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Letter: Checks and balances needed

Most would describe our form of government as a republic or democracy. In either case it relies on informed public electing representatives, in this case the Menahga School Board. The board in return attempts to make its decisions based on a balance of interests from a variety of perspectives including the taxpayers, students, parents, school staff, businesses, etc. Acknowledging the need for balance means conflicting interests are present. This leads to discussion and sometimes disagreement by the board, all of which is normal and should be expected to some extent. It just means numerous views are being discussed and considered, and the board represents a good cross section of the varying interests. But what does it mean when the disagreements are commonly about basics such as adding agenda items, providing information to the board or public, or what gets put into the meeting minutes?

Before serving on the board, I believed transparency and accountability were important characteristics of a government entity. I feel even more strongly about that today. Accountability is limited to the level of transparency and the lack of both is evident in recent administrative and board decisions. In recent months the school district has been tasked with some difficult decisions. However, many were a direct result of poor decisions made earlier due to a lack of sharing the responsibility for those decisions. This limited the proper vetting and removed checks and balances. In short, rubber stamping.

My trust in accepting things at face value that are presented at the board table changed shortly after the censure of a board member. Specifically when we learned a legal opinion recommending against the censure, which was paid for by the district for guidance on the censure matter, was not shared with the board before voting on the censure. I’ll remind you the censure was for writing articles to the newspaper, or in other words transparency. Whether you agree with the article or not, ask yourself, is it right to withhold information from the board this way? Was it an unintentional oversight? Either way I believe that gone unchecked these types of actions get worse over time.

This proved to be true. Fast forward to June 17, 2013. The board was informed about an overpayment matter during a closed contract negotiations session which likely was an open meeting law violation to describe the topic of the closed meeting this way.

Again, a transparency issue. Was it labeled this way to reduce public interest? During the following nine months my concerns grew. Legal correspondences were again paid for by the district and not shared with the board. OML and Data Practices issues multiplied. The public data request process has even been required for one board member request. The list goes on, but ultimately it’s caused by a few basic shortcomings, a lack of transparency, accountability, and maybe humility.

Again, gone unchecked these actions get worse over time.

I don’t intend to point fingers or place blame. The individual board members are no better or worse than anyone else. We just didn’t overcome the temptation to hide uncomfortable topics from the public, which only resulted in further conflict. Being that the public relies on the open government concept to stay informed, how do we fix it? Does it help to just demand that we stop talking about it? That sounds like blaming a symptom for the real problem. I recently have been asking for a higher level of transparency so the public can make their own determination. For more transparency go to meetings, talk to your representatives and vote. An informed public is the only path to effective public service and accountability.

Al Peterson

Menahga School Board Member