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Editorial: Conduct Unbecoming

Article I of the Hartford School Board Members Code of Conduct reads as follows: “Members must demonstrate loyalty to the ownership, uncompromised by loyalties to staff, other organizations, or any personal interests as Students, Parents and Community.”

We bring this up not merely to point out that it is so badly written as to be utterly meaningless as a guide to conduct or anything else, but also to provide context for the ongoing dispute between School Board Chairman Kevin Christie and former board member Jeff Arnold over what has come to be known as “Suppression of Alternative Viewpoints.”

This controversy erupted earlier this month after voters defeated by wide margin a $3 million bond issue to finish capital improvement projects for athletics at the high school. Arnold, who did not run for re-election this spring, was the lone dissenter when the board decided to put the bond before voters in the first place, and then publicly voiced his opposition to it in the days leading up to the vote.

For this he was admonished publicly by Christie, and the two had a back-and-forth exchange at a subsequent meeting about a board policy that apparently requires board members to speak with one voice publicly once a decision has been made, even if they disagree with that position.

We say “apparently” because the actual policy, drawn from the same Members Code of Conduct as the opaque Article I quoted earlier, reads as follows: “Members will support the legitimacy and authority of the final determination of the board on any matter, irrespective of the member’s personal position on the issue.”

That certainly does not suggest to us that board members are not allowed to express their dissent in public forums or in the news media, but only that they must acknowledge that the board’s action is a legitimate exercise of its authority.

But if, in fact, this wording is being interpreted so as to prohibit board members from speaking out in forums other than board meetings when they are in the minority on a decision, then that is a fundamental subversion of the democratic process.

Members of elected boards are responsible first and foremost to the people who elect them, and that is where their primary loyalty lies. The duty they owe those constituents is to exercise their conscience and best judgment in all instances, even if it puts them at odds with fellow board members. Nor does that duty end when the majority has spoken; sometimes the public expression of dissenting views is all the more important in those circumstances.

The democratic faith holds that choosing the wisest course of action in the public realm depends on the free and robust exchange of ideas. Argument is not an end in itself, but it is how the strengths and weaknesses of cases are tested on the way to deciding what should be done in any particular instance. In this instance, Arnold’s position was ultimately vindicated by the voters.

In fact, unanimity is the enemy of good policy when it becomes an exercise in group- think and conflict avoidance, as we fear it too often does on boards and commissions in the Upper Valley. If the Hartford School Board’s code of conduct, in fact or by inference, requires suppression of members’ views on public questions, it ought to be repealed without delay. And if not, it ought to be rewritten to make its intent clear.