Dozens of people in Kingston, Ont., packed a school board meeting Wednesday night to support a trustee who’s been banned from meetings.
The group included a loose coalition of people running to unseat current Limestone District School Board trustees, who are being accused of banning trustee Tom Mahoney during private proceedings.
Robin Hutcheon, a trustee candidate who is part of the coalition, said people came to the meeting not only from Mahoney’s district, but from across the city.
“It really showed how concerned people are with the way this board conducts its affairs and how closed they are to public input,” Hutcheon said.
I must admit I’m an opinionated person. But I’m respectful and I ask questions.
– Trustee Tom Mahoney, Limestone District School Board
Mahoney, who is not running to keep his trustee seat in this October’s election, tried to address his colleagues at Wednesday night’s board meeting but was not recognized by the chair due to the sanction against him.
In an earlier interview with CBC News, Mahoney said trustees should be free to share their views along with the board chair.
“I must admit I’m an opinionated person, but I’m respectful and I ask questions,” Mahoney said.
“I used to hear a lot of, ‘Only the chair speaks for the board, only the chair’ … [but] you want the [trustee] that you vote for to represent you, and you want them to tell you what they think, too, because you’re putting your trust in them … and you want to hear their opinion.”
Mahoney censured numerous times
Karen Smith, a spokesperson for the Limestone District School Board, said it’s board policy to use “progressive discipline” when trustees violate the code of conduct.
Mahoney was given a month to write an apology letter to a staff member for “disrespectful and unprofessional conduct,” and was not present at the meeting where the process of having him banned from meetings and votes was initiated, Smith said.
The board passed a motion to censure Mahoney following a third-party investigator’s review of the situation, she said.
Despite the measures, in a statement, board chair Paul Murray maintained Mahoney is still able to represent the people who voted for him.
“Trustee Mahoney continues to be a sitting trustee with the Limestone District School Board. His censure prevents him from attending board and board committee meetings only… His constituents may still contact him regarding concerns,” Murray wrote in a statement.
But Mahoney’s supporters contend the decision to stop him from attending meetings shouldn’t have been made behind closed doors.
“I think an elected official should have the right to step out, speak to the public, express their concerns. Whether the other folks like it or not is not really the point. You need to be able to interact with the public,” said Hutcheon, who added she thinks Mahoney was targeted for siding with parents about school closures and mergers.
Smith said staffing and legal matters are often discussed in private sessions, and that any motions that come to a vote are then made public.
Trustee roles changing
Paul Bennett, an education researcher and consultant who follows school board governance issues in Canada, said he thinks the situation in Kingston isn’t unique.
“[Mahoney is] the victim of changes in the role of the trustee that have undermined the effectiveness of trustees as public representatives…. At one time what was perfectly viable, possible and normal is now grounds for some kind of sanction,” he said.
“There are some very good trustees … who take their responsibilities seriously, but they basically have learned to go along to get along. And those who are a little more independent, who want to really represent their constituents, bring their concerns to the board, take seriously their accountability and are looking for changes, ask tough questions, they get a rough ride.”
Bennett also expressed concern about codes of conduct for school board trustees, which read like discipline for children, not elected officials.
“When you look at these protocols, your first reaction is, ‘Do you assume that all these people have a propensity to misbehave, to act out, to do things that are inappropriate? What’s the need for all these restrictions? Why are you treating them like your class?'”