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posted: 7/9/2012 6:54 PM

Editorial: No room for confidentiality in public deals

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The concern for confidentiality in some employment relationships is understandable, especially when things don't work out as planned. But when it involves a government job, paid with public money, transparency has to be part of the deal.

That's not the case in the departure of Jeff Brierton from Warren Township High School District 121 in Gurnee, where both sides are keeping things "strictly confidential" regarding a resignation agreement with a $250,000 buyout,

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Taxpayers deserve better. They deserve to know why they are paying. Maybe it's time the legislature take steps to mandate that school boards and all public bodies be prohibited from signing confidentiality clauses on these packages.

Such arrangements provide another example of the secrets our governments keep. The Brierton deal, for instance, follows close on the heels of an unreported sludge leak at the John E. Egan Water Reclamation District Plant outside Schaumburg and probes into potential elder abuse at three nursing homes in DuPage County the state health department kept quiet about. And it closely reflects concerns we expressed recently about lack of transparency in the hiring of school superintendents.

It's a troubling trend.

And Brierton's mysterious departure may be one of its most troubling examples.

Brierton, 59, became heir to the District 121 superintendent's job in December 2010, set to move into the job when Phil Sobocinski retired on June 30 of this year. Brierton spent months being groomed to jump from principal of the O'Plaine Road campus for freshmen and sophomores to lead the two-building, 5,000-student district. He was given a three-year contract and an initial base salary of $192,000.

But Brierton withdrew from the job in May, the school board hired an interim superintendent and prepared to begin the search anew. A resignation agreement was forged.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show Brierton will receive $104,092 in a lump-sum severance, another $147,608 in payments spread over 12 months -- the equivalent of his final salary as principal -- a total of $251,700. He also gets 18 months of COBRA premiums for a full family PPO medical plan, a $30,000 term life insurance policy for the same period and payment for as many as 26 unused vacation days.

The nine-page resignation document "shall not in any way be construed as an admission of wrongdoing," both sides agreed. The closest we get to an explanation is a joint statement that says, in part, "both the board and Dr. Brierton have found that their working relationship has broken down."

For a price tag in excess of a quarter-million dollars, that's not much insight. Such secretiveness should not be acceptable in government at any price.

It's time for transparency, not confidentiality clauses, to be part of the contract language for public officials like Brierton. If leaders or the taxpayer representatives who chose them have a meltdown in their relationship but lack the forthrightness to explain their problems to the public, they can either learn to live with each other or cut their ties without a lucrative severance.

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