By PATTY BODE
Published on January 22, 2010
In response to the Jan. 8 commentary by Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin, I assert that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Bush administration's subsequent repression of civil liberties are events to which there are no comparisons in the history of the United States. Comparing dialogue about the goals of the Amherst area schools to the Bush administration's covert and frequently illegal suppression of information does not warrant School Committee members Rivkin's and Sanderson's inflated metaphor. Moreover, they toss around the notion of ideology as though their own views have no ideological basis.
However, my disagreement with their views is not the point of my letter. Rather, my point is that the assertions made in a series of Amherst Bulletin commentaries by Rivkin and Sanderson appear as though they are the statements of a collective School Committee as they have ignored the School Committee ethics policy that reads: "Clarify when outside of a School Committee meeting and expressing his/her opinion concerning any committee business, that he/she is speaking only for himself/herself and not for the entire School Committee. Accept the office as a committee member as a means of unselfish service with no intent to 'play politics,' in any sense of the word, or to benefit personally from his committee activities."
The moral and legal danger of their violation of this policy is that since their assertions as elected officials are accusatory of citizens who disagree with them, they run a high risk of suppressing democratic dialogue. The ironic twist is that they purport to feeling their opinions have been suppressed.
As democratically elected officials who are bound by law to conduct business in open meetings, their accusations could suppress the democratic, public participation that the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is designed to protect: "The requirements of the Open Meeting Law grow out of the idea that the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, for without that knowledge people are not able to judge the merits of action taken by their representatives. The overriding intent of the Open Meeting Law is therefore to foster and indeed require open discussion of governmental action at public meetings."
Catherine Sanderson's blog also raises questions about violations of School Committee policy and the state's Open Meeting Law. While the activity of blogging is an exciting electronic mode of democratic dialog for people who have access to computers, Sanderson's specific blog raises several questions about conflict in her role as an elected public official. Regarding electronic communication, School Committee policy states: "School Committee members must use it carefully in order to avoid conflicts with the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law. A School Committee member's use of electronic messaging must insure that the public and the other members of the School Committee can trust that any deliberative discussions about School Committee business always will occur at public meetings."
Since there are a high number of anonymous postings on her blog, when Sanderson is conversing/blogging with anonymous participants on her blog about items such as which curriculum to adopt, teaching methods and closing a school, how can she be certain she is not communicating with a quorum of School Committee members? Some of Sanderson's practices could easily appear to violate, or inadvertently violate the portion of the policy that states that, "Electronic messaging should not be used to discuss committee business that requires public discussion under the Open Meeting Law."
Furthermore, certain postings on her blog have been disrespectful and slanderous to school personnel. Why would a public official want to establish a forum that tolerates disrespectful communication? Rivkin and Sanderson should be put on notice that the public to which they owe service is watching, and expects more of them.
Patty Bode is a former Amherst teacher and is a faculty member in the Tufts University Department of Education.
Note from Catherine: Given that this piece is entirely a criticism, not of my/our ideas, but of our voicing those ideas (precisely the point we made in the now infamous column in which we dared to compare residents of Amherst to members of the Bush administration), I want to clarify two important points.
First, Ms. Bode is entirely correct that our column should include a disclaimer that this represents entirely our own views, and not the views of the School Committee (though I'm not really sure anyone was confused about this issue). Interestingly, this should also apply to Andy Churchill's In the Center of Amherst column, which he writes with two other members of the public -- a point Ms. Bode fails to note in her piece.
Second, my blog is entirely legal according to federal and state law, and indeed is in compliance fully with the Open Meeting Law. This blog is public, meaning anyone could read it and post on it, and anyone can see these postings. It would be entirely legal for other members of the School Committee to post on it (using their names or anonymously) since their thoughts could then be read by all members of the public. What would NOT be legal would be for members of the School Committee to communicate on a private listserve in which members of the public could not read our thoughts (and potential deliberations). In fact, before beginning my blog, I called the head of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) to confirm that this blog would be legal (and Steve and I again called before starting our column). As one might expect, First Amendment rights extend even to School Committee members in Amherst.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.