Censured school-board trustee speaks out against board’s alleged lack of transparency

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The Limestone District School Board has banned a trustee for breaking code of conduct – Jul 11, 2018

Tom Mahoney, a censured trustee from the Limestone District Schoool Board, says that he knows he’s guilty of violating the board’s code of conduct, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do the job he was elected to do.

“Trustees have a dual role — role to the board to abide by polices… then you have a responsibility to the public, the constituents that elect you. To me, that is who I chose to be responsible to.”

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Although Mahoney’s May 29 censure wasn’t his first, it was definitely the most severe of the three imposed on him during his three-and-a half-year run as a Kingston trustee.

In a private session, the board decided to ban Mahoney from attending any future board meetings until the end of November. This sanction essentially disallows him from participating in any board activity until a month after the municipal elections in October.

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The motion says that Mahoney’s second censure was delivered “for inappropriate interactions with outside individuals to unseat certain fellow board members, unwarranted criticism of fellow board members and for demonstrating unethical and disrespectful conduct.”

According to the motion, the board hired a third-party investigator to look into Mahoney’s actions. The board would not disclose the third-party report, citing confidentiality reasons.

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Mahoney doesn’t fight the board’s wording.

“I’m guilty,” said Mahoney. “If you look at the code of conduct, I’m guilty.”

Despite his admission of guilt, Mahoney says the code of conduct can be interpreted in many ways, and that his actions were made in the best interests of his constituents.

“I’ve been censured for I believe engaging with parents that had concerns, that their concerns weren’t being addressed properly. There were numerous people who came to me, some of them I didn’t even represent.”

What the now-censured trustee for the Loyalist-Cataraqui, Collins-Bayridge and Lakeside Districts says he was hearing were complaints that the school board wasn’t being as transparent as it could be.

Mahoney named one instance where the transparency of the board was called into question, when longtime trustee David Jackson passed away on April 12, leaving an empty seat on the board.

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The board decided in a private session to fill Jackson’s seat by giving the role to former-trustee Helen Chadwick, despite the fact that some members of the public had expressed interest in the position.

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Mahoney says that he believes that decision shouldn’t have been made without consulting the public, nor does he think something like his censure should have been kept private either.

“In my view, in the past, there’s been too many private sessions before and after board meetings.

It’s issues like these that prompted Mahoney to go to a parent involvement committee, and as he says it, try to get some trustees off of the board.

“I’m going to change this by trying to get people removed from the board,” Mahoney said, adding that he approached parents and asked them to run. “I said the only way to make change is to get in there and make it yourself.”

According to Mahoney, word somehow got back to the trustees of his actions at the parent committee, which then led to his sanctioning.

“I was somewhat taken aback that it was that long,” said Mahoney.

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Lars Thompson is a former chair of the Limestone District School Board, and acted as a trustee on the board for the Lakeshore area for a total of 18 years.

He says the length and severity of Mahoney’s censuring is unusual.

“It never happened in my time… it’s a very unique event to have someone, shall we say, ostracized.”

Although Thompson says he hasn’t been following Mahoney’s case closely, he admitted that he heard rumblings about the issue around town.

Thompson says he understands the need for private sessions, because often there is a necessity for them.

The Ontario Education Act allows school boards to go under private session if they need to discuss things like legal issues, or items that may involve private information. Nevertheless, Thompson says that overusing that privilege could be seen as suspect, even if a board has nothing to hide.

“To overuse that process, we tried to avoid that. We wanted to keep it public as much as possible.”

Not only did Mahoney dislike the frequency of private sessions, he also said he felt muzzled by the board’s policy to disallow trustees from making public comments. It is board policy that any public comments from trustees must be deferred to the chair board.

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“[The trustees] shouldn’t have to get permission from the chair, and go through the director. We’ve been elected by the public, we’re all responsible,” Mahoney said

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Despite that policy, CKWS did reach out to all eight of the other trustees. We received a response from two board members deferring to chair Paula Murray, while the others did not respond.

When Murray was asked about the policy to defer to her, she said that although it was the current board’s rule, it didn’t have to carry on to a new board, which will be elected on Oct. 22.

“The chair is the spokesperson of the board. However, it is an election year, and a new board can alter that, and allow for more freedom for conversations and opinions.”

When asked about the unusual length of Mahoney’s censure, Murray said she couldn’t comment on why the board chose to ban Mahoney until the end of November.

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“That decision was made in private session, it was the will of the board that that length was deemed suitable,” said Murray. She did say that the number of Mahoney’s censures may have had something to do with the extended length of his censure, despite admitting that there is nothing in the trustee code of conduct that allows the board to give a trustee a lengthier punishment for multiple censures.

When asked about the specific details of what led to Mahoney’s various censures, Murray said she could not comment on those either.

“The details of those events, the details surrounding that are confidential,” said Murray. “Because it does involve another employee of the Limestone District School Board.”

The incident involving Mahoney and another employee was the fodder for the trustee’s first censure, discussed in a private session on Dec. 13, 2017.

According to a public motion, Mahoney was publicly reprimanded for “disrespectful and unprofessional conduct with a Limestone District School Board staff member.”

The motion alleged that Mahoney broke two codes from the trustee code of conduct, by failing to “deal appropriately with sensitive issues and respect the confidentiality of discussions that take place during closed sessions,” and failing to “represent everyone Limestone District School Board serves, not a particular interest group or geographic area.”

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His second censure led to the previously discussed ban from the board, and his third censure, announced in a public motion on June 20, led to a decision from the board to ban Mahoney from attending graduations.

The motion cites Mahoney’s “tardiness and lack of clarity in responding to invitations, and repeated incidents of this nature” as the reasons he would not be allowed to attend graduations in his district. This decision was also made in private session.

Although Mahoney admits he infringed on certain aspects of the code of conduct, he said he felt that it was his duty as an elected official to make sure that the board was as transparent as it could be.

“A lot of those discussions that are happening in private sessions, basically the public need to know that, and how the decisions are rendered. Or they’re just sitting there, and without that transparency, they’re questioning themselves.”

Despite Mahoney’s more high-profile censuring, Murray says he’s far from the only trustee who has been censured during her three-year term as chair.

“Other trustees have been censured. Has it happened historically as much? No. I can honestly say I am the chair who has handed out the most code of conduct [violations].”

When asked whether the board could have done more to be transparent, Murray said that she believes it’s an issue that will be reflected in the upcoming election.

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“There will no doubt be some robust discussions surrounding that. That’s the opportunity for those people to come forward, and those people to come forward for the next board.”

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Either way, it won’t be Murray fielding those changes.

“I will not be seeking re-election. I look forward to attending my daughter’s graduation in the audience, next year,” said the chair, who has been serving on the board for the last 12 years.

Mahoney says he will also not be seeking re-election, but that he hopes that certain policies will be reviewed by the next board.

Deborah Rantz, the Limestone School Board’s director of education was reached for comment, but she said she could not speak to board decisions.

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