West Bonner trustees schedule, then cancel a special meeting 90 minutes before the start

This story was updated at 5 p.m. About an hour and a half before it was planned to start, the meeting was listed on the district website as “cancelled.” 

PRIEST RIVER — Recently ousted West Bonner trustees Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown planned to enter the district into contractual or financial obligations just hours before their recall takes effect, which could defy a District Court ruling.

Then, 90 minutes before its start, the meeting was cancelled, according to the district website.

Rutledge and Brown were overwhelmingly recalled by voters on Tuesday, Aug. 29, but the outcome is not official until after canvasing on Sept. 7, according to the Bonner County clerk.

But that did not stop board chair Rutledge from scheduling a special meeting for Wednesday night. He attempted to hold a special meeting on Friday night but that was cancelled following a judge’s ruling to grant an emergency temporary restraining order that prevents the board from taking action until the election results are official.

Priest River attorney Katie Elsaesser, who filed the civil lawsuit last week against the board, is “very concerned” about Wednesday’s meeting “because all of the items are improper … for a special meeting.”

Rutledge scheduled the special meeting for Wednesday night to evaluate the superintendent and “reaffirm” voting that occurred in June and August. It is not clear what their action was supposed to accomplish. The community was concerned that clarifying board votes would have benefitted the superintendent’s future. 

“These items (on the agenda) not only are unnecessary but appear to only benefit Mr. Durst and Ms. Paradee, which is a breach of your fiduciary duty as trustees if you proceed with the special meeting and the items on the agenda,” Elsaesser wrote in a letter to trustees.

Idaho Education News obtained a copy of an amended superintendent’s contract signed by Rutledge Tuesday, an action that appears to violate the temporary restraining order that prohibits him from “contractually obligating” the district, according to Elsaesser.

Elsaesser questioned Rutledge’s action, because it appears this amended contract has already been approved by the entire board, and he signed the contract after the restraining order was put in place.

Brown’s and Rutledge’s terms end on Thursday. 

Superintendent Branden Durst said he’s recommended trustees meet virtually for their own safety, and be careful to not violate the restraining order, which was the result of Elsaesser’s 29-page lawsuit. Then they cancelled the meeting. 

The restraining order that stopped the board from meeting last Friday appears to have lasted only five days.

Trustee Margaret Hall said she was going to boycott the meeting.

Superintendent Branden Durst

According to the lawsuit, Rutledge and Brown could have faced monetary fines of up to $2,500 for violations of Idaho code if the took action.

Durst said the board members made their own decisions because “the board has a responsibility to act.”

“Is this unethical? No, they have a job to do,” Durst said of scheduling a board meeting just hours before two trustees would be removed from the board. “To take that away is inappropriate.”

The civil lawsuit asked the court to limit the board’s ability to meet until after the recall election results are certified. That request was granted last Friday, when law enforcement shut down the meeting 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

“Plaintiffs respectfully request the following … The Court issue a temporary restraining order preventing any action by Rutledge, Brown in capacity as trustees of WBCSD Board and the WBCSD Board until the August 29, 2023 election results are certified,” the lawsuit reads.

Undeterred, the district posted an agenda Tuesday just before 5 p.m., meeting the 24-hour posting requirement. 

The agenda listed these items:

  • Executive session for the superintendent evaluation.
  • Executive session for the board clerk evaluation.
  • Reaffirming board actions from June 28, 2023.
  • Reaffirming board actions from August 22, 2023.

Elsaesser wrote, the agenda items “reaffirming board actions” relate to a contract, contract addendum and revisions to those contracts and therefore violate the court order.

”You are not only violating a court order but your actions will be null and void as you have been restrained by the court from any action that financially commits the district or contractually obligates the district,” she wrote.

Durst said the board previously approved his request to have a 60-day job evaluation, which is what he wanted done before the recall results are certified and two new trustees are appointed. 

Following the recall certification Thursday, the board can declare a vacancy at a regular or special meeting and has 90 days to appoint someone from the zone where the vacancy occurred. If the board fails to find a suitable replacement, they are allowed to appoint someone from anywhere within the district’s boundaries. If there is no resolution after 120 days, county commissioners can make the appointment.

If the new board chooses to remove Durst as superintendent, he expects to be fully paid under the terms of the two-year contract. Anything less will result in legal action against the district, he said.

“I am fulfilling all of my contract responsibilities,” Durst said.  

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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