07/23/10 — Above the law? Chairman, committee's actions were shameful and disrespectful

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Above the law? Chairman, committee's actions were shameful and disrespectful

It doesn't matter if county Commission Chairman Jack Best thinks a meeting to discuss the replacement of a member of the Wayne County Board of Education should be conducted behind closed doors.

And it matters even less that no one took him up on his hint that they -- the public -- should vacate the premises so the discussion could be held in private.

What does matter is that two current county officials, a former school board member, a former town board member, a school board vice chairman, and a member of the media who should have known better decided to be party to a decision to openly flout rules about which meetings can be held in private -- and conducted a whispered session in direct defiance of the public's right to know and state Open Meetings Law.

While it is disappointing the other members of the committee appointed to recommend a replacement for the District 2 seat went along with this ridiculous, sophomoric and improper decision, some who have no public service experience, might be excused. They might not have known that a public appointment is not the same as a personnel discussion.

But the others did -- and never should have been party to such a disrespectful and downright childish tantrum, which resulted in a useless meeting that had members of the committee straining to hear each other and kept audience members who took the time to attend the discussion in the dark.

The state Open Meetings Law is clear -- a meeting to discuss the appointment of a person to fill an elected seat cannot be held in private, period.

The newspaper told the committee that -- and so, too, did the county's chief legal adviser.

And that, by the way, includes whispering during an open meeting so that no one in attendance can hear what is being said.

But, apparently, the Open Meetings Law does not mean anything to the commission chairman -- and he actually thinks it is within his purview to ignore it.

Well, we will not.

The reason these rules exist is that too many times public officials use secrecy and loopholes to hold discussions they would not be comfortable having in front of the public. And while there are times when closed meetings are necessary and justified, the rules are there to prevent abuse and to make sure that the public's business is conducted in front of the public.

A discussion to replace a publicly elected school board member simply must be held in an open forum, as it is when an election is held, with resumes and intents questioned and discussion held about what is best for the school district and the children it serves.

There is no possible reason that there would be a need to discuss those qualifications in private -- unless the decision was being made not based on the qualifications and the commitment of the individuals involved but on some other criteria that no one wanted to talk about in public.

By the way, the candidates didn't ask for privacy.

It would have been better in the end -- especially in light of the fact that ultimately, no real recommendation was made -- to have simply adjourned the meeting and left the decision up to the commission itself.

Perhaps cooler heads would have prevailed there.

Published in Editorials on July 23, 2010 1:28 PM