Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Ring of Gyges

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power."

- Abraham Lincoln

“Character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking."

- J.C. Watts

“An invisible man is a man of power.”

- H.G. Wells

Back in January, I had the opportunity as the board clerk of the Adelanto School District, to make the district eligible for the Race to the Top fund by signing a memorandum of understanding agreement. Race to the Top is a federal competitive grant. I didn’t dare sign the agreement. Race to the Top and the agreement were never on any board agenda, discussed, nor given prior approval by the board. I believed, at the time, that the other trustees would have torn me apart for committing the district on my own without board approval. I was wrong. I have been criticized instead for not signing it.

Another opportunity came in May. This time the memorandum of understanding agreement was a binding no opt-out obligation to the requirements of Race to the Top. That means that once submitted – a district is required to follow the mandates of the agreement unless “kicked out” for noncompliance or allowed out with permission from the California Department of Education. The superintendent and the board president signed and submitted the agreement without it ever being on a board agenda, publicly discussed, nor approved by the board. The agreement was also not on the agenda for discussion nor announced as an action taken in the next board meeting.

Under normal circumstances this action would be a clear-cut classic example of violating California’s open public meeting law called the Brown Act. Interestingly, legal opinions opined that this is OK without explaining or citing a source that explains how the Race to the Top memorandum of understanding agreement is exempt from the Brown Act.

This is a dangerous precedent. School boards and other public agencies need to conduct the people’s business openly or risk the serious reality of future misconduct.

The founding fathers of our nation established freedom of speech and freedom of the press as a way to keep the government honest. Keeping the public informed on how elected officials conduct the people’s business is a safe guard against unethical behavior. I find it incredulous that other trustees are accusing me of misbehavior for exposing how the district became obligated to sweeping mandates without the public being informed.

Public governance is an honest government. This is illustrated in the legend of the ring of Gyges. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon shares the story of how Gyges, a shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia comes across a mystical ring that has the power to turn him invisible. The shepherd uses this power to seduce the queen, kill the king, and take over the kingdom. Glaucon then hypothesizes that if there were two such rings, one given to a just person and the other to an unjust person – it would be the just person whose behavior would change and become corrupted. If no one can see what you are doing, how can they hold you accountable or stop you?

I submit that if we want to have ethical behavior from elected officials – we need public governance to be the prime directive in how they conduct the people’s business. No more polling board members on the phone. No more action taken without public discussion and board approval.

Please visit me at Facebook - Carlos Mendoza

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