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Secret probes keep public in the dark

This week the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board passed a new code of conduct that will see any investigations into allegations of trustee misconduct take place out of the public eye.

Not only will voters not know that an inquiry is underway, but the details of what is discovered and any milder sanctions against an offending trustee will be kept secret if his or her fellow trustees opt for an informal investigation.

The public will only be let in on the process if there is a formal investigation, and then only at the final stage if there is a vote on a recommended reprimand. All deliberations will take place behind closed doors and any written reports will remain private.

It’s more than a little shocking that a public body believes voters will trust that it can be an impartial judge of whether transgressions by its own members are serious enough to warrant the public scrutiny of a vote in open session.

It’s more surprising still that trustees believe the information that led to their vote should be kept private. For justice to be done, it needs to be seen to be done. Only then can the public judge if the decision was fair nor not. Making misconduct investigations secret will only lessen the public’s faith that the board truly has its interest at heart.

It doesn’t help that the board has a long history of being secretive and hiding information from the public. It has been cited several times for illegally making decisions behind closed doors and when it’s been caught red-handed, the attitude has seemed to be one of defiance rather than contrition.

In fact, the new code came about in part thanks to trustees’ missteps in this area. Trustee Laura Peddle decided to blow the whistle on a secret vote to exclude Westmount Secondary from a Mountain high school closure review, which led to a public investigation into Peddle’s conduct. The investigation concluded that while she did break the rules, the decision should have been made public in the first place — causing great embarrassment to the board.

The new approach is clearly designed to avoid a repeat of that fiasco and is clearly political. Why for instance, can no complaint, especially since it’s secret, be made against a trustee within two months of an election? Who does this serve? Surely not the public.

The whole reason that school boards exist as elected bodies is to ensure accountability of the system to local residents and without transparency, there is no accountability.

It’s a lesson trustees should have learned by now, and perhaps one voters need to teach them in October.

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