Democracies die behind closed doors.
Those words enshrined in history in a 2002 ruling by U.S. Sixth Circuit Court Judge Damon Keith declared that a government that operates behind closed doors is one that “selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”
Keith’s words were relevant when he delivered them in response to a government effort to bar the public from court hearings for individuals charged in the Sept. 11 attacks. And it’s especially poignant today as Traverse City Area Public Schools officials work to obscure their decisions from public view.
Generations of journalists have spent their careers eating, sleeping and breathing the values behind Keith's words. They describe one of the core principles for which many of us sacrifice time with our families, relationships with loved ones, financial security and sleep: A government that excludes the people is not for the people.
We volunteer for this work, and the abuse we sometimes receive in return, because we believe in the value — the necessity, of an informed, engaged public.
We witnessed firsthand the power of an engaged community Friday afternoon. It was a heartening moment for our journalists.
Record-Eagle reporters engaged in a familiar tug-of-war with public officials in the days before Friday’s short-notice, closed-session meeting of the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education.
Starting Wednesday, schools reporter Brendan Quealy began the frustrating task of trying to confirm a tip that something drastic was in the works within the leadership ranks at TCAPS. The tip — a rumor most of us likely have heard by now — claimed TCAPS’ new superintendent, Ann Cardon, is leaving the district, either voluntarily or through an orchestrated ouster, after barely more than 70 days on the job.
If true, it’s the kind of move to which our community deserves to be privy, a decision that impacts thousands of students, hundreds of employees and every constituent who contributes to the district’s $100 million budget.
Such a move also would signal a woeful failure of trustees’ most important duty.
Quealy reacted as any good journalist would by going straight to Cardon for answers. Her response was cagey, and we suspect someone else may have been conferenced into the call.
We have standards, believe in reporting fact, not conjecture, so we often find ourselves scrambling to confirm or debunk rumors as they spread and evolve. This week was no different.
Several TCAPS officials, including board President Sue Kelly, either declined to answer questions or refused to return multiple calls and text messages. Further, Kelly, during a Thursday afternoon interview in which she refused to answer questions, failed to mention she was planning to call a last-minute, untelevised, special board meeting Friday afternoon. That meeting was set for the sole purpose of facilitating a closed-session discussion.
The only hints we have at the content of recent closed-door talks at TCAPS comes from a letter trustee Erica Moon Mohr wrote to her fellow board members. The Record-Eagle obtained that letter, confirmed its authenticity with Moon Mohr and published it Friday morning. It’s clear Kelly and others within the district did everything they could to exclude the public from the special meeting.
Much to some officials’ chagrin, rumors and Moon Mohr’s letter drove a wall-to-wall audience to pack into the board room for the meeting to levy concern about Cardon’s potential departure and to deride officials’ secrecy.
It was a small victory in the fight against the intentional murkiness to which some elected officials and some bureaucrats believe they’re entitled.
But we still don’t have any answers from the people who are elected to serve us.
District officials no doubt will stretch the law to the limit in their response to records requests that surely will shed light on whatever has for weeks transpired in whispers and closed-session meetings.
Worse, even raucous public outcry and pleading for transparency seemed unable to move the needle. We still don’t know whether the district soon will be leaderless and if so, for what reasons. And no public official, elected or otherwise, has made any effort to clarify the public record.
We will continue to fight night and day for transparency at TCAPS whether from the current district leadership or the next. We want answers, and like you, we lose sleep when we don’t get them.
We hope you will join us in continuing to pursue the truth, in demanding answers from the people who were elected or hired to serve our children.
Because in northern Michigan, democracy dies in closed session.