At times, there's a reason to talk

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Policies on closed sessions can be used to hide important matters from public.

HERE IS WHAT BELOIT School Board member Pam Charles is accused of, by her colleagues. The Beloit Daily News obtained the information late last week through a Public Records Law request.

It is alleged Charles met with Superintendent Tom Johnson on April 6 and shared unspecified information from the board's evaluation of him. The evaluation was put together in closed session. Johnson was not scheduled to be apprised of its contents until a few days later.

Through their attorney the other board members say Charles violated Policy 165: "Respect and never violate the confidentiality of closed sessions. This means that no information, however a member may feel about it, will be shared with any person not part of the executive session."

Moreover, in a letter to Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary, the board attorney asks for a prosecutorial investigation of Charles for felony misconduct in office, essentially claiming Charles may have acted in criminal excess of her authority as a board member.

REALLY? A FELONY? That is a stretch that defies reason and common sense.

If that's what they have, and that's what Charles did, the notion that it rises to the level of felony misconduct in public office is roll-on-the-floor laughable.

A cursory reading of the state statute in question clearly leaves the impression its purpose is to discourage and punish activities in public office that are dishonest, intentionally false, meant to achieve personal gain and so forth.

The law is not written to sort out political differences among board members, which is behind the foundation of this complaint.

If Charles prematurely revealed details to Johnson about the evaluation, she may well have violated the protocols set forth in Board Policy 165.

But a felony? Good lord.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT, let's go ahead and take a hard look at Policy 165. We understand why it exists. There are times, set forth in state law, when governmental agencies are justified in conducting closed, confidential sessions. We respect the exemptions in Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.

But we also know - from long experience and plenty of firsthand knowledge about specific instances - public officials sometimes abuse those exemptions and use closed meetings to hide things they do not want the people to know. For example, absolute adherence to confidentiality could have kept Beloiters from ever knowing the district paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle an employee's claim dating back to the time of former superintendent Steve McNeal. As it was, the Beloit Daily News had to fight and enforce the records law in order to bring facts to the people.

So, in our view, not only is breaching Policy 165 not a criminal act, there are times when it is a higher duty to the people one is elected to serve. When there are matters voters and taxpayers ought to know it is not the truth-teller who is wrong, but rather the secret-keepers who want to hide wrongs or embarrassments.

We're not saying the Charles matter related to Johnson's evaluation rises to the level of a patriotic act of whistle-blowing. There may have been a violation of policy - but hardly a felony - and a board reprimand could be appropriate.

We are saying the people always should be suspicious of blanket secrecy and a policy that binds board members "never (to) violate the confidentiality of closed sessions." Accepting that standard would require a lot more trust of public officials than we are prepared to extend.

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