By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
If anyone doubted that District Attorney Steve Billy was upset over the Escambia County Board of Education’s recent 4-3 vote to bring Michele McClung’s tenure as school superintendent to an end when her current contract expires, those doubts were erased Monday, October 23.
County sheriff’s deputies, armed with search warrants, spread out across the county and seized or were in the process of seizing the cell phones of the four members who voted against renewal of McClung’s contract.
Various sources confirmed reports that cell phones owned by Atmore News Co-owner and publisher Sherry Digmon, who holds the District 6 seat on the school board, and District 4’s Cindy Jackson were confiscated.
Reports from a source close to the investigation were that deputies were also seeking or had already seized phones owned by District 1’s Kevin Hoomes and District 5’s Loumeek White.
The source, who spoke under a guarantee of anonymity, said the DA planned to charge each of the four with violating the provisions of Alabama’s Open Meetings Law. The foursome allegedly acted in concert to absent themselves from a September 28 meeting at which McClung’s contract was to be discussed. That meeting was canceled due to lack of a quorum.
Billy reportedly aims to prove to a grand jury that Hoomes, Jackson, White and Digmon (whose name is misspelled on her warrant) “met” by telephone and agreed to not attend the board session. Alabama law prohibits such conference-call meetings by a quorum of board members unless public notification is given at least 24 hours in advance.
According to the search warrants, the four BOE members had their phones confiscated because each of the cellular devices “constitutes evidence of a criminal offence” under state law.
However, according to several online sources, violation of the Open Meetings Law was a criminal statute under the old open meetings law but was reclassified as a civil matter when the law was changed in 2015.
Under the most recent version of the law, “each member of the governmental body found to have violated the law can be assessed a penalty of up to $1,000 or one-half of his or her monthly salary for service on the body, whichever is less.”
The law also requires that, if a violation is proven, the court “must issue a minimum penalty of one dollar.”
Neither Digmon nor Jackson would comment on the phone seizure when contacted by Atmore News, while White and Hoomes did not respond to requests for comment.