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Ethics Commission probes Madrone Trail School Board

Seven current and former members of the Central Point-based charter school may have violated executive session provisions of public meeting law, according to state commission

The Madrone Trail Public Charter School Board of Directors is in talks with the Oregon Ethics Commission, which found after a review that the board may have violated public meetings law earlier this year when it tried to act on matters concerning the head of the school.

According to documents obtained by the Mail Tribune in a public records request, board Chairman Erik Johnsen and ranking board members Gesine Abraham, Katie Stumpff, Sage Keene, Bryant Jackson, Krista Peterson and Kelly Stofflet were all subjects of an ethics complaint to the commission filed by John Bissey, the executive director of the K-8 Central Point-based institution.

“It is unfortunate to be in this position, but it is the culmination of a pattern of unethical behavior on the part of our board president that I have raised concerns with the rest of the board for years now,” Bissey wrote in his complaint. “I do not believe this was an accident — or by ignorance — given the executive session provisions are quite clear, and he has been board chair for almost two years now and treasurer before that.”

Bissey said he did not want to comment for this story so he could focus on the upcoming eighth-grade graduation and help contribute to the “healing” he said needs to happen within the Madrone Trail School community. He was referring, in part, to tense relations between him and his school board, which resulted in members earlier this year voting not to extend his contract.

Johnsen told the Mail Tribune the Ethics Commission’s investigation is still in progress, and the board has a policy of not commenting on such matters while they are open.

According to information provided by the Ethics Commission, the agency and the board entered into negotiations for a “stipulated final order,” which will spell out what each of the Madrone Trail School board members must do in response to the commission’s findings. Penalties could range from mandates for more board member training to fines of up to $1,000 per violation. Peterson and Jackson are still subject to investigation and could be punished even though they are no longer board members.

The core of the complaint by Bissey concerns an executive session (closed to the public) that the school board reportedly held Jan. 14. That meeting, according to Ethics Commission documents, was scheduled to be an executive session to discuss Bissey’s performance as executive director and whether mediation would be an appropriate way to resolve issues between him and Johnsen.

Bissey contended there was no public notice of that meeting, no agenda was posted and the board voted during executive session. State public meetings law allows public bodies such as school boards to meet in closed session for limited discussion purposes, but requires the body to return to open session before taking any votes.

In his response to the commission’s investigation, Johnsen said Bissey “verbally agreed” Jan. 12 to an executive session meeting two days later and, subsequently, the agenda for the Jan. 14 meeting was posted online.

Ethics Commission staff listened to audio of the Jan. 14 meeting, and obtained emails between Bissey and board members, and determined multiple violations for conducting executive session may have occurred.

These include: notice of that meeting was given less than 24 hours in advance; board members failed to tell the public they were invited back to the meeting after executive session; there may have been a “poll” of board members started to decide whether Bissey should serve another year; and the board used executive session to discuss matters it was not allowed to.

The Ethics Commission’s preliminary report stated agency staff had more questions they would like to get to the bottom of in an investigation. The commission heard the facts contained in the preliminary review reports and voted to move those matters to investigation.

Ethics Commission investigations can last up to six months, but parties can enter into negotiations well before that. If the stipulated final order is agreed to, it will be presented to the commission at a future meeting for final approval.

Only after the commission approves the orders are they posted as final dispositions on the commission’s website. If negotiations are not successful, an investigative report will be prepared and presented to the commission at the end of the six-month window.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.

– This article has been updated