Hamilton County school zoning changes are a public process, this time

Hamilton County school zoning changes are a public process, this time

March 6th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Parents' strong turnout and keen personal interest in recent school board meetings over school zoning changes -- at Normal Park, East Hamilton Middle/High and Ooltewah High School and their feeder schools -- will likely be demonstrated again at either the Mar. 15 or Apr. 19 school board meetings on the subject. That's just one example of how deep public interest is in school board affairs. It is also why County Commission members finally should agree at their meeting Wednesday to hold public interviews of candidates interested in filling the seat of retiring school board member Everett Fairchild -- and any other appointments of public officials in the future.

What's at stake is simply the public interest, and the commission's commitment -- if there is any -- to public transparency in how and why county commissioners make their decisions on the public's business.

Public transparency for the commission's business should be elemental. Yet for years, members of the County Commission have arrogantly used private interviews to determine whom they support for the vacancies they fill.

Last week, for example, the commissioners agreed -- without any public discussion -- to appoint David Norton, a long-time assistant county attorney, to the vacancy on Sessions Court. The commissioners had privately and separately interviewed the 10 applicants for the interim appointment to the judgeship left vacant by the death of Judge Bob Moon. They made their appointment of Norton on a 7-1 vote without any public discussion of the merits of the candidates.

The commissioners may never admit that they talked to each other privately, in violation of the Sunshine Law, to come to their nearly unanimous agreement. But there is no other plausible explanation for how they arrived at their near total consensus. Miracle mind readers they are not.

Regardless, after picking Norton, County Commission Chairman Larry Henry immediately asserted that he wants the commission to again have private interviews with potential candidates for Fairchild's District 3 seat, just as the commission did for Norton. That would be wrong.

The fundamental tenet of transparent and open governance should be the commission's guiding standard. That standard also should include public discussion of their reasoning for the votes they cast on the public's business.

There is some kick-back on the commission to the private selection process. Last fall, District 3 Commissioner Mitch McClure, chairman of the security and corrections committee, opened to the public the committee's interviews of magistrate candidates, who handle bail matters for Sessions Court. There was no open discussion, however, before commissioners actually appointed the four new magistrates.

McClure said Monday he would support a public forum -- to be organized by another entity -- for candidates for Fairchild's seat. District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck went a step further Monday, saying that he supports an open public process for appointing Fairchild's replacement, and that he would not participate in a closed interview process.

That's good, but two commissioners cannot control the appointment process. Five are needed to require public hearings by the commission for Fairchild replacement.

At least three people have indicated interest in the seat, and McClure said he's heard from 10-12 potential candidates. Public interest in the candidates would be substantial. The commission should choose to hold public hearings for the position, or appoint a caretaker who will not run for the seat in the August elections.