Ball State's Board of Trustees may routinely violate Indiana's Open Door Laws by discussing -- in closed meetings -- issues that can only be discussed in public, according to interviews with student trustee Melanie Scott.
Other trustees and administrators, however, flatly denied the charge or said they could not recall certain conversations described by Scott.
Scott said she does not believe the trustees would intentionally violate the law, but during a series of interviews for an earlier story she described board actions that seem to fall outside the law. Scott has attended two trustee meetings since being appointed to the board by Gov. Frank O'Bannon in July.
Scott said she thinks there is nothing wrong with the way the meetings are run.
"Everybody has a closed session, and (the open session) is like a press release," Scott said. "Everybody knows that.
"The public session is basically for the record."
Sandra Barger, staff attorney for the Indiana Public Access Counselor, said that based on the Daily News' research, the trustees "probably" are in violation.
Yet several administrators and trustees said the board takes great care to not violate the Open Door Law.
"They've always been pretty careful," said Don Park, vice president of University Advancement.
Trustee Jeffrey Smulyan said that during closed meetings there are "about 8,000 lawyers in that room. They're watching us very closely."
Scott said that at its September meeting, the board discussed Ball State's controversial charter schools proposal during a closed meeting, known as an executive session.
Scott said her decision to vote against the proposal was based, in part, on "my talks with other board members during executive session."
Two months earlier, during the July meeting, Scott said the trustees discussed the technology fee and questioned Vice President for Information Technology H. O'Neal Smitherman on the proposal.
Scott said at the two executive sessions she attended, President Blaine Brownell and his senior staff -- vice presidents Tom Kinghorn, Douglas McConkey, Park, Smitherman and Provost Warren Vander Hill -- were present. Under Open Door Laws, the trustees are sometimes allowed to have non-members attend executive sessions.
Smitherman said he did not recall discussing charter schools and that Scott's memory of him being questioned by the board "certainly is different from my recollection."
"I would have talked to all of the trustees (individually) at one time about the technology fee or charter schools," said Smitherman, who also serves as executive assistant to the president. "That's my obligation -- to make sure I share all the different information."
Scott said the executive sessions are "very informal" and that after the regular agenda is finished, Trustee President Thomas DeWeese would ask, "Does anyone have anything they want to discuss?"
DeWeese was unavailable for comment.
At that point, according to Scott, trustees may discuss issues on the agenda for the open meeting. Scott said the trustees generally discuss only the more contentious issues on the open meeting agenda.
"There's a lot of leeway in the executive session," Scott said. "It's not set in stone."
Scott also said she did not believe the actions were illegal.
"It wouldn't be illegal," Scott said. "Tom (DeWeese) is a lawyer. Maybe I'm naive, but I totally trust them. I don't think they would intentionally do anything illegal."
After she was later told that the board's actions as described by her would most likely be illegal, Scott maintained they were not and said it was "not an issue."
"Is the board being unfair?" she asked. "Does this affect their decisions? What is the big deal?"
The Daily News contacted Brownell, three members of his senior staff and three trustees on Tuesday, and all said they could not recall discussing either charter schools or the technology fee in executive session.
"I don't recall (charter schools) being a topic," Park said. "Not the technology fee either."
Trustee Jeffrey Smulyan said if the technology fee was discussed, "I don't remember. I hate to plead ignorance, but I'm going to have to."
Smulyan was not present at the September meeting.
Brownell also said he "did not recall" discussing the technology fee. Trustee Greg Schenkel said the same. Trustee Frank Bracken said, "My memory does not include discussions of that nature."
Most administrators said the board diligently follows the law, because the university counsel is present at all times. Counsel Jon Moll said one of his responsibilities at the meeting is to interpret the Open Door Law.
"He's also there to advise the board if discussions are ranging beyond the bounds of executive session," Brownell said.
Schenkel said the board is careful to always stick to the agenda and that the counsel lets them know if the board strays from it.
Vander Hill said in his 15 years attending executive sessions, the vast majority of discussion have centered around personnel matters.
"BUSINESS AS USUAL"
Some members of the university community said they have suspected the Board of Trustees makes its decisions privately for many years.
Mark Popovich, a journalism professor who has worked at Ball State for 32 years, called violating the Open Door Law "business as usual."
"They've been doing this for as long as I can remember," Popovich said. "At one time, they used to meet at the president's house the day of the meeting. All the university community could do was speculate."
Fueling the fire of speculation is the trustees' traditionally unanimous voting record. Throughout the years nearly all of the board's votes have been unanimous, though there are exceptions. The charter schools vote was an exception, as were past votes on grading systems and the 18-hour overload bill. The latter two times, the student trustee cast the only dissenting vote.
Park said he doesn't find it unusual for a board to vote unanimously and that it is par for the course on most public agencies. What it shows, Park said, is that the university only sends proposals to the trustees if they have been well researched and stand a good chance of passing.
Marc Ransford, communications manager for University Relations, usually hands out press releases to the media immediately after the trustees' meeting. Ransford has sometimes given the Daily News a press release before the meeting begins. He does not attend executive sessions.
Minutes after the trustees' September meeting, Ransford gave the Daily News a press release announcing that the trustees had passed the charter school proposal. Ransford said he "was told" that the measure passed. When asked who told him, Ransford replied, "I told myself."
Popovich, who teaches journalism law, said it is normal practice for public information specialists to estimate the outcome of a board discussion.
"It sounds to me like (Ransford) just had a couple of press releases ready to go," Popovich said, "but still, you've got to wonder if he wasn't tipped off beforehand."
Park said University Relations sits down with his office before each meeting and discusses ways the vote could go.
"Their job is to be prepared for every alternative," Park said.
Park said the board usually votes on proposals the university has been reviewing for "quite some time," making it easy for University Relations to predict what the board will decide.
Yet Scott maintained that the board "pretty much decides everything we're going to vote" in its executive sessions.
"That's why the public meeting is so condensed, because we've already ironed everything out," Scott said. "We are a board, and we need to be unified."