Freshwater: One Board Member recuses herself, another should

Update: Thompson has done the right thing and elected to recuse himself in the same manner as Barone.

Paula Barone, a newly elected member of the Mt. Vernon Board of Education, has decided to recuse herself from participating in executive sessions and voting on the Freshwater matter when it comes before the Board again. Her decision is based on advice from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Ethics Commission, and David Millstone, the Board’s attorney in the matter. While all three advised her that there was no legal conflict of interest associated with her participation in decisions on Freshwater, nevertheless her participation could give Freshwater’s legal team a pretext for further litigation. She therefore is recusing herself–at this time, anyway–from participation in the decision-making process.

Comparing Barone’s situation with that of Steve Thompson, the other newly elected member of the Board, it’s apparent that Thompson is in a substantially worse conflict of interest situation than Barone, and is doubly obliged to recuse himself.

More below the fold.

Barone’s reasons for recusal

Barone cited three factors that could lead to the (erroneous) perception of a conflict of interest:

  1. She was interviewed by HR OnCall during the independent investigation in 2008 as a teacher in the middle school.

  2. Her son testified briefly in the administrative hearing about handouts he had preserved from Freshwater’s class some years ago.

  3. She and her husband assisted the Dennis family in beginning to set up an organization called Protecting Students, which is intended to advocate for a change in the law to protect students’ anonymity in hearings like that in progress now once the current legal proceedings are finished.

I am personally disappointed, but I understand Barone’s reasons for recusing herself.

Why Steve Thompson should recuse himself

But now consider Steve Thompson, the other new Board member.

  1. His son Andrew, a teacher in the middle school and a former student of Freshwater, testified on Freshwater’s behalf at some length in the hearing. Andrew also addressed a Board meeting in August 2008, defending Freshwater.

  2. Andrew met privately with Steve Short, superintendent of schools, to urge that Freshwater be reinstated.

  3. Immediately after taking office as a Board member Thompson raised the possibility of a settlement with Steve Dennis, when Dennis and the Board are not adversaries in any legal proceeding. Apparently Thompson was speaking on behalf of Freshwater.

  4. Steve Thompson was a founding member of the “Community Council for Free Expression,” which was organized in part to raise funds for Freshwater’s legal defense. That is a genuine conflict of interest, not merely the perception of one. If Thompson doesn’t recuse himself he is exposing the Board and District to some serious litigation risk.

Of significant interest is the fact that the web site associated with the “Community Council” has been taken down and access to it via the Internet Archive has been blocked by a robots.txt file, which on the Internet Archive also blocks access to already archived pages. That route was still available a month ago, on January 15, 2010. Fortunately, I archived that page locally; and donation requests from the Council are still up on other sites supporting Freshwater. The purpose of the “Community Council” read in part

The Community Council For Free Expression is a non-profit corporation and has developed a Legal Defense Fund to help with John Freshwater’s legal expenses. Those wishing to donate to this fund can give via credit card on this web site or write your check to

The Community Council For Free Expression
c/o Trinity Assembly of God
1051 Beech Street
Mt. Vernon, OH 43050

This historical revisionism appears to be a transparent attempt to shield Thompson against charges of ethical and legal conflicts of interest. Thompson has already committed one ethical breech as a Board member, and his continued participation in decision-making on Freshwater would be an additional serious violation of his legal and ethical responsibilities as a Member of the Board of Education. Thompson had better have a frank conversation with the Ohio Ethics Commission sooner rather than later.

The board meets late this afternoon in executive session, apparently to be updated on the state of the Freshwater affair. There’s no reliable word on whether settlement options will be discussed. I’ll be interested to learn what Thompson does. If both Barone and Thompson recuse themselves, that will leave the Board with a bare quorum of Goetzman, Fair, and Bennett.