EDITORIAL: same problem, different answer

EDITORIAL from the News-Ledger — JAN 9, 2013 —

In March, West Sacramento residents will vote in a special election to fill a vacant seat on the local school board.

The vacancy was already filled once – last fall, when remaining school board members accepted applications and chose West Sacramento’s Liz Bagdazian to fill the seat. But a number of citizens criticized the way this happened. The citizens, backed by Mayor Cabaldon, gathered the needed signatures to nullify this appointment and send the matter to the voters.

One of the main criticisms leveled at the school district was that it kept secret the list of candidates for the open seat, making their names public only at the final selection meeting. The News-Ledger requested the names ahead of the meeting, but the request was denied.

Let’s compare this to how Sacramento City Unified School District handled a similar school board vacancy in the fall:

According to the Sac City district website, applications for their school board vacancy were accepted until November 14. The next day, the board met to review the applications in open session, with “all applications. . . available at the Board meeting for public inspection.”

Next, each applicant was then invited to make a presentation at the board’s December 6 meeting, and time was set aside on Dec. 20 for final presentations, questions from board members, and a final vote by the school board.

In other words, Sac City invited the public to get to know the candidates and offer questions and comments about them. That could have happened here.

[adrotate group=”7″]   Now, WUSD’s top officials are professionals with good intentions and they do a good job on many things. There was no villainy in WUSD’s selection process.

The News-Ledger’s main concerns after the West Sacramento appointment were that WUSD officials seemed to view “transparency” as a secondary goal, aiming (not always successfully) just to meet their bare legal obligations. And they did not seem to understand the state’s public record laws, which say that school district records are almost always “public” records and the district is obligated to help the public get the records it wants.

When, as a governmental entity, you try too hard to keep the public at arm’s length, sometimes it will backfire on you.

It would be better if the good people running WUSD were to consciously adopt a new policy of maximum transparency. They should educate their staff about public requests for information, release school board meeting agendas earlier than the minimum legal deadline whenever possible, and so forth. If the district’s law firm doesn’t understand “public records,” WUSD should get a new law firm.

There should be a “transparency” culture, where the public comes first.  The reward will be more trust and goodwill.

And fewer special elections.

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