The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 23, 2014

Where bad ideas are born

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— When Line Mountain School Board members secreted themselves behind closed doors and decided to fight for boys-only wrestling teams, you wonder if anyone asked, “What will it cost us to lose?”

Line Mountain lost. The winning side’s legal bill, which school administrators now dispute, came in at $140,000.

The school board clearly was unprepared to pay $140,000. The question, however, was whether they were prepared to lose and prepared to pay the legal costs. If so, what was their estimate?

Taxpayers and voters do not get to know how their elected officials decide contracts, land deals and legal strategies. Those discussions are exempted from open meeting topics.

The theory behind the exemption is that it is not in the public’s interest to reveal strategies that would give advantage to anyone across the table — or courtroom.

However, once the deal is struck, the contract agreed or the verdict in, the public should have the right to review the decision-making process and to examine how well or wisely it was decided.

This applies to a range of secret decisions made by schools, towns and counties throughout the Valley in recent years that did not turn out well for the public interest.

The bruhaha in the Midd-West School District over charges that led to the resignation of former superintendent Wesley Knapp was all supposed to be secret.

Now that they are out where people can see them, the validity of those charges has become debatable.

Given the number of allegations, 36, it is odd that none speak directly to the quality of education achieved under Knapp’s leadership, which would seem to be the point of the entire enterprise.

We do not know whether any elected board members wondered what all these allegations had to do with education or whether they were provable.

How Sunbury invested more than $200,000 in federal homeland security grant money for surveillance cameras has been a running story for four years.

The cloak of secrecy applied to that project was allegedly to prevent revelation from foiling crime-fighting intent. The cameras are comparatively too expensive, too complicated, too few and too poorly positioned for maximum advantage and public participation.

The camera project has fallen short of one expectation after another. Because of the veil of secrecy, these missteps have raised suspicions of cronyism, incompetence and bad judgment.

Readers may have noticed looming labor problems in Line Mountain and the Danville school districts where teachers have been working without renewed contracts for years. Danville’s faculty has approved a strike for April. Line Mountain teachers are appealing for public support while demonstrating and taking steps that lead toward a strike.

Statements made by unions and school boards in these districts are, understandably, self-centered. Teacher union representatives want contracts with growing rewards for their members. School board officials want recognition and relief from the dire financial picture developing from mounting pension and health costs that show schools going broke in the foreseeable future.

In conversations with readers and with public officials over many years, I have been told that the presence of the press — specifically of one of our reporters — changes the dynamic of public business. These are not complaints. Many officials, typically those whose job it is to run the agenda and manage the meeting, prefer to have the press present.

This is not about the reporter. It is about public access. If the meetings were conducted in front of a web cam, it might have the same effect. That effect is to subordinate personal agendas, institutional defensiveness and inflammatory language to the business being conducted on behalf of the witnesses in the room or watching on their computer screens.

Personal agendas and institutional defensiveness that seem (after the fact) to flourish in these secret meetings are expensive, divisive and regrettable.

Perhaps all closed sessions should include a mandatory question before every secret vote, “Can you state clearly how you voted in this matter, that you have discussed negative consequences and why it is clearly in the public interest — and sign your name to that document?”

Then, later, members of the public could review those and assess the quality of decisions made on their behalf.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.