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Clackamas County prosecutor: 'School board exceeded the proper scope of the executive session'

COURTESY PHOTO - Ashley Maestas comes injured to an Oregon City High School equestrian event to support former teammate Grace Steiner. Maestas said she was injured, evicted, kicked off of equestrian team by Coach Angie Wacker after warning about a badly behaved horse.A Clackamas County procecutor determined this week that the Oregon City School Board "exceeded the proper scope of the executive session" in voting not to fire an equestrian coach who recently was convicted on violations of state law.

As previously reported, Oregon City High School equestrian coach Angie Wacker appears to have written portions of the athletic director's investigatory report that led to the school board's decision. In January, Wacker was convicted on four violations of state law related to self-dealing.

Clackamas County Deputy District Attorney Brian R. Powell wrote that the Oregon City School District must disclose its investigatory report on Wacker to the public, along with the audio of the illegal portion of its closed-door meeting when elected officials voted to retain Wacker.

Listen to this portion of the meeting here:

Read Pamplin Media Group's analysis of the audio recording here.

Powell determined that secrecy protections of an executive session allowed by state law do not extend to a "final action" or "final decision" made by a public body during an executive session.

COURTESY PHOTO - Oregon City High School Equestrian Coach Angie Wacker was found to have violated state ethics laws.OCSD's December 2019 "decision would properly be categorized as aCOURTESY PHOTO - Oregon City High School Equestrian Coach Angie Wacker 'final decision' because that decision constituted the ultimate resolution of the matter concerning discipline of Ms. Wacker," Powell wrote.

OCSD received a Public Records Order from one of the district prosecutors representing Clackamas County during March's annual Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of access to public information that was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors.

School district officials had tried to keep the information secret by rejecting this newspaper's request for an audio recording of the board meeting in which the elected officials voted to affirm the athletic director's findings.

On Dec. 16, 2019, OC's school board held an executive session to determine whether to overturn the administration's investigative findings and resolution regarding complaints against the equestrian coach.

At the conclusion of the executive session, there was a motion to adopt the findings of the investigative report and therefore take no disciplinary action against Wacker. That motion was seconded, voted on and passed, in a clear violation of state law.

School board members voted to retain Wacker despite state laws prohibiting such decisions during closed-door meetings. These board members are now the subject of a related Oregon Government Ethics Commission investigation into the board improperly taking the vote during a closed-door meeting, a violation of Oregon's open-meetings laws for which elected officials could receive civil penalties of up to $5,000 each.

Clackamas County's deputy district attorney said the school district incorrectly contended that its investigatory report of Wacker was exempt from public disclosure as a personnel record.

District officials unsuccessfully tried to take advantage of an exemption to state laws generally supporting release of governmental information to the public that "is available only when a discipline action is taken, not when a public body declines to discipline the personnel at issue," Powell wrote.

Powell's decision supports the release of governmental employees' personnel files in Oregon that are of interest to the public.

"With the exception of personnel discipline actions, the remainder of personnel files are generally subject to disclosure if the content is responsive to a public records request," he wrote.

School board members voted to retain Wacker despite her alleged online bullying of students and OCHS Athletic Director Andy Jones' investigatory report's acknowledgment of "some evidence that social media posts should not have been made."

Responding to the complaints of 20 students, Jones said Wacker "received training on the effects and impact of poor social media habits."

Jones provided the report for the school board's December 2019 decision to retain Wacker, who apparently provided comments in her defense later lifted by Jones without attribution or changing pronouns for the report. It may remain unclear whether the school board members noticed these errors prior to their illegal vote, since the district attorney is allowing the school district to redact portions of the audio file of the meeting.

"At a minimum, the audio recording of the final vote and discussion immediately preceding the vote must be disclosed," the district prosecutor wrote.

Oregon City Superintendent Larry Didway wrote that the district attorney's decision was "very helpful and will assist school district personnel to properly disclose the appropriate material." The only thing the procescutor ordered redacted was the portion of the meeting with "statements of any persons who presented or testified at the executive session who were not school staff or elected officials," so the school district now has an opportunity to exceed its mandated minimum level of disclosure by reducing its secrecy in a matter of public interest.

According to the official OCSD Complaint Procedure the superintendent, not the athletic director, should have written the report prior to the school board hearing a formal appeal. District officials declined to answer this newspaper's question about why it appears that the district violated its own policy in the Wacker case.

Jones said his investigation was reviewed by Didway and OCHS Principal Carey Wilhelm, but both administrators seem to have missed Jones' errors indicating Wacker's participation in writing Jones' report.

For their alleged mishandling of the Wacker case, Didway, Wilhelm and Jones are under investigation by the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. Citing the ongoing investigation, district officials declined to comment about how all three of them did not notice various errors and correct them before the school board received the report.

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