April 9, 2005
Mr. Ben Holden
P. O. Box 711
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.
John Trotter, Ed.D.,J.D.
c. Robert Gill, Teacher
William L. Woods, MACE General Counsel
Don Cooper, Human Resources
Muscogee School Board Members
Greg Ellington, School Board Attorney
Julia Slater, Attorney
Georgia Press Association
Grady School of Journalism,
University of Georgia
Savannah Morning News
Anthony Ridder, Knight Ridder