Editorial: When Boards Behave Badly, We All Pay

By Patric Hedlund, Editor

Democracy is a complicated trick to pull off. Egyptians are discovering that right now. Human beings are cantankerous everywhere.

Here, close to home, we often observe how the push-and-pull of conflicting interests makes well-meaning people elected to public office sometimes tumble into traps that can be costly for the citizens they represent.

We’ve seen evidence of that lesson in every sector of our Mountain Communities recently.

Normal human traits—such as procrastination; or wishing to look the other way rather than come to grips with tough problems; or making inflammatory statements based on racial or ethnic prejudice; or the tendency to be in denial about unpleasant truths—may all be normal for us as individuals in our private lives, but publicly-elected officials must be held to higher standards.

Avoidance and denial.

The El Tejon Unified School District Board appears to prefer to look the other way rather than accept an opportunity for free information regarding the healthfulness of the air at El Tejon School alongside the Interstate 5. The TriCounty Watchdogs, a local organization, won a grant for $25,000 to take a year’s worth of air samples in the Mountain Communities, using a small "bucket brigade" measuring device to capture samples, then sending those samples to laboratories to be analyzed. One of the locations they offered to use as a monitoring site was El Tejon School in Lebec.

What is the risk to little lungs pumping oxygen through children’s bodies as they play beside a freeway with 70,000 cars and trucks passing by each day, spewing soot and pollution into the air?

Yes, having the information may pose a complicated set of issues for administrators who don’t have money to make drastic changes. But the board’s job is different from the administrator’s. The board is elected by their neighbors to look out for the interests of the community’s children.

Last month the individual board members were given an opportunity to discuss their personal thoughts about this important subject. Four of the five dodged the question (see page 7).

Issues like this won’t ‘just go away.’ Seeking to hide behind their elected status is not just wrong, it is dereliction of their duty to protect the wellbeing of the children in the school.

Yes, this is a complicated situation. But we do not vote in trustees so they can be in denial. We can do that for ourselves.

We depend on these representatives to grapple with tough questions in the public forum and to find solutions.

Research shows that simply planting rows of trees between the school and the freeway could trap as much as 30 percent of the harmful micro-particles that may be challenging our children’s lungs.

The statistics are startling. The California Healthy Kids Survey in 2009 showed that 28 percent of 7th graders at El Tejon School used medicine for asthma symptoms in the past 12 months. The message to the ETUSD school board: Stand up and take your duties seriously.

What if a child suffering from asthma were to have a serious attack on the El Tejon school grounds? What if the parents decided to sue the board? Who will end up paying those costs?

Appearance of Impropriety

New members of the Lebec County Water Board got caught in an embarrassing double-header of doubtful ethics last week.

The lone incumbent left on the board, Julie McWhorter, called the new board members to take their oath of office in secrecy—three days before the scheduled public meeting. Why was that? Why the rush? What is it she wanted to do out of the public eye? Is this an appropriate way to begin their terms?

When charged with the public trust implied by elected office, the appearance of impropriety is as bad as impropriety itself.

Not only has McWhorter shown terrible judgement in venting angry, racist comments in the course of representing official board business, she now appears to be leading new board members down a path that can end only with more ethical trainwrecks at a water district that was just getting back on track.

There are excellent people on the Lebec County Water Board, and they have volunteered to do hard work for their neighbors. That is to be praised. But why would they taint their own reputations with the appearance of impropriety that is developing around them?

As we go to press, a special meeting of the LCWD board, open to the public, has been called for Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. at the district office, 401 Frazier Mountain Park Road.

This is part of the December 09, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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