By Phil Coleman
In a recent editorial, The Enterprise criticized the Davis school district’s decision to spend in excess of $22,000 to fund an independent investigation of a citizen complaint. The editorial followed numerous published public comments and columns that likewise deplored the investigation’s substantial cost.
An outside investigator was judged necessary due to one of the parties to the complaint being a high-ranking school official. This unusual circumstance was seen as effectively compromising the school administration’s normal option of assigning an in-house manager to conduct the investigation. Instead, a decision was made administratively to retain an area law firm and have it investigate the complaint and submit a written summary and conclusion.
The editorial closed its discussion by urging the district to find a “more effective” and “less costly” alternative when responding to received complaints from the public having these peculiar circumstances.
A desired investigative option does exist in the public sector, one that fulfills the sought-after characteristics of greater effectiveness and economy. At lest one other public entity has been using it successfully for many decades. To best illustrate this alternative investigation option, let us imagine returning to the critical moment when the citizen complaint first landed on the desk of the school superintendent. Rather than sending the case to a costly law firm for investigation, the school administrator, instead, picks up the phone.
He calls a highly respected fellow school superintendent in an adjacent county. The local superintendent says to his colleague, “I need a favor,” and details the complexities and political ramifications of the complaint to be investigated. He asks his counterpart to send of his/her top managers to investigate the case and prepare the standard summary report and findings.
The superintendent in the other county is predisposed to immediately say yes to the request. The reasons for this anticipated affirmative response are both altruistic and self-serving. Public administrators of every stripe routinely network among themselves to discuss mutually shared problems or seek counsel on a particular issue that a colleague had already dealt with, successfully or not. It truly is “lonely at the top,” and public administrators help each other whenever and wherever they can.
A school superintendent agreeing to such a request also fulfills some self-interest needs. A favor given can be redeemed sometime later with a reciprocal request should it be needed. Delegating a manager to probe into problem areas in another district is always revealing. The action often results in needed changes in policies and procedures for both school districts. It’s also a wonderful training experience for the delegated manager, who returns to the parent agency a better and wiser manager.
As part of the assigned manager selection, a careful vetting is done to ensure there are no linkages to the local school district that could invite the complaint of investigative bias or favoritism. The superintendent selecting the manager always sends a premier manager and investigator; that person’s performance is a reflection of the parent organization’s image. It is also important to note that a veteran school manager is well acquainted with relevant school statutes and codes and certainly is familiar with the dynamics of all aspects of school politics.
Mention was made earlier that there is public sector precedent for this suggested alternative investigative protocol. The profession referenced is law enforcement, a government entity having the dubious distinction of being reigning experts in receiving, processing and investigating complaints from the public.
Everything depicted in the earlier scenario was taken from standard practices and procedures used by every police chief and sheriff in the state. They lend senior managers back and forth to meet demands for impartial judgements as a matter of routine, most frequently for oral board interviews in promotional examinations. There is historical precedent for investigations that essentially match the circumstances found in the recent school board complaint.
Now for the discussion of cost: This was the precipitating element that promoted the editorial. Let’s again return to the law enforcement model and precedent. There is an understood “gentleman’s agreement” that decrees a law enforcement administrator will absorb any soft-dollar costs for the temporary detachment and loan of a manager to another agency.
It is common practice for the host agency administrator to arrange a meal or two for the visiting investigator. Those moments together allow for briefing updates and questions and answers regarding department practices and procedures. Often as not, even that minor cost is absorbed by the administrator’s family budget. No notable additional public expense is to be found with the suggested investigative alternative.
— Philip V. Coleman is a retired Davis police chief and longtime law enforcement administrator.