Early this evening, there’s a meeting between Manchester Proud and the Manchester Board of School Committee.  I have decided I will not attend.

This meeting is being billed as a Manchester Proud “workshop” with the Board of School Committee.  It will not be at City Hall.  It will not be covered by Manchester Public Television.  It was not posted as a pubic meeting.  It has no agenda.  The board’s clerk will not be in attendance, therefore there will be no minutes of the meeting.

Meeting not public

At the time we were asked to participate, it was my understanding that the purpose of the meeting was to have Manchester Proud come before the board to share the findings of its public outreach.  Therefore, I assumed a publicly noticed meeting was going to be held and the information to be presented was going to be on an agenda.  Having information on an agenda is important.  It gives board members time to prepare for the meeting and it provides information to the public, thus ensuring a level of transparency required in the conduct of public business.

I was taken aback when I realized there was no meeting notice and no agenda.  Needless to say I made some phone calls to find out why.  In short, I was told that it didn’t need to be because it was a “Manchester Proud workshop” to which the board was “invited.”  It not being a board meeting, there was no need to post a meeting notice and no reason for an agenda.  I pressed the issue noting there would be more than a quorum of the board present.  “Doesn’t matter,” I was told.  “It’s not our meeting and we won’t be conducting any business.”

Technically, I think this may be true, but I also think there’s an argument to be made that given the board has approved or otherwise commissioned Manchester Proud to do this work, it should be a public meeting.  Even if meeting like this doesn’t violates the letter of the state’s Right to Know Law (RSA 91-A), it stands contrary to Manchester Proud’s oft made proclamations of openness and transparency.  It would be right, proper and appropriate to provide board members with their findings and presentation in advance so they can prepare in advance.   It would be wise to make this information available to the public via an agenda, too.

Perhaps I should have known better, or at last wondered about how this meeting would happen.  Manchester Proud’s much ballyhooed community meetings have been similarly conducted.  Manchester Public TV has not been invited to the vast majority of their meetings and press coverage has been scant.  The reason for this seems to vary based on who is spoken to.  Some say it’s because they want attendees to feel free to express themselves without the fear of public scrutiny.  Others say it’s because they don’t want people playing to the camera or otherwise grandstanding.  There have been other reasons expressed.  At the end of the day, whatever the reason, there’s a certain opaqueness to their brand of transparency.

This, however, isn’t a community listening session.  It’s a meeting to inform the board about their findings.  The elected members of the board represent the people who hold them to account for what they do and say or don’t do and say.  To me, meeting like this is a breach of that responsibility to be transparent.

Girard: Say what?

I also find this troubling given Manchester Proud’s recent announcement that they won’t present their plan to this board as originally promised.  Rather, they’re going to wait until after the next board is seated in January, which means after the coming election.  When they asked for the board to approve of their effort, they said the final plans would be brought to us this fall.  In my conversations to find out why this meeting wasn’t a public one, I was told that the plan shouldn’t come before the board in this term because five of us are leaving and why should we get to vote on something that will bind a future board?

Yeah, you read that right.  Oh My HEAD!

You should know that no board can bind a future board.  Any future board can cast whatever vote it wants on any item.  All it takes is eight votes and any decision can be undone, save for things like approving a union contract.  Speaking of which, since I chair the Special Committee on Negotiations, I asked if negotiations should continue since any vote taken between now and the end of the term will be taken by at least five people who won’t be coming back and will be voting on something that future boards will have to address.  “That’s a good point,” I was told.  Yup!  It really is.  

To draw attention to Manchester Proud’s idea of “transparency,” which has been consistently hard to see through and to protest the conduct of this meeting as one devoid of any of the norms that provide information and accountability to the public, I will not attend.  This is not how this meeting should be done.

UPDATE:  In speaking with the Union Leader reporter who primarily covers the school district for the paper, I learned that he also had not been invited to attend the event and that he did not believe the paper had received a “media advisory” with the the meeting’s details so that a reporter could be assigned.

Further, in discussion with someone who called me about this article, my concern about the propriety of this meeting was heightened.  While the board may not be voting on anything tonight, it is certainly possible that those members present could enter into discussion about the information that could influence or determine how they might vote on whatever plan Manchester Proud finally presents.  Fact is, if those present come to any consensus on any matter, it’s prejudicial to an outcome and, therefore, properly the domain of a public meeting.  ~RH Girard

UPDATE from Manchester Proud: 

“Good Afternoon. Tonight’s workshop at the Institute will be rescheduled for a later date and publicly noticed. This decision reflects the shared sentiments of members of your board and Manchester Proud. We are eager to engage all of you in understanding our community engagement findings and continue our partnership in visioning and planning for the future of our schools. We’ll be back to you soon to find a new date. Thanks for understanding.  Manchester Proud”.