(The following has been edited since being published in the print version of the Frontenac News on September 13, to include statements from PaulaMurray, the chair of the Board of Trustess with the Limestone Board)
Eleven candidates for Limestone School Board Trustee, including one in South Frontenac, have signed on the #TRUSTee hashtag campaign, joining a call for more open communication and an end to what advocates call a muzzling of trustees when they assume their roles with the Limestone District School Board.
Tom Mahoney, a sitting trustee from one of the Kingston districts, has become the lightening rod around which the movement for more open-ness has attained a focus. Mahoney is a one term trustee who is not seeking re-election. Indeed, he might actually only be a trustee in name only as he was censured in late May for speaking out of turn in public. He has been banned from board meetings, but for the rest of term of the board, which runs out in late November.
In an interview with the News on Tuesday afternoon, Mahoney said he intended to try and take his seat at the September 13 meeting. He freely admits that he had breached the Code of Conduct that he signed when he was elected to the board in 2014. In fact, he did so several times.
He wrote about that in preparing a statement to his fellow trustees this week.
“When my constituents ask me why the Board is not addressing an issue, the Code of Conduct prevents me from telling them. I disclosed at the Board’s Parent Involvement Committee that a portion of the Board, in my opinion, are not interested is answering to the public and that they prefer to handle matters in private session or preferably not at all. While I knew this was a breach of the Trustee Code of Conduct, I felt that my duty to the public who elected me outweighs my obligation to the code.”
Mahoney pointed out, however, that he has never broken the rules that members of boards, municipalities, and school boards must follow as far as revealing the details of deliberations that take place at in-camera sessions.
“I didn’t disclose anything from private session that the Education Act suggests should be in private session such as legal matters, or the sale of land. If I had been acting contrary to those imperatives, I could see why the Board would want to throw the book at me but I didn’t and I haven’t,” he also wrote.
In a response, Paula Murray, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, pointed out that Mahoney has a long record of discinplinary action regarding breaches of the board's code of conduct, and that he was already barred from attending a meetingfor a breach of the code of conduct in 2017,
"When dealing with code of conduct violations, the Board employs a progressive discipline model for all members including Trustees, employees and students," Murray wrote.
"In 2017, Trustee Mahoney received two cautions for behaviour in contravention of the Trustee Code of Conduct, and was warned that further infractions could result in censure and sanction. The subsequent motions (see attached) were passed following the initial two cautions. Given Trustee Mahoney had already been barred from one meeting in late 2017 as a result of a Trustee Code of Conduct violation, the Board imposed additional exclusion of meetings to underline the significant and serious nature of his actions.
"As part of his notice of censure on May 30, 2018, Trustee Mahoney was provided the opportunity to address the Board of Trustees regarding his censure. The Board has not received any correspondence from Trustee Mahoney as of Sept. 13, 2018."
The Board also provided the News with the "Record of Discipline" for Mahoney. It is a detailed document, The motion barring Mahoney from meetings for the rest of the term of the board, which was passed unanimously by the board of trustees on May 30, concludes with the following assertion: “Considering that this is Trustee Tom Mahoney’s third censure for violating the Code of Conduct, that, employing progressive discipline, he be sanctioned and barred from attendance at all meetings of the Board effective immediately until November 30, 2018.”
Christine Innocente, an activist parent from Pittsburgh Township, questions why the punishment for Mahoney’s breaches of the code of conduct have extended beyond what is contemplated in the Education Act.
On May 29th the Board passed the following motion, in a 7-0 vote.
As Innocente pointed out in a submission to the Board Chair Paula Murray, section 218.33 of the Education Act describes three courses of action in response to a breach of a school board’s code of conduct by a Trustee.
These include passing a motion of censure, removing that member from board committees for a period of time as decided by the board, or “barring the member from attending all or part of a meeting of the board or a meeting of a committee of the board.”
“There is nothing in the Act which contemplates banning a member from multiple meetings, or, as in this case, the final 6 months of a term of Council,” Innocente told the News on Tuesday.
In an email exchange with the Chair Paula Murray, Innocente brought her concerns about the length of the ban on Mahoney’s attendance at meetings forward, and received this response, which she shared with the News.
Christine Innocente: “I am struggling to locate documentation related to this Board right. Can you please provide direction as to where this right is articulated?”
Chair Murray: It is majority rules and the “Will of the Board” that determines our direction. I hope this answers your question.
Whether Mr. Mahoney ever does sit at the table at a meeting of the Limestone Board again, the question of the restrictive nature of the board’s code of conduct will become an election issue this fall.
The board can rightly claim that because children are involved, the rules around disclosure of details surrounding the operational aspects of schools within a board are legitimately more restrictive than the rules pertaining to a members of municipal council, for example.
For example, during our interview on Tuesday Mr. Mahoney said he wanted to discuss, in public, issues of disciplined in a specific school in Kingston. It is not too difficult for this kind of discussion to sway into revealing details about identifiable children, which is a reason to restrict public discourse.
However, some of the other issues that Mr. Mahoney seeks to discuss, such as his view that there a wedge between rural and urban members on the Limestone Board of Trustees, or even his speculations about the motivations of other members of the board, may be uncomfortable, even wrong, but they deserve a public airing. If the things he says can be tested against contrary opinions, if his claims can be subjected to public scrutiny and tested against contrary points of view and mitigating factors and facts, we would all be able to evaluate them.
Secrecy is a double edged sword. It is indeed hard to scrutinise an institution that does not allow elected officials to speak freely, but it also opens up the field for a whisper campaign. Also, trustees are publicly elected and the voters have certain expectations of public officials, one of which is that they represent the electors to the board.
A board that, upon election, immediately tells the trustees that their role is much more about representing the board to the public than representing the public to the board, opens itself up to movements such as #TRUSTee.