November 27, 2008

Who failed?

We were pleased to see the Rapid City Journal, which still seems to be struggling to find its niche in the expanding media marketplace, opine strongly against a closed meeting conducted by a “Finance Review Committee” of the Rapid City School District.

With all the changes at the Journal over the past 36 months, it’s good to see them sticking to their editorial guns when it comes to open meetings.

And then there’s the school district.

According to the Journal, a group of local leaders was selected by the school district to review district financial affairs and make recommendations to the board. That’s a smart proactive thing to be doing in these tough economic times. Dave Janak, budget manager for the district, is reportedly consulting with the committee and is quoted as saying that the committee is “an arm of our office.” Our hats off to these business folks taking time to help the school district.

We’ve often noted that it’s a whole heck of a lot easier to do business outside the view of the media and the public. But it’s dangerous for the institutions to work with that mindset – and even more dangerous for the public. That’s why we have open meetings laws. There are ample provisions for conducting closed meetings -- personnel, legal, and other sensitive topics – but invoking them should be rare.

Most troubling are the remarks by Superintendent Peter Wharton, indirectly quoted in the Rapid City Journal, that he has no say in whether the public is allowed into the meetings. It sounds to me like he may have shortchanged the committee on guidance regarding their work and how to accomplish it legally.

And committee chairman Dennis Popp says the group isn’t elected and doesn’t represent anybody. Usually, school superintendents and chiefs of police aren’t elected either, but they’re required to do the public’s business….in public!

A retired school superintendent friend of mine said it best when I asked him how many folks would likely attend a public meeting of a financial review committee: “Nobody.”

By closing the meetings, the district and the committee have caused us to wonder why.

The Journal quotes Popp as saying “we don’t feel it would be fair to give the recommendations to the media before the board.”

Mr. Popp should understand that the “media” are something of a surrogate for the public, and this is not an issue of fairness to the board. It’s about the law and conducting business within the healthy view of the citizens served by the school district.

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