UPDATE: The Board of Education at about 5:55 p.m. voted 7-0 to allow member Brian Meshkin to fully participate and vote in the remainder of tonight's school board meeting.
Howard County Board of Education member Brian Meshkin is about as angry as he can recall being, and that anger is aimed at some school board colleagues he said tried to keep him from carrying out his duties as a board member.
Meshkin, who works for a California-based company and often travels for business, is in California today and will miss tonight's board meeting during which the board will vote on proposed middle school program changes.
When the school board voted on the proposal at its Jan. 26 meeting, the result was a 4-4 deadlock, with board members Cindy Vaillancourt, Allen Dyer, Tomi Williams and Meshkin opposing it.
Meshkin asked his colleagues for permission to participate in tonight's meeting via electronic means—either teleconference or video conference—and said he was told that wasn't permissible.
He is concerned that his opposition to the proposal is being silenced with the exclusion.
"I asked to participate via a teleconference, and (board President) Sandy French told me that wasn't possible and that it would violate open meeting laws," Meshkin said Thursday. "And then (school system attorney) Mark Blom told me I could participate via phone."
The Howard County School Board met in closed session at 2 p.m. Thursday, and French could not be reached for comment.
Blom, the school system's attorney, said Thursday that he was preparing a legal opinion to submit to board members and would not comment on that opinion before delivering it to the board.
"I did talk to Mr. Meshkin," Blom said. "In my opinion, (permitting Meshkin to participate) would not violate open meetings laws."
But, Blom added, the issue isn't so much with the interpretation of open meeting laws as it is with the interpretation of a section in the board handbook regarding parliamentary procedure.
The handbook provision states that a board member cannot cast a vote in absentia or by proxy.
At issue is the definition of "absent," Blom said.
Blom was set to issue his opinion to the board Thursday afternoon.
Regardless of the lawyer's opinion, it will still be up to a board vote to decide whether Meshkin will be allowed to participate in the meeting electronically, Blom said.
"We're setting it up so that, if that's the board's decision, Mr. Meshkin will be able to participate tonight," Blom said.
Meshkin said he was appalled by what he characterized as "illegal" activity and an attempt to keep him from his board duties.
"I think it's pretty horrendous," he said in a phone interview. "It's shocking to me—this is illegal, immoral and unethical.
"This is an attempt to disenfranchise me, and to keep me from voting. This is wrong, and it's an affront to the voters and an affront to the laws."
The school board has allowed at least one other member to participate via phone in a meeting, Blom said.
Blom said that occurred about 10 years ago, when technology was not as good as it is now, and the transmission of board member Jim O'Donnell's phone participation "wasn't perfect."
"But that was 10 years ago," he said.
The Frederick County Board of Education has been allowing members to participate via phone for at least four or five years, according to Frederick County Public Schools spokeswoman Marita Loose.
"We have done that on several occasions, when a board member is out of town, or ill, or recovering at home," she said Thursday.
The school system allowed the phone participation "once technology was in place to make that easily possible," she said.