Joetopia

Officials should value transparency above secret 'personnel issues'

jtarica@thetribunenews.comOctober 19, 2013 

We’ve heard this tired old line before.

“The reason for his termination wasn’t made public because it’s a personnel matter.”

Again and again, that unhelpful explanation — or some variation of it — has been the curtain typically used to hide back-room debates and decisions. Locally, we’ve seen the scenario play out with police chiefs, city officials and assorted others. Sometimes, people are canned and nobody tells us why. Other times, they “resign” and head out of town with sacks of the taxpayers’ money in one hand and a nondisclosure agreement in the other.

In 2011, Atascadero paid its top cop $126,000 to go away. We never did get a reason. This year in Morro Bay, the city manager and the city attorney were on the brink of the boot a few weeks ago (and still may be today), but the mayor and his allies haven’t ever told us why.

Now in the little burg of Shandon, the school board has sent its superintendent packing. The only explanation given was that he was “not a good fit,” according to Assistant Superintendent Mary Jarvis at the county Office of Education, which leaves residents of the town scratching their heads and wondering what was so wrong that such immediate action had to be taken.

It’s only human nature to jump to the worst conclusion, or at least something more unpalatable than may actually be the case. In the absence of information, people automatically suspect wrongdoing, which may or may not be fair.

In this instance, Jarvis made a special effort to stress that such motivation was not the case, but with no details, that does little to explain the urgency of the district’s move.

Rodney Wallace has eight more months on a contract that expires in June 2014. Because he was fired but did nothing to violate his contract, the district is on the hook for the remainder of his $112,000 salary through that date.

Meanwhile, trustees immediately went out and hired a new interim administrator, which means for the rest of the school year, they’ll be paying two guys to do one job. (The interim administrator, Tom Apkarian, was hired at around the same annual rate but at least initially will only be working three days a week.)

It’s these kinds of seemingly cavalier moves that make people rail about government waste. If Wallace is “perfectly qualified to hold a public school position,” as Jarvis said, one would think he’d be qualified enough to finish his term.

How much damage could he do in eight months? You’re telling me he’s a professional and perfectly worthy of taking a similar job someone else, but you couldn’t muddle through with him till next spring? Then, if the board still didn’t like his leadership, they could elect not to renew his contract and hire someone else.

Instead, school officials made the move now, and it will cost tens of thousands of dollars in duplicate expenses. Maybe change is the best way forward for Shandon, but we’ll never know thanks to the secrecy surrounding the decision.

If I had my way, we’d toss out this blanket right of privacy that every public worker seems to get. While it may be justifiable for the 9-to-5'ers, at some point, these administrators reach a level of responsibility to the community that should exceed their expectation for zero disclosure.

I would hope that our public officials recognize this and put the value of transparency and the trust of the people ahead of the personal priorities of individuals. We want to know why you’re making these choices, and you’re not helping.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

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