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Commentary: A tale of two governmental decisions

Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2016 12:15 pm
By John Diers

Public bodies make decisions that are good and bad. It’s rare that they make one that’s downright shameful. Locally, we’ve seen examples of both in the past couple of weeks.

On June 13, the Prior Lake City Council wisely turned aside a Scott County proposal that would have sent a road through a residential neighborhood, taking homes and destroying the “quiet enjoyment” that comes with the right to own property. It was a triumph for homeowners and Prior Lake’s “small-town feel” over developers and road builders who would pave over everything chasing growth and economic development. The council did the right thing, and we’re the better for it. It’s an example and a lesson for every kid in every civics class in our schools.

Ironically and sadly, it was the school board’s action at a special meeting on June 18 that showed the dark side of governance and policy making, exemplifying among the worst moments in the history of government and political life. Let’s hope the kids learn about this, too, and talk about it in their civics class.

It has a name: McCarthyism. It’s synonymous with “witch-hunt,” “inquisition” and “star chamber.” I was 10 years old when I saw it play out on the screen of the black-and-white TV set in my parents’ living room. I was much too young for civics class, but I remember my grandfather lamenting what he’d seen, and much later, as I grew up, reading the memorable exchange between attorney William Welch and Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the hearing that led to McCarthy’s downfall.

Said Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Had I been at that school board meeting I would have asked the same question of the school board and its chairperson, except I would have been expelled like another individual who rose in protest over what was happening.

I keep asking, “Why? What’s really going on?” This is the school board that botched a $150 million referendum after spending $20,000 trying to sell it to a skeptical community and place it on the ballot. This is the board that engaged the same consulting firm to frame the referendum, develop the budget and carry out the project, ignoring what is an inherent conflict of interest in giving all these tasks to the same firm. And now we have the same board using public money to conduct an investigation that smacks of abuse of power and due process.

If this is about a violation of law, then law enforcement should be engaged. If it’s an administrative matter, then the district’s own administrative and personnel regulations should apply.

We won’t know. It wasn’t disclosed at the meeting because the board didn’t comment on the nature of the investigation, who was accused, or who was doing the accusing. Board Chairperson Stacy Ruelle stated that until the investigation was over, no one would know the nature of the issue or the identity of the accused or the accuser. That said, by a 5-2 vote the board hired the law firm of Ratwik, Rosczak and Maloney to investigate “for preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to the school board’s authority.”

Two board members, Melissa Enger and Chad Rittenour, opposed the board’s action and voted no. The Prior Lake American reported that Rittenour said: “The ability to face one’s accuser and know what you are accused of is a fundamental part of the bedrock of the American republic. This whole slanderous process stinks of political shenanigans and abuse of power.”

I would agree. We’ll know more in the coming weeks, but regardless of the issues, or the charges and the final outcome, the process is appalling. This isn’t about the district or the teachers who are there every day for the kids. This is about a policy making body, a school board, that has so discredited and poisoned the integrity and reputation of the school system by taking this action that the community should demand that the board chairperson and the members who supported it immediately resign.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)