it; when they’re talking about a public relations [or] communications director position, they call it ‘minister of propaganda’ ” –

Here, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times, there were “gasps” throughout the room {though these are not audible on the meeting’s videotape).

“ – and I can truly say,” Baldwin continued, “that Jan was quite a master at putting the spin on everything, and it is my hope that in the future we decide not to have –“

“Mrs. Baldwin,” Shatley interrupted, “this is unacceptable. You are talking negatively about an employee, calling into question her performance on the job – “

“I am telling the truth,” Baldwin shot back.

“Mrs. Baldwin, but – it’s illegal,” Shatley said.

Baldwin seemed about to reply but fell silent. Board Chairman Bob Rhinehart apologized to Blunt “on behalf of the board” saying, “That was completely uncalled for” and adding, “What a disappointment … we love you and we’re going to miss you,” he concluded.

Rhinehart then opened the public comment portion of the agenda. The first speaker, Blunt’s communications assistant, praised her integrity. Next up, realtor and 2012 candidate for County Commission Michelle Pace Wood, did likewise, saying she had not planned to speak but felt compelled to do so “after that display.” Then came Linda Humphries.

Humphries, a retired teacher who said she has attended “ninety per cent of [board] meetings over the last three years,” began by addressing Blunt directly: “Let me first say, you are a very gracious employee, very poised, very professional.” Then she said that, based on personal observation and experience, “I would agree that I have seen a lot of spinning from the communications department.” Addressing Wood, she said, “With regard to communication, it doesn’t mean we keep a lid on the truth … the communications director’s job – “

Shatley interrupted again: “Ms. Humphries, I’m not going to let you continue to speak poorly about an employee – “

“I’m speaking about the communications job in the Buncombe County School System – “ Humphries began.

“If you want to talk about that, you may talk about that,” Shatley re-interrupted, “but I’m not going to let you continue to talk about employees – “

At this point Lisa Baldwin called for a point of order. Shatley and the chair ignored her. As for Humphries, she regrouped and counterattacked. “I began … by saying how gracious and professional Ms. Blunt is,” she said. “In terms of finger-pointing, I’m talking about communications, period, whether it be with the Buncombe County School System, Asheville city government, or whatever. And communication revolves around truth, period. That’s all I have to say.”

This time it was Shatley who was silent.

In a Monday e-mail, the Tribune put the following questions to Shatley:

“1. At one point you interrupt Board member Lisa Baldwin to demand that she immediately cease her remarks concerning Mrs. Jan Blunt and the position of Board Public Information Officer. You are heard to say, “It’s illegal.” Several people, of course, have characterized Mrs. Baldwin’s remarks as “inappropriate” and similarly, but as a lawyer could you clarify what made them “illegal” — that is, in actual violation of the law? And upon reflection do you still maintain that this is the case?

“2. A few minutes later you interrupt Linda Humphries, a member of the public, as she addresses the same subject as Mrs. Baldwin, saying, “I’m not going to allow you to continue to speak poorly about a member of the Board” (although Ms. Humphries attempts to explain that she is referencing Board policy and not attacking Mrs. Blunt). My question here, which also applies to your exchange with Mrs. Baldwin, is this: is there a parliamentary provision or other school board policy that allows you, in effect, to assume the role of chairman and directly engage Board members or members of the public and terminate their comments? If so, could you cite it?”

And on Tuesday, Shatley replied:

“School board members are regularly trained and counseled in the area of personnel and the confidentiality of personnel information. I am unable, however, to share the advice I provide my client to a third-party. I can say that any statements made by me were made to protect the Buncombe County Board of Education and its members.

“If you print my statement, I would respectfully request that it be quoted in its entirety.”

Shatley did not explain how the rule of client-attorney confidentiality applied to, or had anything to do with, the questions that were put to him.

Baldwin later said that her comments about Blunt had been intended as a preface to a point she was trying to make, which was that, in her opinion, there was no need for the Board to continue the position of Communications Director after Blunt’s departure. The vacancy has already been posted, with a starting salary in the neighborhood of $60,000. “You could buy two teachers for that,” Baldwin said, adding that the duties performed by the Communications Director could be apportioned among existing staffers, as in some other North Carolina counties.

Word of Baldwin’s “spin” comments quickly overshadowed her main point, however. She was pilloried in social media and the Asheville Citizen-Times gave her a “report card” grade of “F” for having made her remarks at all, and especially at a time of employee recognition. Not everyone, however, agreed.

“I think she was just trying to seize whatever opportunity she could to be heard [about not replacing Blunt]” Linda Humphries said later. “They’ve pretty well muzzled her otherwise, as far as her being able to introduce things or comment on them. I think in desperation she had to take whatever opening she could find. I can relate from my own experience. Why have a public comment period if you’re not going to let the public speak?

“They contrive the rules as they go along,” Humphries said.

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