Keeping our public boards public
It has been interesting for me to observe the unfolding of the drama being played out in the library district, not only as a concerned citizen and taxpayer but also as the former leader of my teachers’ association. It was during that period I witnessed firsthand the havoc created in peoples’ lives as a result of administrators’ cavalier attitudes toward them.
One’s employment is more than about having a source of income. It entails deep psychological factors such as self-worth and feeling that one is part of the larger culture in a healthy and contributing way.
On any job, conflict is inevitable. It is hardwired into our DNA. And conflict can be healthy when handled correctly. So when I see something like what has happened at the library, it strikes a sensitive chord in my psyche.
That is the reason I came to Todd Lancaster’s defense when the Board of Education fired him. In the end, the inexplicably callous and brusque manner in which it was handled told us more about the professionalism of our Board of Education than it did Lancaster.
Living in a small community is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to fillin seats of our various governing boards: the library and recreation districts and the fire authority and school boards. On the one hand, it gives citizens opportunity to contribute, even prompting some with incredible skill sets, who might ordinarily not step up, to get involved.
On the other, well-intentioned folks can get involved and find themselves in over their heads. It makes sense that volunteers on the various boards join because they have an interest in that area, whether reading, physical health, fire control, or education. The problem is those passions do not translate into other sometimes demanding areas: finances, supervision, and human resources.
The library board’s recent history caused me to recall previous similar local ruckuses. I mentioned above how our last superintendent was summarily fired in a chaotic fashion. Then I compared it to how the Fire Authority Board handled the attempt of a backroom firing of Chief Kelly Babeon. In that case, cooler heads prevailed. It was a telling tale of two boards.
Some boards seem to be functional. Others have raised eyebrows because of the way they have handled personnel issues. And while it is easy to criticize them—and I admit to being in front of the line given my job as columnist—it is another to offer solutions.
Recently, Commissioner Tom Hayden pointed out during an interview on KYGT that there are resources, such as the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, available for community-minded individuals who are willing to step up but find themselves intimidated by what is expected of them to become proficient. In education, we call it “in-servicing.”
But even with training, special district boards and even our school board can be prone to morph into good-old boys/girls clubs that become institutionalized. That happens because of the quasi-democratic system they find themselves. I call it “quasi-democratic” because on the surface the boards appear to be open to all comers who wish to participate by serving, but in fact are closed due to them not being required to face the community’s voters on a consistent basis. Board membership comes about by appointment rather than through the elective process. And when that happens, the sitting members will more than likely invite and appoint new members with similar outlooks.
That is when group-think becoming the modus operandi and scoliosis setting in become threats to the health of the organization. Wagons get circled and an adversarial relationship arises vis-à-vis those on the outside from whom their power has arisen and who pay the salaries and bills.
Transparency and accountability are necessary elements of a democratic process, whether it is in regard to campaign financing or how board and district leaders are handling matters entrusted to them. Regular information needs to be disseminated to the people.
But to be fair, that in turn requires regular public scrutiny, which puts the onus squarely back on us. For each of these boards to be successful, they must have far more input than from members and those with vested interests, such as library patrons and parents of school children.
It is kind of a vicious circle that needs not to be vicious.
Next week: suggestion for a long-term solution