Why does everyone want to do everything in the dark?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

It seems like no matter what organization, board, council or committee I come across while doing my job, an instance comes where the group wants to stop acting like a citizen-elected governing organization and start acting like a secret society.

I’m embellishing a little but the point is I simply get dumbfounded whenever these governing bodies try to mysteriously hide details that they know they shouldn’t be.

I mostly deal with these situations whenever executive session becomes “necessary” which seems to happen the most with school boards. I don’t imagine that not following the letter of the law when it comes to these executive sessions is an all-together unique category to our local schools but it does seem to be a reoccurring theme in this area.

Most recently the Gosnell School Board has been an offender. The specifics of the situation are listed in a story published on May 26; however, briefly surmised the board entered into executive session without properly defining the purpose of the executive session, which is not allowed, according to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

“…The specific purpose of the executive session shall be announced in public before going into executive session.” FOIA also states, “Executive sessions will be permitted only for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee.”

It is also required that any decision being considered in executive session be voted on in public or open session.

Whenever the Gosnell School Board returned to open session they took no action over their discussion.

Now, I know some of you may think that I’m being nitpicky and that not stating what they planned to discuss is not that big of an issue — you’d be wrong.

Though this may seem minor, I have found through personal experience that executive session can be a den of dishonesty. The very nature of executive session promotes an atmosphere for the board and the superintendent to discuss whatever they want behind closed doors with no one to hear what they discuss. I’ve seen multiple school board meetings — admittedly not the Gosnell School Board — come near an end only for an executive session to be entered at the last minute and tack on an extra hour to the meeting with no decision being taken afterward.

We as the public have no way of holding board members accountable for what is discussed in executive sessions and because of that we desperately need to know to some degree why a board is kicking us all out of the room because I have found that “personnel recommendations” can mean anything from dress code to pity fights between board members once the door closes.

Personally, if I controlled our laws I would do away with executive sessions, the public deserves to know every detail in these groups particularly the ones concerning executive session.

Hiring and firing employees are one of the most important things a board does. I personally believe we, as a public, deserve to know exactly why someone is being considered for either action and where each board member stands on the issue as well as their reasoning to back up that decision.

If school boards had to make every talking point they wanted to in public in front of voters, I bet you would see some stronger vetting when deciding to hire or fire an individual or you would see some new board members come election night.

As a journalist, I’m naturally distrusting of executive sessions, what exactly does the board have to say that they can’t say in public? But, I know that it is a practice used by every board, and I don’t have the power to change it. So, I’ll leave you with this, if you are going to use executive session, you need to make sure you do it correctly.