Public officials may know the weighty responsibility they bear in conducting public business, but often they wrongly interpret that responsibility as one they bear alone.
The truth is that everyone on the public payroll acts in the stead of the public. That includes deciding on the continued employment of public workers paid by public funds. No argument justifies making such decisions outside of full public scrutiny.
The Tempe Union High School District governing board, however, did just that last Tuesday. Members unanimously voted to oppose a special action filed by Phoenix Newspapers Inc. demanding the release of annual evaluations and records of any disciplinary action against Superintendent James Buchanan since his hiring in 1991.
The special action seeks information regarding the Buchanan’s on-duty performance as a public official. It seeks no information on his private life, which involved an adulterous affair with the mother of a student in the district that ended earlier this year.
But such unnerving private conduct certainly justifies taxpayers’ right to know more about his public conduct. Buchanan runs a school district that spends tens of millions of public dollars each year.
Board members may believe that they are protecting the privacy of district employees, but by throwing a blanket over all records of on-duty performance they are denying the public the opportunity to check on their own performance as decision-makers. Denied access means the public must simply trust that board members are acting properly, with no independent way of knowing for sure.
As reported in Wednesday’s Tribune, the district’s attorney cited cases establishing that employee information "is private if it is intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person or group of persons, not freely available to the public."
But merely designating something as intended for the use of particular person or group doesn’t exempt it from public scrutiny. As most information is normally handled by only a few users until the public develops an interest in it, unscrupulous public officials could designate as “private” reams of records in order to keep them away from taxpayers.
Our laws uphold the right of the public to inspect records of its employees’ on-duty performance. The board’s cowardly stance gives voters rightful pause to wonder — out loud and frequently — whether they elected the right people as stewards of their money, their schools and their children. The records sought must be released immediately.