Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 23, 2004

Porter case demonstrates importance of open government

“Bureaucracy always seeks the path of least disclosure.” ~ Darrell Evans, founder, British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy

Oh, the frustration. Mere hours after I hit the email send button to submit last week’s column on open government, The Dispatch web site posted the perfect story to illustrate my point: the Gilroy Unified School District’s initial refusal to disclose the terms of its settlement with Kristen Porter.

But that’s OK. I had so many good quotes on open government that I couldn’t use them all last week, so the Porter settlement story breaking after my deadline gives me an excuse to share two more.

In case you’ve been living in a cave with Osama and you don’t know what happened to Porter at Gilroy High School, here’s a quick recap.

After being told in February that she would not be asked to return for the 2004-2005 school year, Porter spoke frankly to GHS administrators and the GUSD Board of Trustees to demand they institute better teacher evaluation practices.

In a move of incredibly bad timing that gave the district a huge black eye, in March Porter was fired and escorted from the GHS campus less than 12 hours after speaking to trustees about this issue.

Based on the recommendations of administrators, trustees voted 6-1 to fire Porter. Trustee Tom Bundros cast the lone “no” vote because what he termed “documented data” about “the process and standards used” was not available.

Predictably and understandably, Porter filed a grievance against the district with her union. This month, Porter reached an out-of-court settlement with the district, and, until today, no one was willing to tell Gilroy taxpayers how big a check they’re writing due to the district’s apparent mishandling of the her firing.

The arrogance of officials who refused to disclose the settlement details to the very people who have to pay the bill stuns me.

Of course taxpayers ought to know how much the settlement with Porter is. Taxpayers are being forced to pick up this tab – they have a right to know how much they’re being charged.

But that’s not all. Taxpayers also have a right to know all the details of the settlement. Did the district admit wrongdoing? Did it agree to change any of its hiring, firing and evaluation policies?

These details are important to all Gilroy taxpayers, whether or not they have students in the district, because poor management practices, especially in the area of human resources, present a great monetary risk to taxpayers. The Porter settlement is a vivid demonstration of the importance of decent management practices.

If the district employs administrators who bungle personnel issues, and if trustees are willing to rubberstamp unwise recommendations, that’s important for voters to know at election time.

Parents want the district to attract top teachers – something it will have a hard time doing if prospective employees believe they won’t receive a fair shake at GUSD.

Students don’t need the drama and stress of high teacher turnover from year to year as well as mid-year, but that’s just what they’ve had to endure at Gilroy High School.

I really don’t want to hear the tired “it’s a personnel issue” excuse. Being a public employee comes with lots of perks, for example, better health and retirement benefits than private sector employees, as a general rule. But one of the disadvantages is less privacy. The folks who pay your salary – taxpayers, for public employees – must have a way to evaluate it. Do their representatives and administrators follow best practices for hiring, evaluating and firing employees? Do they pay too much or too little? Are taxpayers getting the best bang for their public employee compensation buck?

If that means less privacy for public employees, then so be it.

Open government is key to holding our elected officials accountable and responsible. Involved citizens must demand open government by voting, by attending meetings, by staying abreast of current events, and by communicating with their representatives.

Open government and involved citizens ensure that the real control of government rests with the governed, not with elected and appointed officials.

And isn’t that the way it should be?

“Government ought to be all outside and no inside. … Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places and avoids public places.” ~ President Woodrow Wilson

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