Censure Knight? No way

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board April 04, 2012 10:24 am

The dysfunction that has infected the Baker School Board hasn’t devolved to reality TV standards.

But it’s still troubling.

Most particularly because the grievances that prompted the discord are not serious enough to warrant such a reaction.

Board chair Lynne Burroughs erred Thursday in threatening to censure board member Kyle Knight for, as she put it, “revealing confidential information offered to you as a courtesy to assist you in your duties of oversight over District policy.”

That sounds pretty nefarious.

But here’s the reality: Knight told local media that a school district employee had been put on paid administrative leave, on suspicion of having used a district purchase order to buy personal items.

That’s true.

And it’s also information that the public, which is to say the taxpayers who support the district, are entitled to know.

The emails that Knight sent to the Herald don’t name the employee, who, according to Superintendent Walt Wegener, was fired a few days after Wegener alerted Knight and his four fellow board members about the situation.

(The Herald has not published the employee’s name because no criminal charges have been filed.)

Based on what we know today, the incident Knight informed us about shows not that the school district is a shoddy steward of public dollars, but rather that its self-auditing system works as intended.

Doug Dalton, the district’s chief financial officer, questioned the purchase order. According to Wegener, the situation was dealt with before any public money was misused.

Burroughs and Wegener seem to believe that Oregon’s public records law is designed to protect records from the public’s eyes.

In fact it’s the opposite — the law is intended to ensure the public has access to the information which it, in effect, owns.

The importance of information that relates to how the public’s money is spent can hardly be understated.

That said, we understand that Knight’s decision to alert the media about the employee suspension was a unilateral one.

Moreover, it was a decision with which his colleagues on the board disagreed.

That’s a legitimate topic of discussion among the board during a public session.

But a discussion is not what ensued during the board’s meeting Thursday.

Instead, Burroughs and board member Mark Henderson read prepared statements that didn’t merely criticize Knight’s decision to go to the media, but accused him of violating his oath of office and, in Burroughs’ case, suggested that he might have committed a crime.

This isn’t merely a gross exaggeration.

By threatening Knight with censure — which action would, in effect, strip from him every privilege as a board member except his vote — Burroughs implies that board members should be more concerned with getting along with the rest of the board than with informing their constituents about potential violations of the public trust.

Ultimately, we believe any reasonable person would agree that the allegation against the district employee — even if the employee is not named — is a fact which the public is entitled to know.

Whether Knight showed exemplary judgment in how and when he attempted to disseminate that fact is not so clear cut.

Perhaps, had the entire board discussed the situation, they would have agreed to delay a public announcement for just a couple of days, until the matter had been resolved at the district (if not the criminal) level with the employee’s firing.

But such a consensus is unlikely, if not impossible, so long as Burroughs, apparently with the complicity of a majority of the board, resorts to suggesting that an elected official who seeks to keep his constituents apprised of important events has committed a dastardly act.

Censuring is rarely imposed on elected officials, and with good reason. If the voters who elected Knight don’t like what he’s done or is doing, then they can initiate a recall.

But for fellow board members to consider limiting a colleague’s authority, without the voters’ endorsement, should be undertaken only in cases when that colleague has committed an outrageous act that in some way betrays the voters’ trust.

That must be a high standard. And nothing Knight has done comes even close.