Public interviews

I’ve lost count of the articles and editorials I’ve read over the past several months. I’ve even lost count of the localities or boards.

The Albemarle School Board stands out only because it may be the most recent (and, truth be told, because a faithful VCOG member of many years alerted me to it).

So, there’s a vacancy on a publicly elected board -- county supervisors, town council, school board, etc. Assuming that the seat cannot remain vacant until election time, the board will appoint someone to fill the empty seat, choosing from among applicants who have expressed interest or other recommended individuals.

It is not unusual practice for public bodies to interview the candidates in a closed meeting. The public is not invited to listen in; sometimes the public is not even given the names of those being considered. The existing board members often limit further discussion of the candidates, choosing instead to announce the final choice shortly before voting on him or her in open session.

In Albemarle, board member Brian Wheeler resigned his seat, admitting that his chosen day of departure was chosen precisely so the board could select his replacement rather than putting it to a public election.

Many said Wheeler was “disenfranchising” county voters. That may be, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first to face such accusations.

But what I will be watching for is how the school board handles appointing someone to fill Wheeler’s seat.

Anyone whom the board ultimately appoints will have the same powers and duties of the other board members. His or her vote carries the same weight. It can be the one vote that passes a measure, or it can be the one vote that kills another.

It stands to reason, then, that the individuals seeking to take up this mantle be made known to the population he or she will serve.

Not one person would disagree that if this same candidate were running for election (and, of course, if he/she stands for reelection) that the candidate’s qualifications, philosophies and positions would be publicly examined. Even some personal information -- marital status, children, education, criminal history -- would be subject to consideration by the voting public.

Why, then, oh why, should the public not get to see what these candidates have to say prior to their appointment when they will be authorized to exercise the exact same power as an elected member?

The Lynchburg News & Advance has consistently opposed attempts to close applicant interviews. It applauded the Lynchburg City Council when it reversed course and opened the interview process up to the light of day after an outpouring of public opposition to proposed closed-door consideration. (As far as I know, the sky didn’t fall in on the council for making this appointment publicly.)

Most recently the paper took chair of the Bedford School Board to task for stating that the reason the board would interview candidates to fill a vacancy behind closed doors is because “that’s how we’ve always done things, plus state law says we can.”

I think they summed it up best:

The Bedford school trustees used the same, tired argument elected officials have used for years in cases such as this: that it’s the same as hiring someone, that it’s a personnel matter that state law requires be held behind closed doors.

If they were hiring an assistant superintendent or a principal, they would be absolutely correct, and we would not be excoriating them.

But they’re not; they’re replacing a fellow elected official, a person placed in office by the county’s voters. That they would conduct the public’s business, out of public view and behind closed doors, and say they’re just following standard procedure and the state law is just wrong.

The paper is right, and let’s hope the Albemarle School Board takes note.

This is public service we’re talking about. Service. To. The. Public. Let them in.

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