MU case shows law falls short on meeting notice

April 16, 2019

The Marshall University Board of Governors met in a conference call last Wednesday to vote on a 3 percent tuition increase for the 2019-2020 school year. The meeting and the decision was a surprise to the public. The board met the minimum standards for giving notice to the public of an upcoming meeting. The board did nothing illegal. It complied with the letter of the law. In this case, the letter of the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act.

The state law regarding notice of meetings itself does not comply with the spirit of the act, which the public has been led to believe is transparency.

As required by law and in compliance with the board’s own policies, the board submitted its notice of a special meeting to be held by conference call beginning at 9:30 a.m. April 10 to the secretary of state’s office at least five business days in advance of the meeting. According to the secretary of state’s website, the notice was submitted at 7:26 p.m. March 28 and was posted at 8 a.m. the next day.

The board of governors didn’t have to provide any other notice to anyone — news media, student groups, faculty groups or whoever. Interested parties should have been monitoring the secretary of state’s website. Those who didn’t — including The Herald-Dispatch newsroom — missed the meeting.

Few people knew of the meeting until after it had ended and a news release was issued.

As noted earlier, the Marshall University Board of Governors complied with the letter of the law even if it did not comply with the spirit of the law, but the law itself lends little help toward complying with the spirit. In this case, it gives the appearance that the board didn’t want public input on the tuition increase.

A meeting by conference call allows practically no public input or oversight when compared with a meeting conducted in person, especially when it’s dealing with one of the big issues that comes up every year. Marshall officials said in their news release that the meeting was necessary to allow the financial aid office extra time to prepare aid packets for incoming students.

On a more practical level, it allowed the board to separate the tuition increase from the upcoming year’s budget. In the past, the two have been handled at the same time, and some board members have objected. This way it at least gives the board more flexibility in dealing with tuition separately from the entire budget.

Still, what was the rush? Why couldn’t the two have been handled separately but at the same board meeting?

Last year’s tuition increase was approved at a regular board meeting in late March. Stakeholders were able to attend and comment. The three years before that — 2015, 2016 and 2017 — increases were not approved until June because the Legislature was so late approving its budgets for the upcoming fiscal years.

The board of governors will have a regular meeting later this month — April 25, according to the Marshall website. As of this writing, the meeting notice has yet to be posted on the secretary of state’s website (http://apps.sos.wv.gov/adlaw/meetingnotices/). Going forward, the board should make more of an effort to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law so it can comply with the spirit of the law. More public notice of meetings called to discuss important issues, especially tuition, is vital to keeping the public’s trust.