Appointment requires a ‘do-over’

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rather than wait for an attorney general’s opinion that may never come and let uncertainty linger around David Benton’s service on the Franklin School Board, the City Council should simply take another vote on his appointment.

If Benton’s still the guy for the job, council members can clarify that belief once and for all with a majority vote in his favor.

It’s unfair – both to Benton and to the school division – to allow doubt to cloud the legitimacy of his April appointment to the school board’s at-large seat.

By everyone’s admission, the City Council made two honest but significant errors in Benton’s original appointment. It didn’t properly notify the public of the meeting as required by the states Freedom of Information Act, and it failed to record the appointment in its minutes.

City Attorney Taylor Williams deemed the latter error correctable and advised council members to approve the minutes retroactively. That motion died for lack of a second.

As to the failure to give proper notice of the meeting, Williams has requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether the legitimacy of Benton’s appointment was compromised.

It’s up to the AG whether to respond – and when.

A reappointment would render questions about the April vote moot – and allow the school board to move ahead with confidence on important matters like the hiring of a new superintendent.

Benton has done nothing in the 5 months since his appointment to disqualify himself from further service. He is a seasoned board member with prior service on the board, including a time as president; a passionate advocate of public education in our community; and a keen mind on fiscal matters, which is a skill-set the school board needs.

The only question we’d ask Benton – and we hope the City Council did when it interviewed him and two other candidates for the position in March – is why he voted in 2006, during a previous term on the school board, to reassign former Superintendent Alline Riddick a few months after renewing her contract and to bring in Bill Pruett as the school division’s leader. Can anyone claim with a straight face that the city schools are better off after two years of Pruett’s part-time leadership? Without question, they are fiscally poorer, having paid two superintendents unnecessarily.

In Benton’s defense, he didn’t make those decisions alone, and neither has the rest of the school board given a good explanation.

As for the unwillingness of Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson and Councilwomen Mary Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence to second Councilman Mark Fetherolf’s motion for retroactive approval of the April minutes, we won’t be overly critical. The councilwomen, who opposed the Benton appointment, have some legitimate beefs about the process, including the council majority’s break from tradition in making the appointment on the same night it interviewed the candidates. The rushed appointment caught the three off guard and smacked of heavy-handed politics by their council colleagues.

The City Council can answer both the legal questions and fairness questions about the Benton appointment by reinterviewing the candidates and taking another vote.