Monday, April 15, 2024

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On Caesar’s wife and the need to learn from history

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We’ve often written of our belief that public officials and their spouses ought to remain “as pure as Caesar’s wife,” as the old saying goes.

The adage refers to the need for someone close to the seat of power to be beyond reproach – with no hint of impropriety either real or apparent, precisely because of their special relationship with someone who wields influence and authority.

This cautionary philosophy from the Roman Empire is one that modern-day politicians and their spouses would do well to remember – especially when a leader’s significant other appears to be, or could be seen as, potentially benefitting from their official decisions or actions or potentially influencing them in those decisions.

Another dimension to this philosophy is that bureaucrats (who weren’t particularly a large part of the Roman Empire but are now rather pervasive) must also be careful of their actions, ensuring that they do not appear to be currying favor with politicians or showing favoritism on their behalf to the politicians’ relatives they may oversee.

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We readily concede that this “Caesar’s wife standard” is a dramatically higher one than the ethical requirements spelled out under North Carolina state law – which, in most cases, merely prohibit public officials from doing anything that would result in financial gain for themselves – or in a few cases, for their close relatives.

Our support for this more rigorous standard has been underscored by the seemingly newfound enthusiasm, even zeal, of county commissioner Craig Turner to endorse new spending for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

Turner, in our view, began his 2½-year tenure as a particularly eagle-eyed arbiter of the school system’s requests for more funds from the county.

Immediately upon his elevation to the county’s governing board in 2021, Turner took a keen interest in the school system’s maintenance-related requests and demanded a strict accounting of these outlays, which some previous commissioners had been content just to rubberstamp. He was very exacting – seeking timetables, priorities, and other specificity from school officials – before granting his vote for their funding requests.

But on at least two recent occasions, Turner seems to have jettisoned his usual caution, skepticism, and sense of realism in favor of leading the charge to give school officials whatever amount of money they want – and without delay.

What’s happened, we’ve wondered?

We note that, based on numerous social media posts, Turner has recently become engaged to Julie Hancock, who is the principal of Turrentine Middle School and was formerly principal at Smith Elementary School.

Could it be that this relationship has begun to affect Turner’s objectivity or diligence in evaluating ABSS spending requests?

Our suspicions were first piqued earlier this year (on June 19) by his willingness to increase the county’s budget and spending, and raise property taxes to boot, in order to fulfill a last-minute request for more spending from school superintendent Dr. Dain Butler.

Now, over the past couple of weeks, Turner has struck us as overly eager to commit additional tax dollars to bail out the school system in its current panic about mold – without any concomitant  interest in how they got in this mess in the first place.

Rather than delving into how school officials got to this point (we would say through negligence and irresponsible diversion of money from purposes unrelated to maintenance), Turner appears to be perfectly happy to just hand over millions in taxpayer funds with little to no accountability.

This week, he made the motion Monday to spend $3.5 million for mold removal at three more schools during Monday’s  joint meeting with the school board. (And he did so despite the commissioner chairman’s initial request that his board not proceed too quickly or without sufficient information.)

And on Wednesday, he also made the motion for designating another $5 million for more mold removal.

We acknowledge that for Turner, as for other public officials in a similar situation, it is inherently difficult to demonstrate independence when one’s spouse (or soon-to-be spouse) is closely connected to another agency that might benefit, or be seen as benefiting, from their official decisions.

It’s not that either Turner or his future wife stand to gain, financially, from these outlays.  But his actions are uncharacteristic, in our judgment, from his past track record that demonstrated a more diligent degree of stewardship.

A similar potential conflict confronts both school board member Chuck Marsh – and, by extension, superintendent Dr. Dain Butler.

In May, school board members bestowed a significant ($20,800) raise on superintendent Butler, elevating his already hefty salary by 10.5 percent, from $197,600 to $218,400.

Marsh and all other school board members unanimously voted for the raise.

Then, two weeks later, in June, superintendent Butler recommended a promotion for Marsh’s wife, Rebecca Marsh, to a principalship at the Alamance Virtual School; she had previously been an assistant principal at South Graham Elementary.

Now the timing of this move can certainly be sheer coincidence, but it certainly raised eyebrows – both within the school system and among the public at large who were familiar with the situation; and we’ve received numerous comments about if from people in both the school system and among the general public.

(In fairness to Marsh, he did at least recuse himself from voting on his wife’s promotion, which was otherwise unanimous.)

The inherent struggle to remain above the fray had already been challenging enough for Marsh, whose wife works for the school system which he now oversees.  Her tenure there predates his; he was just elected last November.

It has also been a bit problematic for fellow board member Dan Ingle, whose two daughters and a son-in-law have also been employed by the school system prior to his own election, also last November; board chairman Sandy Ellington Graves, whose sister-in-law is a teacher; and board member Donna Westbrooks, whose son-in-law is a teacher/coach for ABSS.

These familial employments are not nearly as close or high profile as Marsh’s wife, and we’re not aware of any conflicts that have arisen with any of them, but they should be noted.

These board members all have to be especially careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with real, or perceived, benefits for their respective relations.

But the higher those same relatives climb on the organizational chart, the higher the standard of care – and caution – needs to be.

Public officials in this position walk a very thin line.  And they need to do so very carefully.

In the court system, for instance, when questions of potential conflicts of interest arise, an outside district attorney or judge (or both) is brought in to try a case, in order to avoid any question of special (or harsh) treatment from existing court officials.  But there’s no similar methodology for bureaucracies.

In a perfect world, we’re not at all sure it is appropriate for people to seek an elective public position when his or her spouse or other close family members work for the agency they hope to oversee. It presents an inherent potential for a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one.

That’s true whether it’s the school system, a local municipal government, or county government.

But when they do find themselves in this position – as in Turner’s, Marsh’s, and other school board members’ cases – it behooves them and the top bureaucrats they oversee to take special care that their actions remain above suspicion.

It’s a good rule to follow whether in Rome or in Alamance County: all parties need to be as cautious as possible to be above reproach, to avoid even a whiff of favoritism – both in fact, and in appearance.

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