Alan Miller column: Reynoldsburg school board conducts business in the dark

Column by Alan Miller, Editor, The Columbus Dispatch

The Reynoldsburg Board of Education and its lawyers tried to hide an unusual expenditure of public dollars and got caught.

It’s remarkable that public officials would think that it’s a good idea to sneak a potentially controversial spending measure past the public.

Even more remarkable is that this is not the first time we have seen such stupidity by public officials and their lawyers, and undoubtedly it won’t be the last.

That’s one of many reasons we all should be grateful that a reporter asked a couple of simple questions: What was that vaguely worded resolution you voted to approve? And can I have a copy of the public record that provides the details?

What Dispatch reporter Shannon Gilchrist found was that the Reynoldsburg school board voted 3-2 to approve an agreement with Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning to make her a consultant from her home for a full year for $100,000 plus benefits.

In return, she agreed to leave the office and not sue the district.

It was presented for a board vote as “the agreement with Ms. Tina Thomas-Manning as presented.” That’s it. No further detail. The vote came after the board met in a private session.

A board member who was asked about the agreement and the vote said that the district’s legal counsel, Bricker & Eckler, “really pushed the fact that we aren’t supposed to talk,” and that all questions were to be directed to the central office.

Think about that for a minute. An elected public official says she can’t discuss a public vote on public business because a lawyer advised the board not to talk about public business.

The settlement itself included a section titled “MEDIA COMMENT REGARDING THIS AGREEMENT,” which says that “the parties will not comment on this settlement agreement unless required by law to do so, and instead will present to the media and any media representative the joint statement attached as Exhibit B.”

That statement added a little detail, noting that the district would “continue to utilize Ms. Thomas-Manning’s expertise in the educational field as a consultant, and following that year she will be provided an unpaid leave of absence for one year,” but the statement said nothing about the cost to taxpayers.

Clearly, there are lawyers who think this is sound practice when it comes to avoiding a court battle.

But it’s important for public officials to remember that lawyers work for them, not the other way around. And the officials are responsible for seeing the bigger picture. That includes understanding that in the court of public opinion, any effort by public officials to hide public information generally blows up in the faces of those who try it. Because we always find out.

Sometimes, we or other members of the public find out because we sit in meetings, read meeting agendas, listen to speeches or hear public officials utter statements that simply aren’t clear, don’t add up or don’t make sense. And when we ask for clarification or documentation to explain what we’re reading or hearing, the truth comes out.

Other times, we hear about such moves because some good soul with a strong moral compass sees or hears something that he or she knows is wrong and should be exposed. These days, some people attach the pejorative label leak to such tips.

I call that bravery and doing the right thing, because to stand by and say nothing while someone in authority seeks to mislead the public, or worse, do something illegal, would make that person complicit.

And the consequences of hiding a controversial decision are far greater than being honest and transparent about that decision in the first place.

Such clumsy moves also can be costly in other ways. The Dispatch once sued a rural county prosecutor because he refused to release a public record. He didn’t think we should have it, regardless of what the law said, so he dug in his heels and we sued him. When he lost the lawsuit — and also was required by the court to pay our legal fees — he went with hat in hand to the county commissioners seeking money to pay the bill.

No dice, they told him. You made a bad decision; you pay the bill.

It was a painful lesson — one that I hope he and other public officials never forget.

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