Constituents allege violations of public meeting laws in hiring of attorney Tyler Smith

Marking the first legal injunction filed against the Newberg School Board due to its recent actions, a group of seven Newberg residents leveled a significant lawsuit against the board on Friday, Oct. 22.

The filing initially was made in Yamhill County Circuit Court on Oct. 21 by veteran Portland attorney Judy Snyder.

Beth and Greg Woolsey, Jeff and Kathleen McNeal, Stefan Czarnecki and Meghan Rogers-Czarnecki, and Elizabeth Gemeroy all allege public meetings law violations by the Newberg School Board when it hired Canby attorney Tyler Smith in August.

Smith was hired outside the confines of a planned executive session, according to board Vice Chairman Brian Shannon, who claimed at the time that the board wasn't yet in executive session, and the public wasn't given the legally required notice of the unscheduled public session to hire him.

Plaintiffs demand a jury trial ,and the complaint asks for declaratory and injunctive relief. The lawsuit's defendants, who hadn't yet been served as of 9 a.m. Friday, include the Newberg School District as a whole and each individual board member in the voting majority: Shannon, Dave Brown, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell.

"On information and belief, at some time prior to Aug. 24 … defendants Brian Shannon, David Brown, Renee Powell, and Trevor DeHart met and/or conferred outside of a public meeting to discuss and agree to retain attorney Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel to the board of directors," the lawsuit reads. "On or about Aug. 18 … defendant Newberg School District 29J published an agenda for its upcoming Aug. 24, 2021, board of directors special meeting and executive session 'to consult with counsel concerning the legal rights and duties of a public body with regard to current litigation or litigation likely to be filed.' The agenda failed to include notice that the board of directors intended to vote to retain Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel or that board members had already consulted to hire Tyler Smith prior to the Aug. 24 … meeting."

The lawsuit points to emails, which this newspaper reported on in October, where Shannon notified district Superintendent Joe Morelock that he intended to make a motion to hire Smith at that night's meeting. Morelock warned against it, raising concerns that such a move would violate public meetings law.

Shannon and the board majority moved ahead anyway, inviting Smith to the meeting with a private Zoom link and making the motion to hire him despite protestations from the board minority of Brandy Penner, Rebecca Piros and Ines Peña, who also expressed legal concerns.

"All defendants' conduct violated the Oregon Public Meetings Law through one or more of the following: … In failing to provide notice of the board's intent to vote to retain attorney Tyler Smith on its published agenda for its Aug. 24, 2021, meeting; In willfully voting to retain Tyler Smith at the Aug. 24, 2021, board of director's executive session; In willfully meeting and/or discussing prior to the Aug. 24, 2021, executive session whereby the quorum decided to retain Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel for the board; and … In failing to permit public access to provide comment at the Aug, 24, 2021, executive session meeting prior to the board of director's vote to retain Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel," the lawsuit alleges.

The text of the lawsuit includes the assertion that the four board members are jointly liable with the school district because of their actions. Plaintiffs, the lawsuit says, are entitled to a declaratory judgment that the hiring of Tyler Smith was a violation of public meetings law and the agreement to retain him is null and void.

"Plaintiffs are further entitled to an order demanding that all fees and costs paid to Tyler Smith as a result of the aforementioned vote be repaid to the Newberg School District 29J by defendants Brian Shannon, David Brown, Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart," the lawsuit reads. "Pursuant to (state statute), plaintiffs are entitled to a judgment against all defendants awarding plaintiffs their reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred in pursuing this matter."

It remains to be seen if the plaintiffs receive the jury trial they seek. For further information and updates on the case, use the Oregon Judicial Search tool:

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!