Era of openness ends in a hurry
The Champaign school board is off to a disappointing start in its pledge of being open to public inquiry.
It's not unusual when a freshly elected political body promises a new day in terms of political openness, the word "transparency" being the popular word of the day.
That was the case recently when Laurie Bonnett, the new president of the Champaign school board, was elected and vowed that a new openness would be among the changes over which she would preside. It was an inspiring pledge, one that took hardly any time at all to go up in flames.
Here are some excerpts from The News-Gazette's Friday story on the political maneuvering surrounding the election of Bonnett as board president.
"(School board member Lynn) Stuckey did not respond to multiple requests from The News-Gazette for comment."
"(School board member) Ileana Saveley did not respond to a request for comment."
Bonnett was more expansive in her unwillingness to discuss who the private citizen was who urged her to run for board president.
"I'm just not willing to share that information. I don't think it's relevant."
So much for openness, and it's particularly disappointing that the three board members' collective reticence is over such a trifling issue — the name of the unidentified local citizen who urged Stuckey to support Bonnett as the new board president, replacing Stig Lanesskog.
Former Champaign County Board chairwoman Patricia Avery, who freely acknowledged boosting Bonnett as board president, was amused by the reluctance to disclose her name.
"I'm not a mystery woman. Everybody knows who I am," said Avery, who also served as the county's recorder of deeds and has long been active in the community.
The identity of the mystery woman became an issue thanks to Stuckey's breathless email account to Lanesskog about being lobbied by a non-school board member who advocated Bonnett's election as the board president.
"(The nonmember) definitely has an agenda; don't know if (he or she) has considered how this request might impact future issues/items they want me to work on with them," Stuckey wrote.
In her email, Stuckey assured Lanesskog that she would be supporting him for the board president's role.
"Please feel confident that you have my continued support, and I am still planning on voting for you as board president," she said.
Stuckey subsequently voted for Bonnett as board president while she was elected board parliamentarian.
What transpired here is easy to explain — it's called democracy in action. A citizen contacted an elected official and urged her to take a certain action.
"In terms of advocating for a particular person, that's Politics 101," said Avery.
As far as having an agenda, Avery said it was supporting Bonnett for board president, and she described herself as "very happy" that Bonnett was elected.
"I have no animosity toward any of the board members. I just know Laurie Bonnett," she said.
It's no big deal, and it ought not be any big secret, particularly for members of a board who proclaim their commitment to openness.
Unfortunately, openness in government means different things to different people. Taxpayers think it means sharing the real story with them about what's happening, why and what the cost will be. To too many public officials, it means being open with the public about what they want the public to know while keeping many of the important details to themselves.
The new board's rhetoric about openness is certainly welcome, but an even better approach would be actually practicing it.