Secret deals costly, hurt public trust

Newspapers make a lot of noise about transparency, mostly about closed-door meetings where elected officials make secret deals. Not that all those deals are illicit or even questionable. There are legitimate reasons for officials to meet in what they call “executive session” and the law recognizes that.

But what New Hope-Solebury officials did behind closed doors in 2011 was absolutely questionable, according to a stinging state audit report that perfectly illustrates why newspapers sound the alarm when public officials do public business behind the public’s back.

The deal in question involves a payout of more than $65,000 to a retiring high school principal.

You might call it a very generous going away gift. The auditor general called it “a questionable use of taxpayer dollars.”

Here’s what the report criticized: a $19,825 payment for unused vacation time when the money was not part of the settlement agreement; a $3,000 stipend for a home computer even though the principal no longer worked for the district; a payment of $44,285 representing four months of salary covering a term of administrative leave that was reported post-retirement.

When auditors questioned the extended retirement date, the district disclosed that “this date was requested by the former principal to maximize his retirement.”

Translation: We cheated taxpayers as a favor to a friend and colleague.

But here’s why we bring this very sweet and costly deal to your attention, as described in the audit report: “None of the details of the agreement were discussed at a public meeting, and the agreement included a confidentiality clause.” In other words, officials drew up a closed-door deal and then swore the conspirators to keep it secret.

Said the audit report about that: “The information in these agreements should be fully transparent to the public, so that the taxpayers can consider such information when determining whether the board has made decisions in the best interests of the district, the taxpayers and the students.”

Whether board members and their administrators made a good decision is pretty clear. So are the reasons why they kept it secret.

That said, they didn’t violate any laws. That’s what the auditor general said – although they did violate the public’s trust.

Not surprisingly, officials defended their backroom deal, claiming that they “acted in accordance with the law as it existed at the time.”

That sort of tortured logic is why people don’t trust government.

In fact, the prior board’s actions convinced the current school board president to run for office.

But the issue here isn’t just what happens when nobody’s watching, but also the impact on students. As a spokesperson for the auditor general said, “Any time funds are wasted means less money for educating students.”

And that’s the bottom line.