Dr. Trotter Takes The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer To The Wood Shed
Dr. Trotter Takes The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to Task!

April 9, 2005

 

 

Mr. Ben Holden
Executive Editor
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
P. O. Box 711
Columbus, GA 31902

Dear Mr. Holden:

I don’t anticipate for a moment that you will print this letter -- at least in its entirety. (You do not have my authorization to print this letter unless you print the entire letter.) I have dealt with many media outlets (both print and electronic) in my career, and I have experienced that most are biased and have an axe to grind. However, unlike the editorials, most of the news reporting is done at least under the guise of objectivity. I can’t say this for Mark Rice’s "reporting." Mr. Rice used the language of an editorial and proceeded to give his biased account of what happened in Mr. Robert Gill’s Level III grievance hearing before the Muscogee County School Board. Neither Mr. Gill nor I were asked about our reaction to Hearing Officer Pugh’s heavy-handed mangling of the state-mandated grievance hearing. He didn’t handle the grievance according to O.C.G.A. 20-2-989.5 et seq. (the law which governs teacher grievances in Georgia). When I pointed out the errors of his way, he became quite petulant and reactionary. His favorite response was to simply try to shut me up -- but to no avail. I won’t shut up when I see a school board or its hand-picked hatchet man (called a hearing officer) trampling under their hoofs the rights of a teacher. Even when they keep threatening to use their police power to pound me into submission, I will continue to point out their unfair practices and illegal actions. Mr. Rice had the audacity to state (even in his opening sentence), "John Trotter never intended to properly represent his client at Tuesday’s employee grievance before the Muscogee County School Board." Aside from the fact that Mr. Rice must be an expert in mental telepathy, the more accurate conclusion would be that the Muscogee County Board of Education never intended to provide Mr. Gill with a fair hearing. For example, Mr. Pugh warned me that I could not use leading questions when I had Mr. Gill on direct examination. I directed Mr. Pugh’s attention to the grievance law’s preamble wherein is stated the goal to conduct the hearing with a minimum of formal proceedings. But, I basically said: "O.K. Fair enough. I’ll only ask Mr. Gill open-ended questions." However, when the school board attorney, Mr. Greg Ellington, was asking obviously leading questions to a witness which he had on direct examination, I objected to his form of questioning for the record. But, Mr. Pugh responded that he was going to allow the question. I then pointed out to Mr. Pugh and to the board members that I just wanted to make the point for everyone to see that Mr. Pugh was patently unfair and was a "homer" in the full sense of the word. I’m quite confident that Mr. Pugh understood his "marching orders": Keep the teacher from getting his full side of the story on the record and allow the school district to communicate unhampered its side of the story. After all, it was the school district which was paying Mr. Pugh’s fee. We understand this -- but Mr. Pugh at least should have acted as though he was being fair.

The goal of engaging in a cross examination of a hostile witness is to destroy his/her testimony. The Georgia courts allow attorneys to engage in "a thorough and sifting cross examination." A grievance hearing is not a trial. However, O.C.G.A. 20-2-985.8 (4) states that "the complainant shall be entitled to an opportunity to be heard, to present relevant evidence, and to examine witnesses at each level." This provision in the law apparently makes Mr. Pugh and the school board members nervous. We only had an opportunity to cross examine one of the school district’s witnesses, but each time I asked her a question that apparently made her uncomfortable, she would engage in a non-responsive monologue. When I pointed out to Mr. Pugh that the witness was being non-responsive, he seemed to take umbrage at my pointing this out. I’m sorry but I’m not going to allow a non-responsive witness to control the cross examination. I kept going back to the original question until she answered it. Yeah, I got my answers but the process was apparently too painful for Mr. Pugh, the school board, the witness, and Mr. Ellington to handle. As expected, Mr. Ellington jumped to his feet to state that I was badgering the witness. This is a favorite tactic for a lawyer to use when his witness’s testimony is being destroyed. And, for the record, the witness’s testimony was indeed being destroyed. So, instead of allowing the school district’s first witness’s testimony to be demolished, Mr. Pugh accommodated the school district by kicking me out of the room. He had the unmitigated gall to think that Mr. Gill would proceed in the hearing without me representing him. The law says that Mr. Gill gets to choose who represents him. Mr. Gill disengaged himself from the hearing after I was kicked out of the room. The school district proceeded to "[make] a mockery of the hearing" (to borrow Mr. Rice’s phrase). How can a school board conduct a hearing without the teacher-complainant in the room? How can the school district’s witnesses testify without being subjected to the calcium light of a vigorous cross examination? Mr. Pugh conducted a "kangaroo" hearing in the classic sense of the word.

I told the school board that I had not come to Columbus to genuflect before a heavy-handed hearing officer who was attempting to use strong-arm tactics against us, thereby preventing Mr. Gill from getting a fair hearing under the law. I told the school board that perhaps they were used to the grovelling approach practiced by other so-called teacher organizations.

Mr. Pugh needs to become more familiar with the law which governs teacher grievances. If he knew the law better, perhaps he would not engage in "bone head" practices like allowing the supposedly impartial board members to ask the teacher questions, a practice which is not permissible for a school board which is hearing the case "de novo." In fact, one school board member evidently didn’t like my "robust speech," and she jumped in from the sidelines to chastise me. That is analogous to jumping from the sideline to tackle a football player who is headed for a touchdown or analogous to a juror shouting at an attorney from the jury box. Apparently, the Muscogee County School District is very inexperienced when it comes to setting up hearings before the school board. But, my suggestion would be to first determine to conduct a fair and impartial hearing, allowing both sides to freely communicate its evidence. Then, select a hearing officer who has demonstrated that he is eminently fair and even-handed. These two things would go a long way to having a smooth hearing.

Despite the inordinate delay for conducting the hearing and other irregularities (like the school district demanding a list of our witnesses but never apprising us of their "surprise" witnesses), Mr. Gill still was able to get his story told. We weren’t able to cross examine Mr. John Phillips, the superintendent, because we were magnanimous enough to allow Mr. Ellington, the school board attorney, to call a witness out of order. Mr. Gill was delighted in my "bull dog" approach and stated so openly to people gathered around him after Mr. Pugh aborted the legitimate phase of the hearing. But, "reporter" Rice had already fled the scene, without asking for Mr. Gill’s opinion of the hearing or of his representation. No, Mr. Rice editorially concluded that I had "failed in the representation." One of the school board members, Mr. Whiteside (an attorney, I think) kept inappropriately asking Mr. Gill how much money he had paid me to represent him. I presume that he was wondering how Mr. Gill managed to secure the services of three men from the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE) to travel from the Atlanta area to assist him. At first, I instructed Mr. Gill not to answer such a meddling and inappropriate question. Then, I told Mr. Whiteside that Mr. Gill simply paid his membership fees and proceeded to tell him the exact amount. But, what I couldn’t tell Mr. Whiteside at the time is that after the hearing was aborted, Mr. Gill insisted on giving me a check for $1,000.00 as a token of appreciation, a check that was promptly turned over to MACE the next day. I wonder if Mr. Whiteside has ever had one of his clients to insist on giving him $1,000.00 as a token of appreciation. Perhaps the Muscogee County School District ought to cut a check for $1,000.00 to Mr. Rice for his biased and jaded "reporting." The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer certainly comes across as beholden to the Muscogee County School District and the powers that be in Columbus.

Like I said in the opening paragraph, I’d be shocked if you actually printed this letter to the editor in its entirety. But, sometimes I’m shocked.

Sincerely:

John Trotter, Ed.D.,J.D.

JRAT/pl

c. Robert Gill, Teacher
William L. Woods, MACE General Counsel
John Phillips, Superintendent
Don Cooper, Human Resources
Muscogee School Board Members
Muscogee Teachers
Greg Ellington, School Board Attorney
Julia Slater, Attorney
Georgia Press Association
Grady School of Journalism, University of Georgia
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Macon Telegraph
Augusta Chronicle
Savannah Morning News
Anthony Ridder, Knight Ridder
TheTeachersAdvocate.Com

 

 

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