Before Chair Sarah Fox opened the public comment period of the School Committee’s July 6 meeting, she offered a word of caution.
In light of what had happened at the board’s June 30 meeting, a concerned parent had come to Fox, fearful that her child would be subject to further bullying if the public comment period was used to breach the confidentiality of their dealings with the district, she explained.
Fox asked all who might speak during the public comment period to be cognizant of confining their comments to public information and resist the urge to use the forum to chill people’s exercise of their rights.
It is a point well taken, especially given the fraught issues like bullying and special education services school districts are called upon to deal with daily.
However, the situation prompting Fox’s remarks involves someone in a different category entirely.
Fox was reacting to the appearance before the board of Paul Baker, an unsuccessful candidate for School Committee, who had used the June 30 public comment period to shed light on the previously undisclosed age discrimination complaint new School Committee member Brian Ota had filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination after his contract as Glover School principal was not renewed following the 2021-22 school year.
Nothing in the conflict-of-interest law prohibits someone with a pending complaint or lawsuit against a town department from running for or sitting on a board overseeing the department at the root of his legal dispute, and to the best of our determination, Ota is correct when he states that he has met the letter of the conflict-of-interest law.
But, as is often the case, the law only establishes the minimum requirements of public officials. Voters have a right to set their expectations higher — and to be disappointed when those expectations are not met.
Almost without fail, candidates for public office are asked, “Why are you running?” The prevalence of that question suggests that voters place paramount importance on candidates’ motivations, and they want those motivations to be pure.
As Ota himself noted in his “disclosure of appearance of conflict of interest” form filed with the town clerk, the School Committee on which he now sits has two jobs: approving the budget and evaluating, hiring or firing the superintendent.
At least for the time being, Ota would seem to be disqualified from carrying out the latter duty, as the conflict-of-interest law prohibits public employees from participating in matters in which they have a financial interest. By participating in the evaluation process, Ota could obtain information about the superintendent’s performance that could affect the outcome of his pending complaint, though Ota has also said he did not ask the MCAD for any compensation.
Much discussion around town in recent years has focused on the need for greater transparency in our local government, its officials and its proceedings. Town Meeting has addressed articles calling for greater transparency and candidates have put forth their support for same in recent campaigns.
By failing to let voters know in advance of the June election that he was a party to administrative litigation arising out of his school contract having not been renewed by Superintendent John Buckey — the very person whose own employment contract comes under the control of the School Committee — Ota chose privacy over transparency. And voters were thereby denied information that might well have affected their decision to vote for or against him.
Again, the issue is not whether Ota has cleared the low bar set for him by the state — that, he seems to have done — but whether he has met the voters’ higher, but still reasonable, expectations for an elected official.
Ota is just starting his service as a School Committee member and has plenty of time to demonstrate that he ran for the right reasons, not as an act of revenge.
But as beginnings go, this was not an auspicious one.
The Current Editorial Board
The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.