Bertha Cooper

Think About It: Open government secrets

The Sequim School District superintendent has left the building. Dr. Robert Clark submitted his resignation following two and a half months after he was placed on paid administrative leave. I don’t really know if he was pacing and fuming during this time, but I can’t imagine anything else since he was abruptly removed from his work on behalf of our school district.

Moreover, this is a man who is near the end of his career who must now deal with embarrassment and suspicions surrounding his departure (See Dec. 2 “Think About It” column).

The school district issued an email to staff that muttered something about disagreement over his management style and decision-making. Whatever it was, it took a formal complaint to get the school board’s attention and was serious enough to remove him from his duties at an extraordinarily uncertain time for education during the pandemic.

I wonder what went on the first 16 months to miss the problem while working with him … who will own what appears to be a failure to recognize a problem that required a formal complaint to come to light?

The Sequim Gazette has made a number of public disclosure requests and expects to receive documents by Feb. 10, so we may learn more.

Meanwhile, Sequim High School principal Shawn Langston, who also placed on leave for what is said to be an unrelated complaint, has returned to his position and has agreed to have a mentor help him mend the error of his ways — whatever they are.

Mr. Langston has held his position since 2002, which seems to me like a long time to pass before being called out for correction. Management styles don’t turn over night. Early identification and intervention would have saved a great deal of time, money, angst and embarrassment for him, the complainer and the school district.

Again, I wonder who will own the system failure that required a formal complaint to identify and correct a long-term personnel problem.

Perhaps, both are cultural failures that needed a two-by-four approach; we simply don’t know. Responsible governance or management should never have a situation in which personnel behavior that adversely impacts others or the institution is tolerated until it can’t be and the offending person is reprimanded in private and paraded in public.

There’s little redeeming in these situations other than a clarion call for good governance.

Turning to secrets of the Sequim City Council …

Trending now in darkness

The work life of city managers is said to be short due to its political nature. Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush resigned about 11 months ago after a successful tenure as the city manager. He resigned to climb the Appalachian Trail. My read on it was that he was a person on an adventure in search of discovery.

His plans were a casualty of the pandemic. Bush couldn’t go and the city didn’t want him to leave during the uncertain time of the pandemic, so he agreed to stay.

It wasn’t only the pandemic that required his leadership. The community was still at odds about the medication-assisted treatment center (MAT) proposed by the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe as a regional center for the treatment of Opioid Use Disorder. A group formed in 2019 to stop MAT claiming the people it served would disrupt the rural peaceful nature of Sequim. Another group formed to support keeping MAT in the Sequim. Political and legal wrangling ensued, resulting in numerous legal actions against the city and tribe.

Although I felt as sad for Bush as I did for others who had to put their dreams aside (at least temporarily), I was relieved that Bush was staying and thought it was the city’s good fortune given the complexities of demands on leadership.

In what seemed like a strange way to kick off Sequim’s 2021 “Year of Kindness,” the Sequim City Council voted Jan. 11, to negotiate (read force) Bush’s resignation. Mayor William Armacost made the motion, which was subsequently approved by a vote of 4-2.

Here’s where we begin to feel déjà vu with a twist. The motion followed an executive — translate, secret — session in which Bush’s fate was discussed. Councilor Brandon Janisse asked that the session be made public, which was voted down.

(Editor’s note: Bush could have asked to make the meeting public, chose not to.)

The most explanation given the public was by the mayor, who claimed there was nothing illegal about Bush’s actions and related to “a combination of things over quite a while … not a knee-jerk reaction.”

Apparently, there are many city and greater Sequim residents who wouldn’t take “ … not a knee-jerk” for an answer. Shenna Younger, the community person most likely to serve as a catalyst in bringing the community together to address an issue, sent up an email flair and within one day of the meeting, more than 100 people met on Zoom to plan a rebuttal to the council’s action.

Those attending named the group Sequim Good Governance League and formed six committees, including “Charlie Bush Fan Club Committee.” General meetings were to be held nightly from Jan. 17-23 prior to the Jan. 25 council meeting.

The mayor and three other councilors do not think the public has the right to know why this action is being taken. It’s a secret. Why is it a secret?

The more suspicious among us believe it has to do with decisions made by the city in favor of Jamestown S’Klallam in the MAT dispute. MAT opposition is known to have called for Bush’s resignation. That three of the four councilors have been appointmented within the last 10 months is noteworthy because it has changed the character of the council, which some fear leans toward stopping the MAT in Sequim.

Still, we don’t know because the mayor and majority council do not want us to know their reasons to rid the community of the well-respected city manager.

We don’t have to have a high political IQ to suspect what’s at the root of secrecy in government. What does it usually mean when someone doesn’t want you to know what went on behind closed doors? We know in this instance, unlike the school district’s reasoning, it wasn’t for the protection of the employee.

Nor was it kindness.

We will have an update, perhaps a resolution, from the Jan. 25 council meeting before this column is printed.

Meanwhile, Charlie Bush will feel the love of the community. The city council may feel love from some but must feel the weight of its decision to hide the factors too revealing of motives to be revealed.

Dark secrets cannot thrive in open governments.

Bertha Cooper, featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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