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For a concept so amazingly simple, elected officials demonstrate again and again a difficulty grasping it: Voters who authorize them to take care of the public's business did not ask them to do it secretly.

Government business is not a private affair.

What’s the point?

Behind-the-scenes discussions by elected officials do not serve the public’s interests.

Evaluation of public policy should never be something worked out quietly out of public view. That is a fundamental expectation of open government and takes on even more urgency when the subject of public policy is controversial. On such matters, any behind-the-scenes exchanges take on shadowy tones of mystery and promote public suspicions that something's up, regardless of how well-intentioned a public official might be.

The Fayetteville School Board the other night determined attitudes about decades-old mascots at two junior high schools have evolved to the point that the imagery is too hurtful for modern sensibilities. It's a debate sparked last fall, when the district received complaints that use of the Indian as Ramay's mascot was not inclusive. School officials said another complaint also raised the issue of "gender equity" in the use of Woodland's mascots, which are Cowboys and sometimes Cowgirls.

Last October, the board voted to appoint a task force to figure out the future of the two schools' mascots, but since that meeting, the ambiguity of the task force's charge led to questions and confusion. Some wanted the mascots saved. Some, including district administrators, advised that the decision had already been made, while still others thought the October action left room for school-level decisions.

It seemed nobody really knew what was going on, which led to suspicions about agendas. School Board members themselves, at least as evidenced by discussion at their Jan. 24 meeting, came away with very different ideas about what they had approved in October.

Such ambiguity on a controversial issue leads to people jumping to conclusions about motives. What's a task force for if October's decision already barred the mascots? If October's decision in fact did ban human mascots, why does the debate continue to rage?

Almost everyone seemed perplexed.

Now, imagine discovering that some School Board members engaged in back-channel discussions via email on the issue. Does that make one more or less likely to believe there's some skulduggery afoot?

One can debate until the cows come home whether changing mascots of Ramay and Woodland ought to be the controversy that it has become. The reality is it has become a controversy, made worse by a School Board confused and divided about what it originally decided before it sent a task force off to do a job.

On Jan. 24, after an outpouring of public comment from people on both sides of the mascot debate, the board spent a long time debating and then took a vote to clarify its charge to the task force. The vote was 4-3. By a single vote, the board determined human mascots of any kind will be off limits within the Fayetteville School District to align practice with policies that promote inclusion.

Those voting for the measure were Justin Eichmann, Tim Hudson, Megan Hurley and Keaton Smith.

Those voting against were Nika Waitsman, Tracy Farrah and Bob Maranto.

What has since emerged, through this newspaper's reporting, is that three of those School Board members -- Waitsman, Farrah and Maranto -- exchanged emails prior to the Jan. 24 meeting. The initial email by Waitsman summarized her notes from watching a video of the October board meeting and her view of what the board decided then. Farrah and Maranto responded with their thoughts about the October deliberations.

Maranto explained some people associated with Woodland were unhappy and suggested "slowing the Woodland part of the decision down until people are comfortable with it." Farrah suggested if agreement could be reached, "why not keep it Cowboys and Indians if possibly they partner with a local tribe, etc."

Harmless? Just seeking clarity? Or was this a part of deliberations of a public policy issue?

Nobody has to decide. The School Board members had a matter of public business before them and they exchanged emails about that issue. Such pre-meeting communications typically have the effect of shielding certain discussions from public view.

Open government, which is the standard for keeping constituents in touch with deliberations about public policy, really cannot be half-embraced. It's a pretty clear line: The public's business is deliberated in public. No pre-discussions. No pre-meetings. No pre-anything. Public, announced meetings are where constituents should be able to watch their leaders hash matters out.

It's not always comfortable. But that's the agreement one makes when he or she asks for the public's votes.

We're in good company when we disavow giving even an inch on the importance of open government.

"Government ought to be all outside and no inside. ... Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety," wrote Woodrow Wilson.

Russell Long, the famed U.S. senator, offered this: "A government by secrecy benefits no one. It injures the people it seeks to serve; it damages its own integrity and operation. It breeds distrust, dampens the fervor of its citizens and mocks their loyalty."

Getting elected does not bestow upon any neighbor an unshakable faith or trust. It must be earned by ongoing action. That means going to great extremes to preserve the public trust. Every act that shields deliberations from public view whittles away at the public's confidence that their best interests are motivating those elected to serve.

Regardless of intentions, members of school boards, city councils, quorum courts and other public bodies should avoid handing their critics ammunition to claim something other than the public's best interests are in play.

We'd be remiss not to applaud Justin Eichmann, president of the school board, who chimed into the email exchange with a warning to "make sure that aren't inadvertently having a meeting by email."

It was a meeting, and Eichmann rightly brought it to a close.

Our advice: Keep it simple. If a board member needs an issue placed on a meeting agenda, an email to the board president asking for that -- not discussing it -- is within reason. Anything beyond that starts to become deliberation and discussion, all of which ought to be done in public meetings. There are not legitimate reasons for deeper discussions among members of an elected body to take place in any other forum.

Elected officials need to fully embrace their role as caretakers of the public's interest. Behind the scenes discussions cannot be part of that.

Commentary on 02/10/2019

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