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The private lives of public officials
The last year has not been easy for the Federal Way school district. But the last couple of months have been particularly difficult.
There was Dom Cooks's inspirational and soul-wrenching battle with cancer. The Superintendent's search for a new job that eventually landed him in Oklahoma City. The public conclusion of former Federal Way High School Principal Lisa Griebel's departure and the district's expensive lesson on how not to treat its employees.
But there's more.
For several months now, there have been rumors that two school board members may resign.
One resignation already occurred as Tony Moore's legal problems played out over several months in the cold and unforgiving glare of the media spotlight. He resigned from the board immediately following his theft conviction.
The other rumored resignation has been hidden from public view and, until recently, only discussed in hushed tones in the shadows, corridors and back rooms of the school district, and by only a handful of school leaders. Insiders have commented on board member Danny Peterson's attendance and his seeming distraction from school district business. It was also noted that he became president of the school board in December but stepped down in February after only a few weeks. He has not resigned from the board, only the chairmanship.
The circumstances of both men giving up the gavel are very different, but they highlight the lack of privacy a public official and their family can expect. It's part of the job.
Moore was president of the school board for more than three years, ran for the state Legislature, is a gifted speaker and known for his passion for education. He was respected by many, although his candidacy for partisan office also brought critics, as did the many changes he supported in district policy.
His fall from grace, from arrest through trial and ultimate conviction, played out in the harsh glare of regional and local media, the most public of all arenas. But it also monopolized the equally unforgiving world of the rumor mill in small town politics.
Moore stepped down as president of the board to concentrate on his defense, hoping it would decrease the board's distraction from education policy. He turned down a plea deal that would have carried only a 90-day sentence. He likely, although possibly naively, thought of the days ahead when he would be vindicated and could return to the chairmanship and his once, and possibly still, promising political future.
But that was not to be. We don't know what the sentence will be, although it is likely to be much more than the 90 days he turned down. But many of his supporters ask, "Will any public purpose be served by Moore going to jail?"
And "hasn't his family already suffered enough?" Others say in a civilized society we have rules to follow and when they are broken there are consequences.
For a proud man and his commitment to education, giving up his seat on the school board may have been more painful than the likely jail sentence.
Peterson's family is just learning about the pain, impact, and loss of privacy that are part of serving in public office. Like Moore, Peterson may have thought that stepping down from the more visible post of president might shield him from questions about his distraction from school business. But while Peterson's issues are more personal, they have become widely enough known in the community to be fodder for coffee shop talk because they raise the question of whether or not Peterson is capable of exercising sound mature judgment and if he retains enough public support to remain on the school board.
Peterson's wife has filed for divorce. But it is not as simple as two people deciding to go their separate ways.
Peterson admitted to being involved in two concurrent relationships for the last five years outside of his eight-year marriage. He also admits to "mooning" his mother-in-law, although she sees the event in much harsher terms. There were other allegations, but their merits appear in question as of this writing.
As a school board member, Peterson holds a position of trust that the public holds to a higher standard than that of an average citizen, and residents expect him to be a model for the community and the children he is responsible for helping to educate. But as a prominent former minister at a local church, Peterson's burden and responsibility are even higher. Like Moore, Peterson has children. Peterson's children are not yet old enough to comprehend why their world has been turned upside down.
Sometimes I don't like the stories I write about. This is one of those times. There are no winners in these two cases.
If neither person held public office, their problems might not garner much public interest. But they do, and the public that elected them has expectations regarding their behavior.
Moore broke the law and stepped down. His fate is now in the hands of a judge. Peterson didn't break the law, but what are the public's expectations of him? He has two years remaining on his four-year term. Can he still be effective? Should he step down from the board, or is it a matter between him and his family?