TRAVERSE CITY — An attorney for the Traverse City Record-Eagle is asking that the Traverse City school district turn over a letter regarding former Superintendent Ann Cardon to avoid a court battle over the public document.
Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education refused to release the six-page letter that apparently contains a complaint against Cardon on the grounds that the letter was part of documentation prepared for use in a closed session of the Board of Trustees, which they claim is exempt.
The letter was requested via the Freedom of Information Act.
When the district’s denial was appealed by the Record-Eagle, the district changed its position and claimed that the letter was part of the minutes of a closed session. In both denials the district did not identify which closed session it was referring to.
The district also claimed the letter was not in Cardon’s personnel file; files are generally not exempted by Michigan’s FOIA laws.
The Record-Eagle is represented by attorney Robin Luce Herrmann of the firm of Butzel Long, who penned the opinion on TCAPS’ withholding of the document.
“I have never encountered a case where a public body took the position that they can take any document and add it to a closed session and thereby keep it from the public,” Luce Herrmann said.
It’s an “over-the-top” position that Luce Herrmann is confident no court would agree with.
“There’s no ending point for documents that could be rendered exempt by this application,” she said. “Hopefully, they will revise their position and release the document.”
Cardon began her position as superintendent Aug. 1 and ended it on Oct. 17 in a mutual separation agreement with the district. The agreement gives Cardon $180,000 in severance pay.
Cardon has not responded to previous Record-Eagle requests for interviews or comments. Neither the board or Cardon has shed any light on why Cardon left the district after less than three months on the job.
Interim TCAPS Superintendent Jim Pavelka confirmed that he received seven hard copies of Luce Herrmann’s opinion that were addressed to board members Thursday in his office. Pavelka said he scanned the opinion and sent it electronically to all board members and to TCAPS attorney Nancy Mullet, who will draft a response.
He said Luce Herrmann’s opinion will not likely not be discussed at the district’s regular board meeting at 6 p.m. Monday.
“This is all a part of the process,” Pavelka said. “We do want to be transparent, but we also want to respect people’s right to privacy.”
Board President Sue Kelly on Friday said she had not yet seen Luce Herrmann’s opinion and couldn’t comment, but did say the district’s attorney will respond.
Board Trustee Erica Moon Mohr said she has always maintained that the complaint against Cardon should be made public.
“I do think it should be turned over,” Moon Mohr said. “I do think the community and the public deserve answers. They’re only dragging this out and keeping the public in the dark by dragging their feet.”
Luce Herrmann in her opinion stated that she has seen a troubling pattern with respect to TCAPS actions surrounding Cardon. They include:
- The district’s “inexplicable delays” responding to FOIA requests from the Record-Eagle;
- The omission of candidate interviews to fill a vacant board seat from the district’s live feed;
- The assertion of client attorney privilege to exempt communications between Kelly and Cardon, neither of whom is an attorney.
TCAPS Transparency is a group working on recalling Kelly, board Treasurer Matt Anderson and Secretary Pam Forton.
“It’s unfortunate that whether it’s the board or the attorney for TCAPS that they’re insisting on costing more money and causing more delay by refusing to release it,” said Ian Ashton, co-founder of TCAPS Transparency.
“It’s a perpetual runaround,” Ashton said. “It’s unfortunate that that’s where we’re at.”
The group had been trying to get the recall on the May ballot, but has hit a couple of snags. Petition language was approved Nov. 26, but the group found out this week that language for Kelly had to be filed in Leelanau County, where Kelly lives. The language had been filed in Grand Traverse County, where the petitions will be filed. Anderson and Forton live in Grand Traverse County.
The error was remedied on Thursday, when language for Kelly’s recall was filed in Leelanau. A hearing to approve that language is set for Dec. 18 at the Leelanau County Government Center in Suttons Bay. If approved, Kelly will have 10 days to appeal the decision.
Anderson and Forton had 10 days to appeal the language approved in their recall petitions; those appeals have been filed in 13th Circuit Court, said Bonnie Scheele, Grand Traverse County clerk.
The court has 40 days to set a hearing and no signatures can be collected during the appeal period, Scheele said. Recall elections can only be done in May and November, she said. Signatures would have to be collected by Jan. 31 to get the issue on the May ballot.