Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wake panel wants teeth in ethics policy

Wake County school board members who violate a proposed ethics policy could face such penalties as a formal resignation request or referral for criminal charges, the News & Observer reports.

The policy,  approved by a board committee this week,  comes in response to a former board chairman's disclosure of closed-session details about superintendent hiring.  On June 11,  as the Wake board was negotiating with James Merrill,  former chair Ron Margiotta told reporter T. Keung Hui that the board had split 5-4,  with CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark in second place.

A board ethics policy wouldn't apply to Margiotta,  who was voted out in 2011.  But members say his information clearly came,  directly or indirectly,  from a current board member.

“There needs to be some accountability and repercussions when someone breaches our confidentiality and the trust of this board in that manner,” Chairman Keith Sutton told the N&O.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg board has seen similar wrangling.  In 2003,  a deeply divided board explored  ethics policies but didn't approve anything.  Two years later,  several members expressed outrage when then-member Larry Gauvreau,  publisher of the now-defunct Rhinoceros Times weekly newspaper, told his reporter the names of people being considered as interim superintendent after the departure of James Pughsley.  Gauvreau said he didn't believe talks about Pughsley's retirement package and the transition plan should be private.

In 2010,  after complete turnover in membership,  the CMS board approved an ethics code. It's composed as a first-person affirmation,  with statements such as "I will uphold the integrity and independence of my office as a board member."  There are no penalties for violation,  and to my knowledge none have been reported.

That's the challenge:  When all members hold enough values in common,  an ethics code becomes almost superfluous.  It's when differences of philosophy,  style and/or personality slice deep that public officials look for ways to bring the others in line.

Another challenge:  Sometimes the willingness of dissident board members to fight the group consensus -- even to the point of disclosing closed-door talks  --  can serve the public good.  The line between legitimate whistle-blowing and poking a figurative finger in the eye of opponents isn't always clear.

County commissioner Bill James,  a fiercely partisan Republican, spends a lot of time around that line.  His shots almost always have a Democrat in the bull's-eye,  but he has also pushed for maximum public disclosure of public business.  Not surprisingly,  he was quick to blame the Democratic majority on the Wake school board for trying to "muzzle the GOP"  with the proposed ethics penalties (Margiotta is a Republican),  and to work in a jab at one of his own Democratic colleagues.

"In any event, no ‘policy’ is going to prevent me from disclosing information that I believe the public should know,"  James said in an email.  "State law specifically allows elected officials to disclose closed session material or discussions (with certain limitations) because it gives the elected official the right to make the call."


Wiley Coyote said...

As we have seen recently in Washington and this country as a whole over the past couple of years, eithics and policy mean absolutely nothing.

For what its worth said...

As we eventually found out thanks to Bill and Larry is that "closed meetings" are commonly called by these 2 boards for the purpose of bypassing the law. Why not should a board person speak out when a closed meeting is called and the business comducted in the meeting does not fit the legal definition?

When it is brought up in the closed meeting, the democrats vote it down and claim the opposition is just the racists.

Wiley Coyote said...

I propose we give all BOE, BOCC and CCC board members lie detector tests and ask them if they have conducted official business using personal or alias emails.

Anonymous said...

easy to beat a lie detector, Wiley. For example, Vilma believes she lives at the address she uses for her district, so she would come up as telling the truth.