November 1, 2012 | Volume 42, No.44

Editorial

Like math students who must “show their work” when solving problems, leaders elected by the public are required to make their decisions in public as much as possible.

This is so members of the public, whom leaders represent, can see how they are being represented.

This fundamental of governance has been lost on Haines Borough school board members who, for the second year in a row, flunked public accountability when making a board appointment Monday. (Last year they made their choice by secret ballot.)

State law allows governmental bodies to discuss in executive session “subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person.”

But the school board’s logic for calling the executive session to appoint a board member failed on a critical point: Candidates for political office, such as the school board, aren’t “any person.”

Political candidates are seen by the law as “public figures,” individuals who have deliberately and knowingly put themselves in the public eye and opened themselves to public criticism.

As such, they don’t have the same legal protection from criticism as private citizens. Just as we legally can say virtually anything we like about Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, school board members had a wide lattitude for commenting on the five school board candidates.

Further, in our system of government, the power to elect leaders rests with citizens, not with other leaders. When appointing to fill vacancies, leaders effectively "borrow" this power, but as it still fundamentally belongs to citizens, leaders bear a heavy obligation to use it in a way that is open for all to see and understand.

The assembly and school board have made appointments dozens of times in the past without calling lawyers or closing the doors on the public.

This is how it works: A leader who supports a certain candidate makes statements in support of that candidate. Other leaders may endorse other candidates, and make statements extolling their virtues. Votes are taken. The first candidate who gets the necessary votes wins the vacant seat.

No suspicion. No lawyers. No closed doors. Citizens get to see and hear their elected leaders make a very important decision. Democracy is served.

Choosing a leader after 80 minutes of closed-door session, with no public discussion of candidates and no explanation of the decision, is what we'd expect of governments ruled by tyrants or despots.

It's unbecoming of a democracy and of the Haines Borough school board.

-- Tom Morphet