Our View: Hart district: F for Transparency

Our View

While growing up, most of us heard a variation of the wise old saying: “Just because you can do something doesn’t make it right.”

We believe that adage applies in the case of the William S. Hart Union High School District refusing to release application information for seven people seeking a seat on the board.

That’s seven people seeking a public school board seat to represent taxpaying residents who would normally be voting on this issue – not watching elected officials play hide-the-resume with information about those seeking to represent them.

But residents of Trustee Area 3 – which takes in most of Newhall and stretches from the south end of the district northward to approximately the Santa Clara River – don’t get to vote, not due to any fault of their own but because the representative they had elected – Rob Hall – resigned to take a job in Singapore.

Of course, the remaining four members of the district’s school board could have held a special election to fill the seat. Instead, they voted 3-1 for a provisional appointment with the usual reason: special elections are expensive and typically local-only ballot issues draw poor voter turnout.

We saw a very similar situation in January as Santa Clarita collected applications for now-Assemblyman Dante Acosta’s vacated City Council seat. Only in that case, 50 applicants tossed their hats into the ring and – thanks to Santa Clarita’s willingness to make its applicant information publicly accessible – The Signal and College of the Canyons were able to host a public forum.

That forum drew about half the applicants and a substantial public turnout on a cold and rainy weeknight, demonstrating local would-be voters may number disappointingly few but they’re very, very engaged.

In the case of Hart, no forum is possible because the applicant information is being withheld, offering too little time to ferret them out the old fashioned way and sign them up for a public discussion.

It seems farcical: Part of a body elected by the public to serve it withholds from that public information about the people from whom it will choose a new leader to serve the public.

It fell to district spokesman Dave Caldwell to explain that district lawyers actually found two precedents in state law for withholding potential appointees’ information.

“What matters to us is that we get the best people who want to be on this school board,” Caldwell said. How’s that? Certainly not through transparency.

“These two (court) cases upheld that releasing these applications could keep the best people from wanting to apply.”

We seriously question whether anyone whose resume harbors such damning information as to shame them out of applying would really be the best choice for public service.

Both cases cited by the Hart district’s lawyers, whom Caldwell refused to identify, involved “deliberative process privilege,” Signal reporter Christina Cox wrote, a principle determining the internal process of a government are immune from normal disclosure to encourage optimum decision-making inside government agencies.

“That’s the basis behind not releasing these people’s personal information that was on the applications because we don’t want to create the effect that people will not want to be a part of this school district,” Caldwell said.

But this isn’t “decision-making inside government agencies” – this is external and public decision-making, scheduled during an open meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Hart district offices. During that meeting board members will interview the seven candidates and, at the end of the meeting, decide who will take Rob Hall’s place.

So apparently, the district isn’t expecting its potential appointees to meet the same standards expected of sitting board members, who offer themselves up for extensive scrutiny every time they run for election or re-election.

We understand that fear of litigation drives much of this CYA behavior among government entities in the early 21st century. But we also understand that people are fed up with the moribund status quo.

But we think it’s time for elective boards and SCV voters to re-examine the ways in which they are filling vacancies on elective boards. Hiding information on applicants or hastening decision-making as the City Council did this year disregards transparency and provides poor role-modeling for students learning how government works.

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