Any political candidate will let you know that one of the most important factors in deciding whether to run for office is figuring out who else is entering the race. If there's an incumbent or a popular figure, it might be best to sit out the election and wait for next time. If there aren't many viable candidates, then it's time to throw your hat into the ring.
Which makes the behavior of Ellen Wheeler, the president of the Mountain View Whisman School District's board of trustees, very troubling. Currently, the district is accepting applications to fill the seat left open by last month's resignation of board president Chris Chiang. In the normal course of events, copies of the submitted applications are available to the public and the press as soon as they are filed, just as they would be for candidates running in an election.
Wheeler, however, has directed that no information about applicants for the board seat will be released by the district office until the application deadline has closed on Aug. 3. That means that anyone weighing the decision to apply won't have access to a vital piece of information: Who else is in the running?
What makes this disregard for the public process even harder to swallow is that Wheeler, in an email to the Voice, describes her decision to hide applicant information as being in the interest of "transparency of process and fairness to all candidates."
Wheeler, who is on the board's subcommittee to screen applicants, created a timeline and decided when applications would be made available to the Voice and declared that all applicants would be featured in a news story prior to the board's special meeting Aug. 18 to appoint someone.
She offered to forward copies of the applications to the Voice on July 31, shortly before the deadline, but only after she and another board member reviewed them, with the stipulation that the newspaper would not publish anything about them until Aug. 7. She later rescinded that offer after canvassing the rest of the board members and one of them objected, she said.
Needless to say, the Voice never agreed to delay its reporting on board applicants, although that didn't stop Wheeler from announcing her timeline, and the Voice's supposed cooperation, at a July 16 informational meeting that drew 10 prospective applicants.
Wheeler says that she's only looking out for the applicants. "It's important that all of the candidates feel like they are being treated fairly, and giving them all the same timeline and chance at publicity provides that fairness," she told the Voice in an email.
The reality is that four declared applicants have already gone public and spoken to the Voice, negating Wheeler's argument. As of Tuesday, four people -- including three unknown to the Voice -- had submitted applications, but district staff, at Wheeler's direction, refused to release even their names.
In the opinion of Nikki Moore, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association who specializes in public records and open meeting laws, Wheeler's actions violate state law, which deems the applications to be public information.
The Voice on July 27 filed a Public Records Act request to obtain copies of the applications. Wheeler has said that the board's legal counsel told her she can withhold the applications, but has yet to provide any legal basis for that claim.
For a school district that's been mired in controversy -- most recently, the ongoing conflicts with board member Steve Nelson and Chiang's announcement that he resigned in order to pursue a recall campaign to replace Nelson -- the appointment of a fifth board member is of enormous significance to the Mountain View Whisman community.
This often fractious board needs to come together as a cohesive body to tackle major issues, including redrawing attendance boundaries, opening a new school and spending tens of millions of dollars to rebuild the Castro Elementary campus to accommodate two schools. It's hard to have any confidence in the board's ability to make good decisions when its president uses such poor judgment in the selection process for a new trustee.