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It was our obligation to pursue the release of names

January 25, 2007|by BILL KOHLER

The issue of why The Herald-Mail pursued the release of the names of candidates who sought an open seat on the Waynesboro Area School Board is not about pointing blame.

It's about making sure the process is carried out correctly and that the public knows that the paper is fulfilling its obligation as a watchdog of local government.

· The background: School Board member Todd Rock resigned in December to begin his duties as a state representative.

The school board opted to have a committee of three board members interview interested candidates earlier this month and report its findings to the school board. The board would vote on the replacement.

· The problems: The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that interviews and discussion of candidates to fill an elected position on government boards such as city councils, supervisor boards and school boards be done in open session. Open session is defined as open to the public and advertised as such.

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According to the school board's lawyer, the meetings were "inadvertently" not advertised. So in other words, nobody knew about it except the board and the candidates.

Another problem is that a board member apparently told the candidates that their names would not be released to the public if they were not selected.

As pointed out in a Herald-Mail story Jan. 19, before the board voted to appoint candidate Lee Daywalt at its Jan. 9 meeting, members discussed the candidates during an executive session. Although some debate exists over whether this discussion was for information or deliberation, the point, according to the Sunshine Act, is that all discussion and official action by a school board must happen in public unless it meets one of six exceptions specified in the Sunshine Act.

· The solution: When a public board has a vacancy, the position should be advertised and a deadline established. Once the candidates are identified, the board should set a time to interview them at the next school board or council meeting. The board should advertise the meeting and clearly state in the meeting's agenda that candidates for the open position will be interviewed.

Each candidate should get 15 to 20 minutes of questions from the board and the public will be there to see it. If they can't make it, the media will write about it. The media will write about the candidates, the questions and how the board voted.

This is how open government should work.

This is how the Waynesboro Borough Council did it when they filled an open position last year.

This is how the Chambersburg Area School Board did it twice (yes, twice) in the past two months. The board interviewed the candidates at public meetings and voted. Yes, it was time-consuming and not as intimate as a 3-on-1 session in a quiet conference room, but it's how the law prescribes it.

This is how open government should work, and how it is prescribed by law.

The citizens who are represented by their elected officials deserve a fair and open process. The board takes the place of the voting public when it appoints a new member to an elected office. This is why the law requires it be done with public involvement.

Again, the point of the paper's persistence was not to embarrass anyone or point fingers. It was about doing our job as a government watchdog, one of the foundations of journalism. Serving in public office, especially on the local level, is mostly a thankless job done mainly by altruistic people wanting to make a difference in their communities. And we can appreciate that.

However, we will continue to pursue similar situations that we feel violate the law and the public's trust and right to know.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Morning Herald. He can be reached by calling 800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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