CLOUD COVER: MCSD would better serve public by doing more of its business in sunlight

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJuly 21, 2013 

MCSD would better serve public by doing more of its business in sunlight

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

- U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

The Muscogee County Board of Education should pause to consider applying Justice Brandeis' observation to its activities -- past, present and future.

The board has cavalierly exploited, if not openly violated, Georgia's "sunshine" laws governing open meetings and open records. Instead of existing to serve the people and making certain the public's business is conducted in the public, the board has flaunted exceptions to the open meetings law and possibly violated provisions of that law.

For example, the board on July 9 ended a more than year-long search for a new superintendent by unanimously voting to declare that of all the applicants for that post, it decided to pare that significant list down to a single candidate without pausing to narrow the list to a trio from which one would be chosen.

Why on earth would any agency sifting through a long list of potential superintendents not first winnow that list down to a few before deciding upon a single entry? Was that one applicant so clearly superior to all others that no comparisons were necessary?

You -- the public -- will never know, because by selecting a single "finalist" the school board evaded a Georgia law that would have required them to disclose the candidates being considered had they narrowed that long list down to three.

Did the board knowingly opt for that single "finalist" to evade the law?

Consider this: The same school board searching for the same superintendent last year narrowed 22 applicants down to four. That's a magic number for any public agency in Georgia that wants to evade operating in the sunshine when hiring a public employee.

Why is that?

Because in a 1989 case -- Board of Regents v. The Atlanta Journal & The Atlanta Constitution & Glenn MCutchen -- the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that access to records of applicants for presidency of Georgia State University must be open to public inspection.

"It would make for a strange rule, indeed, to hold that a person who applies for a public position -- to serve the public and to be paid by the public -- has the right to keep secret from the public the very existence of such an application," the court decision states.

The Georgia Legislature subsequently wrote an exception into the Open Records law that required disclosure of applicants for public posts when the hiring agency narrows its candidate list to "up to three" finalists.

When the board decided to narrow those 22 applicants down to four, it escaped the requirement to disclose any of those applicants' identities.

When they later narrowed the list again to a single candidate -- whose hiring will be rubber-stamped next week by the same board -- they effectively barred any non-board person in this county from knowing the identities, qualifications or histories of any other persons who applied to head this district's school system.

You'll just have to trust that this board certainly selected the very best candidate.

And they may have.

But you'll never know, will you?

Oh, yes. This same board also previously decided to "offer" this superintendency to another undisclosed candidate.

Remember that public meeting where the board voted to narrow that list of applicants to this single person who happened to withdraw before receiving that offered hiring by acclamation?

No? That's because none of that was ever done in public. And the name of that applicant, his history and what made him so worthy of the board's private decision also have never been disclosed.

And when a decision to hire a person is made, as it was on July 9, there was, of course, public disclosure of how much this board was expecting to pay this new superintendent, and what kinds of perks -- insurance, car or car allowance, travel per diems, bonuses, etc. -- the superintendent might expect from the public pocketbook.

You don't recall that disclosure?

That's because there hasn't been one, and the board's position is that it doesn't have to disclose that until they have a contract.

That's sort of like saying to the public, "We'll let you know what we've done after we've done it."

Doesn't exactly smack of government transparency and openness, does it?

Jim Houston, a retired Columbus journalist with almost four decades' experience in broadcast and print, was a Ledger-Enquirer staff writer for 36 years. Among many other awards for investigative reporting, he was 2008 recipient of the Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award for a career of championing open government.

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