Friday, March 9, 2012

Stop trifling with the open meeting law

The board of trustees of the Blaine County School District administers the largest budget of any public agency in the county. Five cities in this county have budgets that are peanuts in comparison, and the county's is just one-third the size of the schools' budget.

The decisions of the board, charged as it is with providing a topnotch public education for kids, affect residents' family lives and futures profoundly.

When the five board members ran for election, each promised to make decisions in the open and to make the process of governing transparent to anyone who cared to look at it. To a person, they'd been on the other side of the fence as parents and disliked it when they felt that they didn't know what was going on.

But there's a disturbing pattern of laxity on the board with regard to openness that should stop—and fast.

First, the board used provisions of the Idaho Open Meeting Law to obscure what members were to discuss in closed-door sessions despite official state guidelines on the law that call for greater specificity. The Idaho Attorney General's office guidelines state that "the presiding officer must identify the specific authorization under the Open Meeting Law for the holding of an executive session."

The latest lapse in procedure occurred on Feb. 21 when the board voted unanimously to stick with the current school start date after Labor Day.

The board had stated in writing that it wouldn't vote on the matter in that meeting and would hold more public meetings. Instead of hearing a lot of controversy on the issue, it got lots of public support for keeping the existing start date and voted in the first meeting.

Certainly, starting school after Labor Day is more family-friendly than starting it the week before summer's last true holiday and then immediately taking a break. But the wisdom of the decision can't excuse the fact that the board failed to conduct itself properly.

Kudos to the board for subsequently admitting that its vote violated the Idaho Open Meeting Law. However, had its position been unpopular, it's likely it would have faced a torrent of criticism from the public alleging secrecy and manipulation. Merely re-voting wouldn't have been enough to erase the negative perceptions that would have been generated.

The board shouldn't trifle with the Open Meeting Law and the public that it's elected to serve.

Board Chair Steve Guthrie said there was no ill intent, but that doesn't matter. It's doing the public's business in public that matters—even when it's inconvenient or won't cause a stir.

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