Let go of your anger

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Yesterday, our "Facebook" group met to discuss next steps in our attempt to get a great Superintendent for Acton. It was a bit intimidating for me, because I just joined Facebook and there were more people in the room than I had "friends." Not even my kids will friend me, although there are still college tuition bills to pay, so I still have a little leverage to make that happen.

Yesterday morning, I wrote a blog post about what I think was behind the School Committee's (SC) statement and public meeting of May 24, in which the SC claimed that the parting of ways with the current Superintendent was "amicable," yet he was leaving hastily over seemingly unknown (and therefore, maybe insignificant) operational or philosophical differences. Something didn't add up. When the SC kept dodging questions, it was clear they were hiding something.

So in yesterday's post, I briefly went through the logic of why the evidence points to mistakes, not "evil" intent. All of the evidence I have is circumstantial, but the body of evidence is large. Yet at the meeting yesterday afternoon, I faced some open hostility. Some of the people may not have read the post, but I suspect most did and simply didn't agree. So today, I am going to discuss this further in the hope that it helps some people let go of their anger, hurt feelings, or whatever their feelings or beliefs are, and move on for the good of the towns and the School.

When I use the word "evil," in describing one possible intent of the SC, I hope my readers understand the distinction I am trying to make. So in this article, here is what "evil" means: If any wrongful acts of the SC are done to hide violations of the Open Meeting Law, other wrongdoing by the School Committee, criminal activity that has been kept hidden from law enforcement, bribery, theft, whatever...then that is wrong. Those lies need to be uncovered, the truth must come out, we must expose the wrongful acts, and the liars must be punished. I hope everyone is in agreement with that. So a big component of "evil" is intent. Incompetence itself is not evidence of evil.

"Evil" also includes the concept that someone has been inappropriately bullied into doing something they otherwise would not have done. This includes all of the various possible scenarios in which this sudden change of leadership is unfair but the "victim" has been wrongfully coerced into agreeing to do things they otherwise would not want to do.

Let's say for the sake of argument that there has been a violation of the Open Meeting Law (OML). I currently don't see any proof that this happened, but if it did, that would obviously be wrong and should be uncovered. But that doesn't make the SC "evil," unless their lies were meant to hide and cover up breaking the law.

I am not arguing that we should ignore these types of violations, if they occurred. I am saying that, right now, I don't see any real evidence that they did, and until we have some, we should not proceed by "assuming the worst." That is not going to help us achieve our goals, which is to find the best Superintendent for Acton, and to help the community heal.

Did the SC violate the OML? One participant yesterday asserted that their "shady" dealings were evidence and that lying (or, let's say, stretching the truth) about the real reasons for the executive sessions (ESs) are strong evidence of an OML violation.

I respectfully disagree. Trying to hide what happened in an executive session might be to "protect the innocent" and all that is required in the law is to state the purpose of the ESs, which was done. That was done in the minutes and also repeated in the public postings for the meetings. So long as the stated purposes are true, there is no OML violation for that reason, even if the "PR" statements after the fact are misleading or even outright lies.

So to be clear, the first ES was justified to discuss some sort of complaint or personnel problem against an individual. If during that long meeting, there was some discussion of "operational differences," then the SC could say later on that there were "operational differences" (which is technically true) and a four-hour ES meeting could discuss "operational differences" but that's not all that was discussed. It could have been five minutes on "operational differences" and three-hours-and-fifty-five-minutes on something else. So while the SC statement is misleading and what a normal person might call a "lie," it is not an illegal ES and therefore not a violation of the OML (if the facts as I stated are correct.)

BODY OF EVIDENCE

And more so than that, in a positive sense, all the evidence I have seen points to a different conclusion, that the mistakes, misinformation, and/or lies were clumsy attempts at controlling information that (the SC must believe) the public does NOT have a right to know, at least not at the present time. (We may learn more when documents are released in the future.)

But if the liars are not "evil," then what are the other possibilities? Well, first, they could be telling the truth and we have just misunderstood it for some reason. I have dismissed this because I believe we would have a different body of evidence now if that were the case. We would be discussing "operational and philosophical differences" in public because these topics are not private matters, and violating the Open Meeting Law for no good reason is extremely unlikely, especially with several lawyers present and everyone involved having received training in following the law, and with monetary penalties that the individuals are now (under changes to the law that just occurred January 1, 2017) personally liable for.

I used to be a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I've read all Arthur Conan Doyle's books and short stories (in high school, but I don't think he has written anything since...he is long dead...) and one of Holmes' sayings was that (paraphrasing), 'if you eliminate all the possibilities, what remains, however improbable, is the truth.'

So if they aren't evil and they are telling a story that is extremely unlikely, then they must be lying. But why? And the only scenario I can think of is that there is some sort of "personnel" issue going on that the SC has determined must remain private. And with that hypothesis, all the information makes sense. It doesn't "excuse" the lies...but it makes what has happened consistent and logical, versus the alternative scenarios which have to assume "evil" intent or a mass misunderstanding by all of us.

Now let's say my assumption is wrong, and there is something "evil" going on. We will eventually get the executive session minutes and maybe there is some evidence there that points to a more serious underlying problem. If that happens, that does not change how we proceed now. We still need to find a new Superintendent, we still need to heal as a community, we still need to (try to) restore trust with our elected representatives. But if evidence comes out later that, say, the Open Meeting Law was violated, we will definitely pursue it. And the reason is because the cost of letting illegal activity "slide" is worse than taking action, because taking action and having negative consequences for wrongful behavior helps prevent it from happening again.

Now in yesterday's article, I said that there were a lot of small clues which I wasn't going to go into in detail because I thought people would "get it" if I focused on the big picture. Maybe I was wrong, so let me give an example of a small clue to to which I just referenced. Do we agree that punishing wrongdoing is a good policy because it prevents future wrongdoing? Yes, I think and hope that everyone agrees with this statement. The corollary is also true: not punishing wrongdoing is a bad policy because it encourages more wrongdoing in the future. So we have positive reasons for taking action and negative consequences for not taking actions when we see evidence of wrongdoing.

You are all aware of the Liza Huber situation and how Acton Forum is digging in, trying to get public information about a large financial settlement given to a former employee with no public explanation. This is one of those "forensic" investigations, meaning whatever happened has happened and now we are looking back, trying to figure out what went wrong.

If the statement above is true (that we uncover wrongdoing and take action so it doesn't happen again), do you think that in the immediate aftermath of this huge battle we have waged with the School district to uncover what happened and investigate possible wrongdoing in the Huber matter, that the same group (the SC) is going to immediately go out and do it again? Knowing that the public is still watching? After sending out a press release to everybody? Is it likely that they knew there would be document requests, requests for executive session minutes, demands for a public explanation of why we would pay a second administrator a year's salary for not working?

The fact that they are "on notice" makes a repeat of that "bad behavior" unlikely. Not just unlikely, very unlikely. Almost impossible.

Let me go further with this. A quick analysis might conclude that the pattern of paying someone for not working twice in a row shows evidence of "evil." But since I see no evidence of direct wrongdoing, such a pattern instead shows the opposite, because it is illogical to assume that the same body wouldn't be much more sensitive and careful, i.e., that they learned from their past mistakes. And we agreed at the start that "punishing wrongdoing is a good policy because it prevents future wrongdoing." So either the entire SC has learned nothing and keeps repeating mistakes, or they aren't now making the same mistakes.

I hope everyone gets this point because it is important. This is what I call a "negative inference." You are making a logical deduction of what somebody (or in this case, some group) would NOT do in a situation. And there are negative inferences all over this issue in general. What is not being said and done is perhaps more important than what is. And the biggest inference is the lack of response from the current Superintendent who is in agreement with all that has happened and is keeping a low profile. Despite an initial outpouring of support, he is ready to move on, and that is very good evidence that we should all follow that lead.

I'm not going to go through more examples, but they are mostly like this one. I am not on the SC and I don't really know what happened, but all the evidence and inferences point to a mismanaged PR campaign to control the public information that had to be released when there is a personnel change of this magnitude and under these circumstances. And I have yet to see any evidence of wrongdoing (other than the lies, which I have already discussed). If more evidence comes up, it should be examined. Perhaps I am wrong in all these inferences, because there are facts yet to come out. If those facts do come out, I'd be happy to reverse myself and publicize them.

But absent more information of that nature, it makes sense to proceed by overlooking the lies because they were likely done for good reasons, and to move forward with our new Superintendent search, partnering with the SC to ensure that the search is fair and robust. If we come back together as a community and get past this, we can "forensically" examine what happened later and take action if we find wrongdoing. And by giving the SC the benefit of the doubt for now, I think we will end up with a better process in the end, rather than fighting over the past and making the SC's relationship with the public even worse than it is right now, if that is possible.

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