Make policy for future, not for today's officials

July 18, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

Lawyers have a saying: "Hard cases make bad law." So, I would argue, does passing laws or policies tailored to one specific person.

What drew my attention was the recent attempt by the Washington County Board of Education to update its ethics policy, in effect in its present form since 1997.

It doesn't seem like much of an update: Among other things, it would require School Board members who wanted to participate in collective-bargaining decisions to disclose whether their spouse, child, parent or sibling would benefit financially.

Again, this seems like pretty tame stuff, but School Board member Wayne Ridenour took offense, saying that members have behaved ethically without a policy update.


Ridenour also asked what would happen if a member's best friend's spouse or child was up for a job.

"Where do you draw the line?" he asked.

If it were me, I would disclose that. And if I didn't ,and someone alleged that I had voted on the basis of friendship and not on the applicant's competence?

In that case, not only would my reputation be damaged, but many would assume the applicant got the job only because he or she had an "in" with me.

The point of the update is not that Ridenour - or any other board member - has acted unethically. It's really a safeguard against such behavior by future members.

Creating policy based on the people who are now in office is unwise, because they won't always be there.

The dilemma reminds me of the early days of zoning, when I was sent out to cover the story of a man whose name I can't remember who had placed a shed too close to his neighbor's property line.

If the shed remained, the zoning administrator told him, then a future neighbor's rights might be infringed upon, if someone decided to enlarge the shed.

Won't happen, said the shed's owner. I will never do anything else to the structure, he said.

The problem was that he was over 70 and nobody lives forever. Zoning decisions will live far beyond the people initially involved.

The board members in office when the policy was last updated are not there now. The board needs to pass policies that are good for the future and not worry about hurting someone's feelings in the present.

That said, citizens would be wrong to conclude that School Board members only serve to ensure that their family members are well taken care of.

Each School Board member must not only do a tremendous amount of reading, but must also listen to the concerns of teachers, principals and parents.

Sitting as what amounts to a board of directors, they also have the responsibility of hiring a superintendent.

Members do all that for less than $10,000. If members really wanted to improve their families' financial positions, they would take a part-time job with a set number of hours and responsibilities they could leave at the workplace when the day is done.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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