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The Charleston Gazette-Mail wants a circuit judge to rule that West Virginia University’s secret discussions of campus racism and the school’s pandemic response broke the law.

WVU’s Board of Governors admits discussing these and other issues behind closed doors but denies violating state open meetings law. The university cited 22 separate webinars — officials call them “campus conversations” — on COVID-19 and 282 “written communications” posted on the topic as evidence the school’s decision-making was public.

“Any citizen of West Virginia who wants to know how the university is handling the coronavirus pandemic can turn on their computer and be fully informed on this issue,” the school’s lawyers wrote. “And many have. Tens of thousands of individuals have watched the Campus Conversations, hundreds of thousands have visited the websites, and the page views for the two websites exceed 1.4 million views.”

Public universities such as WVU and Marshall, which receive taxpayer money, are governed by boards composed principally of members appointed by the governor. These boards fall under state open meetings law similar to city councils, county commissions and other public bodies.

State law permits public governing boards to exclude the public from private meetings, or what’s known as executive sessions, only under specific exemptions, such as to discuss sensitive topics like personnel matters or the sale of commercial property. But the law holds generally that such boards should conduct their business in the open so the public can observe the decision-making process.

The newspaper sued WVU more than a year ago, on Oct. 19, 2020, claiming its board repeatedly violated open meetings provisions, secretly discussing topics such as pandemic response when those talks should have been public under the law.

During a June 2020 meeting, the board discussed the university budget, spoke with the school athletic director about the outlook for the upcoming season, the business college, emergency pay policy, federal Title IX regulations, tuition and fees, capital projects, the pandemic and a petition signed by more than 800 people calling WVU “systemically anti-Black,” according to the Gazette-Mail’s lawsuit.

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In a motion filed in Monongalia County Circuit Court, the newspaper argues the law offers no provision allowing private discussion of the school’s pandemic response.

“The fundamental purpose of the open meeting law is to ensure the right of the public to be fully informed regarding the conduct of governmental business so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them,” the lawsuit reads.

The Gazette-Mail claims the Board of Governors showed “a pattern and practice of ignoring the state’s open meeting laws.” The newspaper wants Judge Cindy Scott to declare the board broke the law and order that pandemic response and other issues not exempt from open meetings provisions be discussed in the open.

A school official declined to comment for this report.

“Ensuring public entities, including the board governing the state’s flagship university, comply with open meetings law is fundamental to the preservation of open government, the rule of law and the idea that public entities are always and ultimately responsible not to themselves but to the people of West Virginia,” said Lee Wolverton, vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media, publisher of the Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch and weeklies throughout southern West Virginia.

Charleston-based DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress is representing the Gazette-Mail.

Joe Severino is an enterprise reporter. He can be reached at 304-348-4814 or joe.severino@hdmediallc.com. Follow @jj_severino on Twitter.

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