When I lived in Los Angeles, I was a senior editor for a magazine called Pool & Spa News. It was the leading trade magazine in North America for the swimming pool and hot tub industry. It was a fun and fascinating job—and I learned a lot.
One of the many things I learned was about how pools are sanitized. (There are more ways than you think.) As most know, chlorine is the first line of defense against those nasty little microbes floating around in the water looking to do you harm. But there are those among us who, for whatever reason, have an aversion to that life-saving chemical and seek to either replace it or at least reduce the quantity being used in their pool.
One of the ways to reduce chlorine use is a clever little device that is plumbed into the pool’s circulation system and blasts the water with ultraviolet rays as it passes by. The healing power of the light leaves the water fresh and clean.
Shedding light on a problem can indeed have a cathartic effect. It’s an old lesson, but there are those who still seem to have a hard time learning it.
Last year, when the Greater Mahopac-Carmel Chamber of Commerce saw its former CEO use its debit card to go on an unbridled spending spree, spending thousands of dollars on items for personal use, chamber officials stepped in quickly, fired her and pressed criminal charges.
Shockingly, on social media, the chamber got a little blowback for this—some complained that the chamber was too harsh and it could have fired its devious leader without getting the police involved. After all, she was so young! There were also those who implied that the chamber let this indiscretion happen right under its collective noses and no checks and balances were in place to prevent it. Those particular remarks were actually politically motivated because one of those chamber members was planning to run for county legislature and so her Facebook accusers hoped their churlish comments might make her appear incompetent, or worse, complicit.
So, the chamber devised a plan. It decided to shine a big ol’ bright light on the whole enchilada. I met with the officials who discovered the crime and they explained in detail how they painstakingly gathered the evidence and brought it to the district attorney.
Despite the bloviators on Facebook, plenty of checks and balances were indeed hard at work here. And once my article appeared, those people climbed back under the rocks from which they came. The light had shone brightly and the cleansing was complete. The chamber received no more nasty comments on Facebook.
It wasn’t long after that that some members of the Mahopac Fire Department approached me about doing the same thing for them. Their treasurer had embezzled nearly $6 million over a period of 10-plus years. He was eventually caught and sentenced to 77 months in prison.
Yet, the acrid clouds of rumors continued to darken the skies around the department. People took to Facebook and toxically insisted that more fire department members must have been involved in the theft; otherwise, how could he have gotten away with it for so long? Others contended that the department was out of control, over-spending and throwing alcohol-fueled bacchanalias on a regular basis, inappropriately gobbling up taxpayer money like a Trump cabinet member.
So, I was invited to a meeting with department officials who—like the Chamber of Commerce—would pull back the curtain for the media. In the interest of full disclosure, they would tell their story—warts and all. Shining the light would kill those germs and dry up the fetid stream of unfounded allegations.
But when I got to the firehouse on that day, the place was empty. Then I received a text. The fire department’s legal counsel had warned them away from speaking to the press. They would continue to circle the wagons and remain silent.
So, how did that work out for them? The rumors and allegations continue to haunt the fire department. A recent request to the Town Board for additional money to buy two new much-needed fire trucks was turned down as the town continues to keep its boot heel firmly planted on the fire department’s neck. One fire department official bemoaned to the Town Board, “Ever since this has happened, you’ve treated us like the criminals.”
I sympathize, but they had an opportunity to drag the truth into the light and chose instead to listen to their attorneys. The truth remains in the dark where it continues to fester and rot.
Now, the Mahopac School District Transportation Department finds itself in a similar position. If I am to believe everything I am told (and I kind of do), there is a monster loose in the department who is making life miserable for co-workers by bullying and harassing them with confrontational behavior, foul language, intimidating outbursts and filing false and/or exaggerated complaints. It is alleged that all this is being done with the tacit support of some school board members who use this person to spy on the department.
I was asked to attend a meeting with some transportation department members at a local restaurant. But when I arrived, the person who organized the event took me aside and said that their union leaders had advised the group not to speak to me. It was déjà vu all over again.
I said, “Look, this has been going on for three years. You’ve written letters, wrung your hands and remained silent—how is that working out for you?”
The next day, I received an email with the names and numbers of department workers who would be willing to speak with me on the record if I would protect their identities.
Well, it was a start.
But what these workers really need to do—if indeed what they claim is happening is true—is fight back with all they have. There is safety in numbers. They need to show up in force at Board of Education meetings and in the public forum portion of the meetings, lay out hyper-specific allegations about their bully. They should address school board members individually and call them out for their alleged actions…or inactions. They must continue to write letters of complaint to the administration, spelling out each of the bully’s bad behaviors. They should fight fire with fire—use their cell phones to take pictures and video of the bully in action. And they must continue to speak with the press— on the record, giving their names, so the whole community is made aware of what is going on.
They must shine a light on these germy microbes. They will be amazed at how quickly it all gets disinfected.