End Knight’s censure, but without a recall

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board November 16, 2012 09:00 am

Baker School Board Chair Lynne Burroughs and board member Mark Henderson made a major mistake in April when they voted to censure their colleague, Kyle Knight.

More specifically, they erred in making the censure not merely a public condemnation of Knight, which is the typical approach in such cases, but by also imposing punitive measures.

With the support of Superintendent Walt Wegener, Henderson and Burroughs have withheld information from Knight, excluded him from subcommittee meetings and prohibited him from meeting with district officials. By doing so they have in effect partially disenfranchised the nearly 1,600 district patrons who voted for Knight in May 2011.

The board members’ and Wegener’s claims — that Knight violated a host of state and federal laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution itself, by telling the media that a district employee was suspected of (and later convicted of) trying to steal money from the district — are wrong.

Knight’s censure should be revoked.

There are two ways this could potentially happen.

The first is that voters could recall Henderson and Burroughs in the Dec. 11 special election. Their replacements, who would be appointed by the remaining board members — Knight, Andrew Bryan and Jim Longwell — probably would join Knight and Longwell in voting to cancel the censure (Bryan voted with Burroughs and Henderson in favor of the censure; Longwell voted no, as, naturally, did Knight).

The second option is that Knight, who in September filed a $700,000 civil rights lawsuit against the district, Henderson, Burroughs and Wegener, will convince a judge to revoke the censure. 

We think it’s likely that a judge will do so, considering the weakness of the case Burroughs, Henderson and Bryan made to justify censuring Knight.

We hope this latter, legal, route is how the school board dispute is resolved.

Recalling Henderson and Burroughs next month would no doubt be satisfying to some of their critics. We understand, and share, the critics’ frustration.

We opposed the censure vote this spring.

We have criticized Burroughs, Henderson and Wegener for acting as though Oregon’s public records and public meetings laws were intended to exclude the public when in fact the laws’ actual purpose is to ensure the public can keep track of what its elected officials and public agencies are up to.

Advocating for grown-up ways to settle this dispute have gone unheeded.

In late September we suggested a return to the status quo ante — the board withdraws Knight’s censure, Knight drops the lawsuit and the recall proponents suspend their campaign.

None of those things has happened.

To be clear, our preference for ending Knight’s censure by way of his lawsuit — and with no monetary award — rather than through a recall should not be construed in any way as an endorsement of Burroughs and Henderson.

But a recall simply removes board members without either correcting their actions, or blocking the board or another public body from repeating their mistake.

In the best interests of Baker County, the overriding goal should be revoking the censure, the aspect of this controversy that has had the most direct, and troubling, effect on the district’s patrons now, and could have in the future if punitive censures remain possible.

If this goal can be accomplished without removing elected officials from office — itself a form of disenfranchisement, as Burroughs and Henderson have supporters as well — and without saddling the school district or, more likely, its insurance provider, with a bill exceeding half a million dollars, then so much the better.

Moreover, a judge’s ruling would serve as a legal precedent that should prevent the Baker School Board, as well as other public bodies statewide, from enacting punitive censures against elected officials on trumped up charges that, as in Knight’s case, have no merit.