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Davis district denies violating law

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LAYTON — Davis School District officials are disputing claims by a Salt Lake attorney and Ogden newspaper that the district violated the Utah Open Meetings Act by closing an advisory committee meeting to the public and news media.

District leaders say there has been no violation since the Davis Boundary Advisory Committee is not a public body and not subject to open meetings laws.

"Their policy does not trump state policy," said Jeff Hunt, an attorney who works with Utah's chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists.

The district appointed a 39-member committee to run a districtwide boundary study to make room for an eighth high school in Syracuse opening next fall. Hundreds of parents are up in arms about their students having to change high schools to balance enrollment.

The school board appointed members to the committee from city governments, school community councils and high school community representatives.

The group is charged with creating and recommending new boundary proposals and the board of education will make the final call in December.

Davis spokesman Chris Williams said district policy sets special committees apart from state law and the meetings are closed so that committee members are not distracted by questions from the public.

"I think (the district) policy is at odds with state law," said Hunt, who is appealing the decision on behalf of the Standard-Examiner newspaper after a reporter was denied access to a committee meeting last week.

But Michelle Bues, district legal issues specialist, said one of the definitions of a public body is that they are vested with the authority to make decisions.

Boundary committee members aren't the ones who make the decisions. That is up to the school board, she said.

"There would be people who would not agree with that, but if we didn't do that, the entire newspaper would be filled with notices of meetings, because every committee that we had that gathers information and gives it to their board would have to post notices of public meetings," Bues said.

Carol Lear, legal specialist at the State Office of Education, agrees.

"I think they are right, technically," she said. "Various groups do choose to open meetings even though it is not required."

The Boundary Advisory Committee has met behind closed doors on six occasions, and the practice is expected to continue, according to the district.

The intent of the state's Open Meetings Act is for the public to see the deliberations behind recommendations. A specific portion of the law applies to advisory committees, Hunt said.

But district officials said their policy is based on state law.

The advisory committee is expected to make a final recommendation about school boundaries to the county school board Nov. 21.

Despite closed meetings, the process has been open to public input through a series of open houses, Williams said. The district has also received thousands of letters and e-mails, he said.

E-mail: terickson@desnews.com