CHARLESTON — The Charleston Gazette-Mail sued West Virginia University on Monday, claiming the school’s board of governors violated state open meetings law.
Over a 120-day period, the board gathered in executive session in five meetings, discussing COVID-19 and social justice, among other topics. Executive sessions are closed to the public.
As a public university receiving millions of dollars annually in state taxpayer money, WVU’s governing board is subject to West Virginia’s open meetings law, which holds that public agencies generally must meet publicly. The law specifies topics such as litigation or personnel matters that may be discussed privately.
The subjects the university board discussed are not exempted from open meetings law and must be discussed in public, rather than behind closed doors, the newspaper’s lawsuit claims.
During the June 19 board meeting, 14 of the board’s 17 members met in executive session and conducted the substantive portion of the meeting behind closed doors, according to the lawsuit filed in Monongalia County Circuit Court.
“The content of the discussions included the school’s budget, a talk with the athletic director about the ‘outlook for this upcoming season,’ the business college, emergency pay policy, federal Title IX regulations, tuition and fees, capital projects, the coronavirus pandemic and a petition signed by more than 800 people calling WVU ‘systemically anti-black,’” the lawsuit reads.
After that meeting, board member Elmer Coppoolse said the panel “discussed at some length the expressed concern and demands by the black community on our campus and the protests that we heard loud and clear.”
After the Sept. 18 board meeting, member Marty Becker told the panel the Finance Committee “met this morning and predominantly were in executive session for extensive discussion about the coronavirus and (COVID-19) and its various ramifications on the university and on its financial affairs.”
The university did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
The Gazette-Mail alleges that the board of governors violated open meetings law during all five of these meetings.
“The fundamental purpose of the open meeting law is to ensure the right of the public to be fully informed regarding the conduct of governmental business so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them,” the lawsuit reads.
The Gazette-Mail claims there is no provision in state law that allows a public agency to meet in closed session to discuss “West Virginia University’s ongoing response to COVID-19.”
The newspaper alleges the board of governors’ violations of the law show “a pattern and practice of ignoring the state’s open meeting laws,” depriving the public of educating themselves on governmental operations — a provision in open meetings law.
Charleston-based DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress is representing the newspaper.
The Gazette-Mail is asking the court to declare that the executive sessions violated the law and order the board to open its meetings to the public when it discusses WVU’s response to COVID-19 and other campus issues.