2016-05-19 / Editorial

Do officials ever hire someone they can discuss in a positive light?

Executive Session Watch
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

SACO – Since Biddeford’s city council and school board have come under the watchful eye of “Executive Session Watch” in recent weeks, it only seems fair to provide an updated summary of how Saco has been faring with its executive sessions this year.

On Jan. 4, the Saco City Council went into executive session to discuss labor contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 340 of the city’s resource recovery division, publicly approving a contract immediately after, that will be in effect until 2018.

On March 28, the council did the same with Saco Professional Fire Fighters IAFF 2300, also publicly approving a contract through 2018 immediately after the executive session.

The Saco School Board went into an executive session on Jan. 6 to discuss the resignation of an official, whom the board revealed afterward, was Laurie Wood. The board then immediately publicly accepted Wood’s resignation as principal of Saco Middle School, to take effect Jan. 9.

A nice touch by the school board is that the times the executive session was entered and exited are notated in the minutes: They entered session at 7:04 p.m. and exited at 7:41 p.m., which means they discussed Wood’s resignation for 37 minutes.

The fact that Wood’s resignation was discussed in executive session instead of publicly means that one of two criteria must have been met. As guided by statute M.R.S.A. Title 1, Chapter 13, ยง405, public discussion could have been “reasonably expected to cause damage to the individual’s reputation,” or Wood’s “privacy would be violated.”

It always confounds me that resignations or employments of individuals are almost always discussed in executive session. The implication of this is that elected officials either always have negative or damaging things to say about the people they hire, or that the employees have legal circumstances or medical conditions of which discussion about would violate their right to privacy.

Indeed, if the school board had nothing but compliments to express about Wood and there was not a legal or medical circumstance that might have violated her privacy, there would be no reason not to discuss the resignation publicly.

By going into executive session, the public can easily infer that either negative things are being said about that person, or that something is awry with that person’s life privately. If either of those two criteria aren’t applicable, then discussion of an employee would be required to be held publicly, and yet, every discussion about an employee is held in executive session.

Do elected officials ever hire an employee whom they can talk positively about?

Regardless of the circumstances, the school board may have had good reason to discuss Wood’s resignation in private, so these points aren’t a criticism of the board itself. However, discussing an employee hire or resignation gives the unfortunate appearance of some type of incrimination against that employee.

On May 3, the board met in executive session to discuss the employment of a principal for Saco Middle School. The following day, May 4, the school board met and publicly hired Freeport High School Principal Brian Campbell to work as Saco Middle School’s principal in the next school year.

If Campbell was the best candidate for the position, then why would the school board be discussing aspects of his experience or skills that could potentially be damaging to his reputation? Were they discussing his medical history or his party to a lawsuit, which would have violated his privacy?

If the board was not bringing up issues about Campbell that could damage his reputation, then they are applying a “right to privacy” as the criteria for the executive session. Having been elected to a school board myself, however, I have seen a broad application of “right to privacy” that is abusive – indeed, boards will go into executive session for the “convenience” of privacy over points that are not really a “right” of privacy.

Boards often go into executive session to discuss the employment of an individual, applying the criteria of “right to privacy” for reasons that can be challenged as to whether they truly constitute such a “right.”

I have heard board members argue that employment of an individual needs to remain private until the moment they are formally employed because the candidate doesn’t want it to be known to their current employer that they have applied for another position. Convenient as it may be, is this truly a “right” to privacy in any legal context?

I do concede that individuals have a right for their personnel files to remain private, and if the school board was reviewing Campbell’s personnel files from Freeport, then the Freeport school district must have already been aware of Campbell’s application in Saco. On the other hand, however, you would think the board would have already well-vetted such personnel files long before reaching the point of discussing hiring him. At some point, it seems a public discussion could eventually be warranted that would neither damage a person’s reputation nor violate his or her privacy.

The point in general remains: Not every resignation or hire of an employee should be discussed in executive session, yet every single discussion of an employee IS held in executive session.

One of these days, a school board or city council might want to consider simply hiring people whom they have nothing but positive things to say about, or accepting a resignation with nothing but positive statements about that person’s tenure, instead of ushering these employees in or out of employment with intimations that the person is mired in activities of malfeasance.

There are other possibilities as well. The board or council could conduct the damaging and private portions of the discussions in executive session, but save the flurry of compliments and kind words for public discussion.

As a member of the Portland School Committee from 2001 to 2007, I can attest that many times I witnessed our committee go into executive session only to have a love fest – showering an employee or candidate with words or praise and compliments – without one remark that would have damaged their reputation or violated their privacy.

That’s when I stopped voting to go into executive session automatically every time. School board members and city councilors everywhere should take note: If you find yourself in an executive session with colleagues who are praising an employee, it should give you pause to question why you are even in executive session to begin with.

Without knowing what was discussed about Wood or Campbell, the Saco School Board can’t be criticized for the sessions. Perhaps they did have bad things to say about their outgoing or incoming principals. Perhaps they did discuss their medical conditions, legal circumstances or other truly valid “rights of privacy.”

More than likely, however, the employees were complimented and praised, something that both of them likely deserved to have been stated publicly.

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