Openness, not tactics, should guide officials

info@islandpacket.comNovember 21, 2012 

Newly elected Beaufort County school board member Paul Roth has gotten off on the wrong foot when it comes to public transparency, and he has offered his colleagues some bad advice.

Last week, at an informal luncheon attended by seven board members-elect, a discussion about the next school board chairman resulted in this exchange:

"I think any discussions regarding the chairmanship is inappropriate in front of the press without the rest of the entire board," said Roth, who will represent District 6.

Mike Sanz of Hilton Head Island responded that the group was just having a "general discussion."

"No, it's not a general discussion, Mike," Roth said. "The press is here."

"Right, and the press should be here at all times," said Sanz, who will represent District 10.

"No, they shouldn't," Roth said.

We would argue there is very little, if anything, about public education that shouldn't be discussed openly and while notes are being taken.

Roth also cautioned his colleagues about dealing with the news media. He urged them not to "go public" before they had a chance to "consult with the team."

That's bad advice, particularly when state law lays out a goal of openness on public issues and spells out what must be done to achieve it.

Roth seems to have it backward. Private debate should be the very rare exception, not the rule, for public officials. People who live in board members' individual districts should know what their representative thinks about issues affecting their community and their children. They should know why they vote the way they do and what led them to the conclusions they reached.

The school district isn't a private enterprise involving private investment. This is a very public undertaking, and the people footing the bill for public schools should know exactly what decision-makers are doing and why.

That means any discussion of public issues should be as open as the final votes. It's right, and it's the law.

Here's our advice to incoming school board members: Read and understand the state Freedom of Information Act before you're sworn in Jan. 2.

And when asked a question, answer honestly and openly, recognizing that your first duty is to your constituents and the children of Beaufort County, not the organization.

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