Editorial: Governments' duty when public officials 'vanish'

It is an inescapable fact of nature that stuff happens.

When unexpected things happen that involve public officials, however, frequently how a public body will ultimately be judged is not by the event itself, but how the people in charge react to it.

Too often, the response is to close ranks and say nothing, leaving a mystified public wondering who's in charge.

Take the current case of Des Plaines Elementary District 62, where the superintendent, Floyd Williams, has not been working in his office since at least Oct. 19.

He is in the second year of a three-year contract with a $198,000 salary.

Our issue today is not with Williams, but with the District 62 school board, which has steadfastly refused to speak of his absence other than to call it a "private matter."

In a public body, there isn't a lot that can be considered a private matter.

To some extent, one can appreciate a public body wanting to protect its official and/or its own reputation. But its overall responsibility is to the district's parents, teachers and overall taxpayers, all of whom have a right to know, at bare minimum, how the schools are continuing to run professionally in his absence.

Over the years, we've seen plenty of examples of local public officials who vanished from view with no explanation. There was the recently departed suburban police chief who resigned after being MIA for more than two months - without anyone saying a word about why.

Then some time ago, there was a suburban school district with another missing superintendent, although in this case the district insisted he was still on the job. He was never at meetings and couldn't be reached any time of day, and when our reporter went into district headquarters and started to walk back to his office - to see if anybody, or anything, was still there - she was practically body-blocked by a secretary.

There is information District 62 should volunteer about the Williams situation. Is he absent of his own volition or has his absence been imposed? Is he being paid during his absence? Is he still working as superintendent from an undisclosed location? Is someone else running the district in his absence?

Stuff happens. Most of us, in all walks of life, usually see our character judged by how we react to crises, not by our carefully laid plans.

Public bodies are no different. They are charged with being transparent even in moments of crisis. Especially in moments of crisis.

District 62 and other governments in this position need to be straightforward, as much as possible, about what is going on and how they are dealing with it.

Anything less is unworthy of an agency charged with the public trust.

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