Should Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby prosecute the 30 people charged with disrupting school board meetings last year, seek mediation or drop the charges?
As noted in today's article, the outgoing Wake County school board called a last-minute closed session meeting last week in which it agreed to rescind its prior authorization to seek mediation.
"We decided against mediation," said former school board chairman Ron Margiotta of the Dec. 1 meeting. "We wanted a court trial. We wanted to see them stand trial for their actions."
Willoughby had approached school leaders and attorneys for the protesters several months ago about seeking mediation to resolve the long-stalled court cases, where the arrests date back as far as March 2010.
The board initially agreed to authorize Margiotta to seek mediation. But Margiotta contends that the attorneys for the protesters stalled on the issue. He said the attorneys only agreed to consider mediation after the school board elections changed the board majority.
At that point, Margiotta said the board members decided to send their own message to protesters about the consequences of disrupting public meetings.
Margiotta pointed to how since the 2010 incidents there have been various protests such as the Occupy Wall Street events that have resulted in arrests. He said a firm resolution to the school board arrests would send a message to those more recent cases and to future protesters.
"Standards have to be set or else you’ll have anarchy," Margiotta said.
If the cases do go to trial, Margiotta said he would appear as a witness because he's a complainant on the trespassing charges.
The meeting was announced last Tuesday, just within the 48-hour public notice window. Margiotta said he felt it was important that the outgoing board deal with the issue because it had been involved all along in the process.
All five Republicans and Democrats Anne McLaurin and Carolyn Morrison attended the meeting. Democrats Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton were out of town. The indications are the Republicans supported going to trial while the Democrats backed sticking with mediation.
But the board's action isn't the last word. Willoughby said that his office will make the ultimate decision and that he still hopes the cases can be settled rather than tie up court dockets.
Willoughby said the board's decision to not go ahead with mediation had surprised him.
“We had anticipated that the school board would be involved in the discussions to try to mediate it out,” Willoughby said. “It will be hard to have mediation when one side refuses to be involved in the process.”
Willoughby didn't have a timetable on when he'll decide on how to handle the cases. But he said they'll weigh factors such as the strength of the evidence and whether he feels it's an appropriate use of court resources to prosecute.
Ten of the 30 people who were arrested, including the Rev. William Barber, the Rev. Nancy Petty and Tim Tyson, are scheduled to have their cases heard Friday. But Willoughby said the cases will likely be continued because he won't have reached a decision by then.
It's possible that the new school board majority could step in and reverse the outgoing majority's action.
New board member Jim Martin said they need to briefed on the offer from Willoughby. He said the new members weren't told ahead of time that the mediation offer was going to be discussed.
“Mediation is almost always the better solution,” Martin said. "I'd have to know why the board chose to rescind the authorization for mediation."
Margiotta says that new board member Susan Evans should recuse herself from any discussion on the issue considering she joined with protesters who took over a June 2010 meeting. While not arrested, Evans stood with protesters who refused to give up the podium as they sang and clapped.
The zeal for the protestors to have a trial has diminished since the election results.
Tyson said he has no strong position in the back and forth over mediation, but made a case that the demonstrations served their intended purpose.
“I think the determination of the community not to have any more high-poverty schools has been made clear and the issue that we were engaged in civil disobedience about has been resolved,” he said.
“When you engage in civil disobedience, you are saying, ‘I believe in this so deeply and it is so important for me to say so, for my conscience and my community, that I am willing to pay whatever price is required.’”
One of the messages from protesters is that they be allowed back into the school board meetings. With the cases pending, the protesters are barred from attending school board meetings unless they get school system permission.
Seth Keel, 17, a Middle Creek High student, said he looked forward to being able to return to school board events.
“I just want to see these charges dropped,” Keel said. “I would hope that the new board would allow us to take part in the democratic process.”
Based on some of the comments that hav been posted, I wanted to add some more details to the post.
Margiotta said Wednesday he wasn't a fan of mediation in the first place. But, as board chair, he said he agreed to present Willoughby's proposal to the full board, resulting in the initial authorization.
Margiotta said he felt that accepting mediation could be interpreted as the board bearing some of the fault for the arrests.