Thursday, June 13, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Superintendent’s secret recordings are Nixon-esque


Probably like most observers, we were somewhat bumfuzzled by some of the comments made during the county commissioners’ last meeting on June 19, when superintendent Dr. Dain Butler took to the podium to lobby for some more spending at the 11th hour before commissioners were set to adopt a budget and establish a tax rate for the next fiscal year.

We’ve already commented on the way commissioners were duped by Butler’s double-talk on that occasion – and the school board’s actions before and since his arrival in squandering money on bonuses which have depleted federal funds that had been designated for Covid-19 relief (to include HVAC upgrades at ABSS schools.) Now, Butler says his savings are running low, the situation which Butler bemoaned during his plea to commissioners for more money on June 19. We need not re-plow that ground.

What we haven’t mentioned previously is the lead story in this week’s edition.  During that same appearance, Butler made some rather brief and oblique references to having “recordings” in which he claimed county commissioners had pledged during meetings in his office to provide additional funding – he termed it a “match” – for a higher teacher supplement if he could find and implement other savings from existing funds that could be diverted toward that purpose.

The number of bad ideas and poor policy decisions encompassed in that brief oration on June 19 are quite numerous, and we suspect will add to the damage, potentially long-lasting, done by other aspects of Butler’s, desperate, last-minute plea for more tax dollars.

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His rhetoric on June 19, quite frankly, verged on sounding like an overt form of blackmail, trying to browbeat the commissioners into doing what he wanted – with the concurrent threat to expose them if they didn’t give him what he wanted (which was at least partially intended to fund an increase in teacher supplements).

First, and most significantly, why in the world would the superintendent have, much less use, a secret recording system of some sort?  It all sounds rather Nixon-esque.

Imitations of Nixon’s secretive style of governing are never a good point of comparison.

On Monday evening, June 19, the superintendent said he “had recordings” that he implied might embarrass the commissioners who, he claimed, were failing to live up to the promises they had made, individually, in his office for some sort of “match” in increasing the teacher supplement.

But by Thursday, June 22, when this newspaper filed a public records request for copies of those recordings which he had told the world he had, he claimed they no longer existed. “Regrettably,” he told the newspaper’s publisher, “I no longer have those recordings.”

The fact that he ever had such recordings, however, is appalling.

Did he ever tell any one of the five commissioners that they were being recorded in his office?

All five told the newspaper this week that they did not receive any such notification.

A word here on legality versus ethics.  North Carolina allows recordings to be made as long as one person in a conversation knows the matter is being taped.  So, it wasn’t illegal for the superintendent to surreptitiously record his conversations with county commissioners.

But in our judgment it certainly wasn’t a very good idea.

And the ethics of recording commissioners secretly really doesn’t reflect very well on the superintendent or his ethics.

While we thought the superintendent had been undertaking a “charm offensive” of sorts since he arrived and took charge a year ago – in trying to have a “new and improved” relationship with the five commissioners who hold the county’s, and the school system’s, purse strings – we imagine he has set that effort back quite a bit by trying to “catch” them in a fib.

Our underlying question, however, is whether it is the superintendent himself who hasn’t told the whole truth.

Did he “have” recordings on Monday, and then destroy them between Monday’s claim and our Thursday request?  It also should be noted that public officials aren’t allowed to “just destroy” documents they don’t want or need anymore.  A violation of the state’s Public Records Law.

And, by the way, we also wonder who else the superintendent may have recorded without their knowledge?  His bosses, the school board members, other elected officials?

Not too surprisingly, only one commissioner remembers any discussion with the superintendent in his office about anything even remotely resembling a “match” for teacher supplements.

And the one who does, commissioner Craig Turner, remembers it at half the level the superintendent claimed – about half a percent to come from each “side,” rather than a full percent.

The other commissioners generally recalled what they thought were sort of courtesy visits with the new superintendent, not laying out policy choices for the next fiscal year.

But here’s another, perhaps even more important point: neither the superintendent nor any county commissioner should be establishing policies or “incentives,” nor making or implying promises with other public officials behind closed doors – whether being recorded or not.

We cannot seem to cite it enough to prompt public officials to follow the law, but this episode certainly begs for yet another reminder: North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law sets out an entirely different priority for setting public policy.  In a public policy “preamble,” of sorts, the law says, “Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly. [Emphasis added.]

Not in a series of little meetings – whether ostensibly “social,” or “get to know you” visits, or otherwise – in the superintendent’s office.  Or anywhere else.

We’ve noted on several previous occasions that we had been optimistic that Butler was bringing a breath of fresh air to a school system that desperately needed leadership, innovation, and clear, pragmatic thinking with a focus on discipline and academic achievement.

We suspect he’s going to spend a good deal of time digging out from the double holes he has dug for himself –the first by making secret recordings in the first place and another by trying to blackmail the commissioners into giving him more money based on them.

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