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Attorney muzzles critics of W.Va. school board

By The Associated Press
03.10.05

LEVELS, W.Va. — Former House of Delegates Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta may be the most talked-about man in Hampshire County — but not at meetings of the school board that employs him.

Board attorney Norwood Bentley successfully muzzled people demanding that Mezzatesta be fired from his $60,000 administrative job earlier this week, and Bentley said he's likely to do it again.

Speaking is a privilege offered by the board, not a public right, Bentley argues.

"You can't take an employee of a school board to task in an open session," Bentley told the Associated Press after stopping a handful of residents from identifying Mezzatesta or Superintendent David Friend by name or job title.

"It's not the public's meeting," he said. "It's the school board's meeting."

More than 100 people packed into a school cafeteria on March 7 when resident Robert Lee began calling for Mezzatesta's and Friend's dismissal. Lee and others had signed a list to speak, identifying their topics as required by board rules.

Lee was a few sentences into his written remarks when Bentley intervened, saying Lee couldn't mention specific people in his comments about problems in the district.

When Lee demanded that Friend and Mezzatesta be fired for what he called incompetence, Bentley interrupted again, warning the board it was "a libelous situation."

The decision stunned those who had planned to speak, including resident Jim Hott.

"I think he was probably right in saying the school board could not use names, but he was wrong in telling us what we could say," Hott said. "There's absolutely no reason to have an open meeting if we can't voice our opinions."

The meeting came just days after the state Ethics Commission issued a public reprimand and imposed a $2,000 fine to settle complaints against Mezzatesta, who lost re-election last fall.

Mezzatesta pleaded no contest in December to altering and destroying legislative computer records amid the ethics investigation. He remains under investigation by a special prosecutor in Hampshire County over an affidavit he gave the Ethics Commission last year that said he had not used his legislative position to obtain grants for Hampshire County.

Lew Brewer, executive director of the Ethics Commission, says the rules Bentley set for the board meeting are new to him.

"I've never heard of anybody saying you can't criticize the city manager, you can't criticize the chief of police, you can't criticize the municipal judge in a public meeting," he said. "There is nothing in the Open Meetings Act that deals with what can be said by someone who is signed up to speak at a public meeting."

Bentley cites the laws governing school boards for his actions, and Brewer said he's not an expert in that area.

Liza Cordeiro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said since the state has not taken over Hampshire County's schools, it can't tell the local board how to run its meetings.

But a lawyer for the West Virginia Press Association calls Bentley's actions "highly questionable" and a possible violation of "the fundamental right of free speech and to redress government."

If the board set a time for public comment during the meeting, "they can't restrict it," Mark Sadd said yesterday. "I think you should be able to address any issue you wish to address ... and they can't do anything about it unless someone is being unruly."

Bentley said he found Lee's comments "nasty" but could not recall specifics.

"I just remember being particularly offended, and not because I have any great love for either of these people," he said. "I was asked there for a number of reasons, one of which was to try to make sure that things didn't get out of hand in the public session."

Lee said his taxes entitle him to a voice.

"The Hampshire County school systems are in a state of emergency. We have problems, and I can't understand why we can't address them and solve them," Lee said.

The state has stripped the district of its accreditation, and a recent audit found numerous violations of law and state board policies by Mezzatesta and others, including the use of grants.

"We're the laughing stock of the state," Lee said. "It's a real shame."

Bentley, however, says taxpayers have other means to express themselves: They can address the board in closed session, write letters or air their grips on newspaper editorial pages.

Bentley said he was also trying to protect the board from becoming party to a defamation lawsuit: "I wanted to make it very clear that the board didn't say go ahead and blast these employees."


Update
Board of Education rescinds policy muzzling critics
West Virginia county officials revise stance after residents complain about restrictions on public comments. 03.22.05

Related

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Council president orders speaker's removal from meeting
ACLU says Danny Wells violated First Amendment when he told Burton, Mich., police to eject Laurie Tinnin for accusing officials of taking bribes. 01.21.05

Speaking at public meetings

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