Expensive lesson on transparency

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The annual observance of Sunshine Week, which continues through Friday, emphasizes local, state and national governments’ obligation to be transparent with the citizens they serve.

The Isle of Wight County School Board, unfortunately, gave us a fresh reminder of why Sunshine Week is still needed.

As The Smithfield Times’ Nate Delesline III reported in last week’s edition, the school division recently paid $20,000 in legal fees to settle two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by Isle of Wight resident Kathryne Carter Lemon.

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The suits correctly accused the board of providing vague or insufficient details regarding decisions made in closed session and communicating the incorrect start time for board meetings.

Disturbingly, board Chairwoman Jackie Carr, on behalf of other school board members, denied school officials knowingly or willfully violated the law. Ignorance might be an excuse if all school board members didn’t receive training on the state’s FOIA laws. But they do as part of their initial orientation.

And, as former school board member Herb De Groft points out in a letter elsewhere on this page, Lemon’s complaints weren’t the first time the board had been taken to task on transparency questions.

Understanding the letter of the law is certainly the school board’s obligation. But more important is for elected officials to treat transparency as a value — a bedrock principle of public service. If you make government an open book, fully accessible to the citizens who elected you, the letter of the law will never trip you up and, worse, cost taxpayers $20,000 that would be better spent educating children.