Local newspaper reporters have seen this political ritual a thousand times.
A paid position opens up in the municipal government-director of the sewerage authority, chief of public works, whatever. It's a good job with a good salary. The local powers-that-be very much want to give it to a political crony, some elected official's personal friend or family member, or someone who has earned a reward. But the rules say that they have to advertise the opening, appoint a search committee, and interview qualified candidates, with the whole decision-making process public and transparent.
And in the end, the crony gets the job.
But in this one case, thanks to a homeschooled teen with a video camera, what usually happens ... didn't happen.
Where Are the Reporters?
Last spring the Sibley-Ocheyedan school district in Sibley, Iowa, needed a new superintendent. The board of education formed a search committee, scheduled public interviews, etc. But there was a rumor afoot that the chairman of the board had already decided to hire the middle school principal, and that the formal selection process was to be only a charade.
Paul R. Dorr, who is a consultant to citizens' groups seeking to defeat school budgets (see related story), received a phone call which he passed on to his son, Matthew, then seventeen.
"Someone wanted to hire me to bring my video camera to the school and record the meeting," Matthew said. "I didn't know who it was; to this day I don't know who it was. But this person offered to pay me $30 to tape the meeting, so I went."
Matthew had never been inside the school before. At 7 p.m. he showed up with his camera.
"There were already some interviews going on in the meeting room," he said, "but there were only two or three members of the public there, and no newspaper reporters." He does not know why there were no reporters present; but the selection of a new school superintendent is normally a major local news event, and the absence of reporters is highly unusual, if not inexplicable.
A Private Public Meeting?
"As soon as I came in," Matthew said, "this lady hops out and says, ‘Young man, what are you doing here? This is a private meeting! You can't be here!'"
But Paul Dorr has taught his children to know the law, and Matthew knew the meeting could not legally be closed to the public.
"I kept saying, ‘Ma'am, the law says this meeting must be open to the public,' and she kept saying it was private," he said. "She looked at my camera bag and said, ‘You could have a bomb in your bag!' It was only my camera and my tripod, so I opened the bag and showed her. She tried to take my camera, but I wouldn't let her handle it."
The "lady" turned out to be the school board secretary, who should have known the meeting had to be open to the public. She insisted that Matthew leave, because, she said, the public school building was "private property"! Before long, her raised voice in the hallway attracted some attention from the meeting room.
"So her boss comes walking out of the room," Matthew said. "He was the board's consultant. He said, ‘You can't be here.' But I had brought with me a copy of the state attorney general's opinion on the right of citizens to record public meetings.
"They still wouldn't let me in, so I called my father and told him, ‘They're not allowing me to come into the meeting room.' So my father called the boss on his cell phone."
The secretary, meanwhile, tried another tack.
"She told me, ‘You need to wait in a containment area,'" Matthew said. "So she kind of pushed me into another room." Technically speaking, the secretary had no right to put her hands on Matthew. "But after a few minutes of talking with my father on the phone, her boss stormed in and said, ‘He can record the meeting!' He wasn't happy about it."
Candidate Up ... Candidate Down
Matthew got his camera going in time to catch the interview with the middle school principal, the school board chairman's preferred candidate for superintendent.
"He had a letter of recommendation from the chairman, who endorsed this guy before he looked at any of the other candidates," Matthew said. "I got the principal on tape admitting he didn't know how to manage a budget. The school district's budget is running away, and he said, ‘I can't balance my own checkbook.'"
After the letter of endorsement was read to the meeting, Matthew had some questions for the chairman.
"He got so mad at me, his hands shook, and he dropped the letter," Matthew said. "He yelled, ‘I'm not going to tell you! Get out!'"
But the upshot of all this drama was a change of course: the board hired someone else.
"The meeting went on till 1 a.m.," Matthew said, "but I left around 8:30. I'm glad they didn't hire the guy they wanted. It would've been more of our taxpayers' dollars wasted."
He added, "If I hadn't showed up with my camera, I'm sure they would've hired the guy the chairman wanted. I can't be sure why they changed their minds, but there is one thing I'm sure of. They hate to be on camera."
A Learning Experience
This wasn't the first time Matthew had videotaped a public meeting; but it was, he said, the first time he'd been inside a public school.
"I don't do it for the glory," he said. "I have to admit, the meeting at the school was fun. Here I am, just a teenager, and these public officials are all upset because I want to tape their meeting. And they're telling me I can't, when they know the law says I can. I've videotaped meetings before, but this was the first time anything like that happened."
We asked Matthew what he learned from his experience, and at first he seemed inclined to take a dim view of it.
"I learned nobody really follows the law-man's law or God's law," he said. "They're corrupt, they don't care."
But in this case, we reminded him, they did care: maybe not about the law, but surely about what people would think of them. Certainly they didn't want to be videotaped hiring a school superintendent who admitted he couldn't balance his own checkbook. What would the board have done, had Matthew not shown up with his camera? Our own experience as a local news reporter strongly suggests they would have hired the under-qualified candidate.
So, yes-the teen with the camera made a difference.
Now eighteen, Matthew this year will continue his education at Pastor Paul Michael Raymond's New Geneva Christian Leadership Academy at Appomattox, VA. He'll be going there to learn; but with his own and his father's experiences behind him-and his camera in his bag-he may get a chance to do some teaching, too.