Our View

We’re disappointed that the Missouri Southern State University Board of Governors chose to go into closed session last week to pick the people who will serve on a search committee to name the new president.

We think Missouri law is clear — it isn’t allowed.

And we do not understand why it was necessary.

The board named 14 people to a committee that will advise it on hiring a successor for Alan Marble, who has announced plans to retire.

The search committee includes four board members: Chairman Bill Gipson,  Alison Hershewe, Carlos Haley and T. Mark Elliott.

It also includes ten others nominated by different organizations: Scott Boudreaux, MSSU Foundation; Steven Brunson, MSSU staff senate; Alan Cook, MSSU Lionbackers; Linda Dean, MSSU Alumni Association; Darren Fullerton, MSSU vice president of student affairs; Jerrod Hogan, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce; Nicholas Nicoletti, MSSU’s Empowering U program; Rebecca Mouser, MSSU faculty senate; Sarah Schultz, MSSU student senate; and Phil Stinnett, city of Joplin.

Jon Dermott, an attorney representing the board, said he advised its members that the closed meeting was in compliance with the law and explained that some of the people chosen for the search committee are employees of the university, and the board talked about details of those employees that they felt should be discussed in closed session.

But if various member of the committee were nominated by their respective organizations, why was such a conversation necessary?

Whatever the justification, Missouri’s open-meetings and open-records laws are clear. It allows public bodies — including the MSSU board — to go into closed session for personnel reasons only if it is related to the “hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees ... when personal information about the employee is discussed or recorded.” The law also says that “the term ‘personal information’ means information relating to the performance or merit of individual employees.”

Which means none of that applies here. The board did not discuss anything related to an employee’s job performance or whether to hire, fire or discipline anyone.

Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, told the Globe afterward: “This is not a situation where they’re hiring them to do this task. They’re already hired; it’s not a situation where their qualifications for their current job are being discussed. This is not in any way related to their current job performance. That is a wrong interpretation of this.

“They were discussing naming a committee, and that’s not an exception that’s allowed under the Sunshine Law,” she said. “This is a public body that is twisting the language of the law in an effort to try to find reason to justify an illegal act they’ve taken.”

Gipson said the goal is to be transparent about the process, and we applaud that.

But this is deja vu all over again. In 2007, the board of governors at that time made the same argument, going into closed session to appoint members of a search committee charged with selecting at least three finalists from a pool of applicants to replace Julio Leon.

We noted then that other universities select search committees without resorting to closed meetings.

We think Southern should — and can — live up to that standard too.

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