The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is moving forward with an investigation to determine if the Enterprise School Board violated executive session laws, including if it discussed the job performance of former Enterprise Athletic Director Larry Wells in executive session without giving him an opportunity to request a hearing.
Wells resigned from his position Feb. 22 — announcing the intent to do so Jan. 4 — citing what he claimed were unethical actions by the school board and Superintendent Erika Pinkerton regarding the athletic eligibility of Enterprise High School senior Justus Even.
The investigation comes after OGEC conducted a preliminary review of a complaint filed Jan. 30 by Ilene Wells, wife of Larry Wells, into the actions of the board. In its preliminary review, which was provided to The Observer by Larry Wells, the ethics commission stated it doesn’t have jurisdiction over, and therefore didn’t address, several of Ilene Wells’ complaints. The commission, though, does have jurisdiction over at least three of the allegations, including that “the statutory authorities cited by the board for the executive sessions did not match the topics discussed in those executive sessions … (that) board made a final decision while in executive session … and the board discussed the employment-related performance of an employee without providing that employee with notice or an opportunity to request an open hearing,” OGEC wrote in its preliminary review.
The review summary recommended an investigation into possible violations of ORS 192.660 by the Enterprise School Board, which includes Chair Kate Fent and board members Heather Melville, Mandy Decker, Mike Wiedeman and Adrian Harguess.
“The board is working with the state to address the concerns that have been raised. We look forward to resolving the matter through the appropriate channels, but will otherwise not comment while the investigation is pending,” Fent told The Observer.
The ethics commission voted on March 7 to move
forward with an investigation, and plans to hold a meeting on the matter Aug. 23, according to an email to Wells that was shared with The Observer.
According to the preliminary review, the school board met in executive session on five occasions from Nov. 14, 2018, through Jan. 30, 2019, to discuss Even’s hardship request. In early October 2018, Wells had determined the student would be ineligible to participate in athletics for his senior year at EHS and didn’t put the hardship request forward to the District Athletic Committee. Even had previously competed in football, basketball, and track and field.
A March 15 Observer article reported Even left Enterprise in late August to attend school in Southern California, but transferred back to Enterprise Sept. 11. Based on OSAA regulations, Wells determined the same day — Sept. 11 — that Even was considered a mid-year transfer and thus ruled ineligible for one calendar year. Wells later received supporting documentation — including family letters — for Even’s hardship request, but said in an Oct. 4 letter to the family and OSAA that the original ruling stood.
Even, in the meantime, proceeded to miss 14-1/2 of the next 18 school days, including 10 days in a row, which led to in his automatic withdrawal from school in early October.
Despite this, in November, the board chose to hear Even in executive session regarding his desire to regain eligibility, and put an action plan in place. On the recommendation of the school board, Pinkerton put forward a hardship request on behalf of Even in late January. The request was ultimately voted down by both the District Athletic Committee and the Oregon School Activities Association in February.
In a Dec. 3 executive session, the board discussed and voted on a response letter that would be sent to Evens’ family regarding the handling of his case, which in part was critical of actions by both Wells and Enterprise High School Principal Blake Carlsen.
This vote — and other actions in that Dec. 3 meeting — are among the potential violations mentioned in Ilene Wells’ complaint and will be further investigated by OGEC.
ORS 192.660(6) “prohibits governing bodies from taking final action or making a final decision while in executive session,” according to the commission’s preliminary review, and the complaint by Ilene Wells contends the vote on the letter regarding her husband violated this rule.
Within the preliminary review document, attorney Luke Reese of Garrett Hemann Robertson, who is representing the school board, refuted claims that ORS 192.660(6) was violated.
“The Board sought consensus on whether to continue discussions on a letter to this student or to send it to legal council first,” asserted Reese’s statement, saying the decision on how to move forward “with respect to the student’s eligibility was previously made on Nov. 14, 2018, and a vote was held in open session.”
The Commission’s preliminary review concluded: “There appears to be a substantial objective basis to believe that violations of the executive session provisions of Oregon Public Meetings law may have occurred on Dec. 3, 2018, when the Board may have taken final action in executive session in violation of ORS 192.660(6).”
The OGEC determined the matter required more in-depth examination, particularly the school board’s handling of “employee-related performance.” The original complaint by Ilene Wells argues the athletic director’s due process rights were violated.
“The justification for the Dec. 3 executive session was related to employment-related performance,” the complaint states. “Presumably, this was focused on the athletic director. However, this violates due process, as the athletic director was not notified that the session would occur, nor given an opportunity to request an open hearing.”
Reese conceded that Larry Wells was discussed in the session, but countered that “the Board was not providing a formal evaluation, nor was it considering dismissal or discipline. As such, it was not required to provide direct notice.”
While the ethics commission resolved to further investigate whether the discussion of Wells was in violation of executive session law, it also wrote that, due to the brevity of the minutes taken from the executive sessions, the “commission staff (does) not yet have sufficient information to determine the nature of the discussion.”