Patti Bacchus: Governing via secret meetings undermines democracy—even at school boards

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      Does it matter if our public-school boards are governing behind closed doors instead of in public meetings? Can what you don’t know affect how you vote?

      Tough to say. As Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) famously said: “There are things we don't know we don't know,” and that’s true, especially when it comes to B.C. school boards.

      Should you care?  With foreign governments meddling in elections and Facebook data being mined to mess with our heads and voting decisions, the issue of school boards meeting behind closed doors and making decisions about your money and your kids erodes the democratic process.

      Although it may seem like pretty small political potatoes, it still matters. At least to me.

      For all its flaws, I’m big on democracy (it beats the alternatives, etcetera) and believe we need to be ever vigilant in its defence. I’m fortunate to be spending time in Paris for spring break, and it has me thinking a lot about revolution and resistance and how easily freedoms can be lost.  For democracy—even at its most local levels—to function well, voters need to be able to evaluate how well their elected officials are serving them when it comes time to weigh in at the polls with their performance reviews.

      But If they’re not conducting their business openly and transparently in public—which happens more than most of the public probably realizes with B.C. school boards—it’s hard to do that.

      Secret meetings can also lead to troubles that can get out of hand when trustees fight, out and away from the public’s prying eyes. Exhibit A is the North Vancouver school board (NVSB), where two trustees have, apparently, moved out of the school district and a couple have been literally phoning it in to board meetings, amidst allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and general board dysfunction.

      Good luck trying to figure out which trustees are really the problem, though, given the secrecy around how the board does its business and who did what to whom and why they did it.

      Consultant warns NVSB to keep troubles out of media

      After reports of NVSB trouble surfaced in the news media a few months ago, the Ministry of Education hired consultant Lee Southern to review the situation. He reported back in early February that “dysfunctional interpersonal trustee relations negatively impact the board’s performance of its governance duties.”

      I’ve seen enough school-board consultant reports over the years to know that some of them lack a depth of understanding of the role of elected officials and their obligations to the people they’re elected to represent, although I don’t know if that’s the case with Southern.

      What I do know is that spirited discussions and passionate debate on issues—without personal attacks—are part of a healthy democratic process. A united front doesn’t necessarily serve the public or democracy well, although in my experience some consultants don’t understand the difference between elected and appointed boards, and how they should function.  

      What really happened in North Van?

      If the North Vancouver situation has, indeed, deteriorated to the point that trustees are feeling genuinely harassed or bullied by their colleagues or senior managers, the public should be able to make its own assessment by monitoring how trustees conduct themselves in public meetings, as that’s where most board business should be done.

      It sounds, however, like the alleged bad behavior happened in closed-door “trustee seminars”, whatever the heck those are, leaving the public out in the cold when it comes to knowing what really went on.

      In his report to government, Southern recommends the NVSB knock it off with the closed-door meetings, which seems prudent. One wonders, after all, why they were having so many in the first place. Trustees should ask their questions and do their deliberating in public meetings. I’ve heard senior managers and trustees claim they don’t have time to schedule a public meeting or that they're discussing something “controversial” in private session, neither of which are valid excuses.

      In my experience, senior staff may propose and encourage “private” meetings with their trustees, and I’ve heard this from trustees on other boards as well. Some don’t like dealing with controversial subjects in public, and others prefer to push for money and staffing for pet projects away from the public and stakeholder groups’ prying eyes and open ears. It’s also a convenient way to silence dissent, as trustees are forbidden to disclose anything that’s discussed in confidential meetings.

      When I was a school-board chair, I strived to ensure that all matters of public business that could and should be dealt with publicly were. In the two years I spent on the VSB that I wasn’t chair, I had to fight to have items that were being discussed in private taken to public sessions. I wasn’t always successful. That was incredibly frustrating, especially when significant decisions were made that I didn’t believe were necessarily in the public interest.

      Once a discussion takes place in a private session, trustees are not allowed to discuss it publicly. That’s why the Vancouver school board (VSB) could never disclose what led up to trustee Christopher Richardson’s abrupt resignation as VSB board chair in 2015, after just six months on the job. One would think voters might want to know about something like that, especially if Richardson’s name appears on another ballot again. Sorry, I’m still not allowed to tell you about it.

      Why do school boards try to withhold public information from news media?

      Then there’s the way boards share (or not) information with the public and news media, which can also pose a threat to the democratic process.

      In his report on the NVSB troubles, Southern warns of a “deleterious effect” on the board’s ability to do its job if the public finds out how much it has spent on trustee-infighting-related legal fees or if there’s any further media coverage of trustee absences or harassment claims.

      That means your tax dollars—about $9,400 of them, according to a Ministry of Education spokesperson—went to a consultant who is now advising an elected body (the NVSB) to keep a lid on what’s been happening and how much money they’ve blown on their internal battles. I couldn’t disagree more: the public has a right to know this stuff and to use that information to inform how it votes in October. It’s our money.

      Despite (well, actually, because of) Southern’s advice to the board, I couldn’t resist asking the board’s chair, Christie Sacré, how much they’ve spent on lawyers relating to all this. She refused to tell me and advised me to submit a freedom-of-information request—which tends to be a lengthy and bureaucratic process—when all I asked for was a number that should be easily accessible.

      (I filed the request but did not receive a response in time to include in this column. Let’s hope that when I do it isn’t a series of blank pages with key information redacted, which is often the case with these things.)

      It’s not just North Van when it comes to this. When I asked VSB chair Janet Fraser how much the VSB paid out in severance agreements in 2017 (to see if the government-appointed trustee was being generous with going-away gifts while there was no board oversight), she replied: “There is no requirement under the legislation to provide that level of detail.” I am not making this up. I eventually got the severance total out via a freedom-of-information request: lo and behold, the 2017 amount was much higher than the previous year.

      As a former board chair who answered media calls quickly and released all information I was legally permitted to, I find this all pretty appalling and completely unnecessary. It’s also an affront to democracy when you keep information from the public that the public has every right to know.

      VSB also meeting more behind closed doors

      The VSB also seems to be moving more discussions to closed-door meetings since the old board was fired, even inviting stakeholder-group representatives to join them in private “workshops” instead of having those discussions at public committee meetings. In some cases, discussions that should have taken place around the public-committee table are going on via email and reported out as information at committee meetings.

      Fortunately, some of the trustees and stakeholders seem to be pushing back, and good on them, as it’s a hinky way to do business and an end-run around democratic process—and flat-out poor governance.

      The level of secrecy by elected boards is something citizens should be alarmed about, as it is yet another attack on democracy. There are some legitimate reasons for making decisions in secret, namely, the three “Ls”: land, legal, and labour. That covers property-sale and lease negotiations, legal matters, and bargaining and personnel issues. That’s pretty much it, aside from a limited number of orientation workshops for new trustees to bring them up to speed on complex files where there is no deliberating or decision-making, but even those can get out of hand if trustees start giving direction to staff.

      In some cases, senior managers will give trustees a preview of recommendations or reports they’re bringing to public meetings in case there are questions that can’t be dealt with in public (i.e., usually something legal or about an individual). That’s fair, but the chair must ensure discussion doesn’t veer into territory that should be public.

      Rules are vague

      Rules on this are vague and boards have broad discretion over what they discuss and decide on safely out of the public eye. The B.C. School Act, which is the legislation that lays out the rules for school boards, only requires boards to release a record containing a general statement as to the nature of the matters discussed and the general nature of the decisions reached at in-camera meetings.

      Trustees each have responsibility for how their boards are functioning. They need to insist on the public’s business being conducted in public. It’s the chair’s job to ensure that, but if the chair fails to, individual trustees must request the discussion be held at a public meeting and refuse to participate in secret meetings. The last time I was asked to vote on a matter that should have been dealt with in public but wasn’t, I abstained from participating and explained why, after also requesting the item be moved to a public session.

      It may not be anywhere near the level of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, but local democracy matters too. Trustees need to be held accountable for this, and it's the voters' job to do that.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.