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Johnson a dangerous consideration for board

By Miller Cary

Suffolk School Board’s ongoing struggles with transparency have been well documented for more than a year, including a rather harsh finding in court last summer determining that the governing body has established a pattern of operating outside the bounds of laws governing transparency. Even now, months after the judge ordered Board members to undergo remedial Freedom of Information Act training, the Board finds itself out of favor with transparency and accountability watchers over a recent attempt to limit severely which stakeholders would be allowed to speak at meetings, and for how long. Add to that a growing grassroots movement demanding budget accounting practices more transparent to teachers and parents, and transparency issues remain central to the considerable quagmire of woes with which Suffolk School Board continues to struggle.

After the surprise resignation of newly re-elected member David Mitnick, the Board finds itself considering six potential appointees for the vacated seat. Most concerning of all these applicants is a familiar name, former Mayor Linda Johnson.

Just months after 71% of Suffolk voters summarily rejected her bid to continue representing this city, in a race in which she outspent three opponents combined, Johnson is rumored to be a favorite among cronies on the School Board. This association is troubling to many Suffolk residents for a number of reasons. First, Johnson herself suffered a dismal record on transparency, even though she ran on promises to uphold the principles thereof. From The Virginian-Pilot, during her first bid for re-election: “[w]hen she became Suffolk’s first elected mayor in 2008—just as when she became its first female mayor in 2006—Johnson promised to govern the most open and transparent city in Hampton Roads. By any measure but her own, that hasn’t happened.” [Editor’s note: The Pilot endorsed Johnson over two opponents, though, in this same editorial.] To be sure, Johnson was often mindful to operate in a manner that could not be tracked by Freedom of Information Act requests, employing a strict unofficial policy of avoiding public email accounts for discussing issues, right up through her last year in office.

Also deeply troubling was Johnson’s perceived conflict of interest as mayor of Suffolk while also serving on the Portsmouth/Suffolk community board at TowneBank, under a TowneBank president who was criminally charged for his conflicts of interest voting as a mayor in another city.

But worst of all is Mayor Johnson’s own involvement with the School Board’s recent legal troubles for flouting transparency laws. Her role as a participant in closed meetings of the City Liaison Committee, meetings which a court ruled in July 2020 they had mischaracterized, highlights the danger to public interest that her appointment would constitute. That Johnson played a central role in behavior by board members so strongly condemned in the court’s ruling—which it most certainly was—underscores that Johnson would be a reckless addition to that already troubled governing body. Her weakest qualification is a major weakness of the Board already.

For her part, current School Board Chair Judith Brooks-Buck was careful to announce Johnson’s application for the vacated seat only after the legally-required public comment period was closed, and quickly moved to the next order of business, preventing any citizen ever the opportunity to speak on the inappropriateness of the application. Once again, the Board operated in a manner completely disrespectful to the principles of open government, if not this time in overt legal noncompliance.

Although this might be a nice opportunity for Johnson, who likely could not win an election here again, her appointment would be a terrible decision for the citizens of Suffolk. For good reason, the citizens of Suffolk voted 2.4:1 against Linda Johnson’s continued service as an elected official, only a few months ago. It would only be appropriate that the Suffolk School Board consider waning trust in her leadership, and respect the conviction of citizens that “no means no.”