Saturday, May 30, 2009

SBNC Update

As many of you undoubtedly know by now, the Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) on May 27 nominated three candidates for the School Board. Ten candidates initially applied for the position, two dropped out, and several others only made a token attempt to compete for the position. Still, it was a large field. The biggest surprise was Kevin Jackson, who also applied last year for the nomination. He apparently learned from that experience and did a significantly better job this year. Still, I don’t believe that it’s going to be Kevin Jackson’s year this year. If he keeps at it and picks the right year, he is practically a shoe-in. Thus, after watching the entire process and weighing the political variables, I retain my initial judgment that the Governor will appoint Andrew Pruski. Incumbent Michael Leahy was the third nominee.

Note that political scientists often believe they can predict with a high degree of accuracy who the public will vote for even before the public has been exposed to the candidates for a position (e.g., if a political scientist knows the party makeup of a district, the incumbent’s party affiliation, and the condition of the relevant economy, he can predict with a high degree of accuracy who will win months before an election). Of course, we are often wrong. It is in that spirit that I have made this prediction.

Last year I filed a complaint with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board concerning Open Meetings Act violations by the SBNC. The Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the SBNC had in fact violated the Open Meetings Act in holding one meeting in secret and said it needed more information to assess whether adequate notice was given for a second meeting. In the attached letter, sent to the Open Meetings Compliance Board on May 12, 2009, I have responded to its request for more information and added numerous additional complaints about the SBNC’s Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act violations.

Note that there is no legal penalty in Maryland for violating the Open Meetings Act; the Open Meeting Compliance Board has no enforcement powers. The only real enforcement is the court of public opinion, which makes the Open Meetings Act a rather strange law. If the public doesn’t care, then for all practical purposes the law doesn’t exist. Note that no politician of sound mind is ever going to admit withholding material information from the public; that would be political suicide. But there is a difference between claiming openness and actually being open about providing controversial information.

Based on my experience, I wonder if we might be better off just abandoning the Open Meetings Act. Public officials would still need to go out of their way to suggest to the public that they are open, but I think the public might then be a little less gullible. The Public Information Act is a bit different because it does have an enforcement mechanism, albeit one totally impractical for most parents and especially anyone pursuing what political scientists call a “collective good.”

I suggest that the public would do well by trying to get their elected officials to take both the spirit and the letter of Maryland’s public right-to-know laws seriously. But I know from a lot of experience that this is unlikely to happen. The public thinks this issue is irrelevant to their pressing concerns. You can get the public out in force to complain about issues such as redistricting their school, building their school, or protecting their school’s programs. But to take any constructive steps to create meaningful and enforceable right-to-know laws, I’m not sure that it is possible without a major scandal involving secrecy. That is not the case here. We’re just talking about a lot of petty violations due to personal and political convenience.

I recently wrote a post on a related topic to the Obama administration, which has taken some extraordinary steps to open up the Federal government during its brief time in office. You might be interested in taking a look at this less for its content than for how the Executive Office of the President, working through the National Academy of Public Administration, has gone about soliciting public feedback. The website is completely open and the public can comment and vote posts up or down (but only for a brief comment period). In, I tried to create such a website this year. I conclude the school year by saying it was not a success. But this is clearly the future, and I’m confident that in the coming years we’ll be seeing a lot more of this type of information in Anne Arundel County. Eventually, someone will figure out a way to make it work.

As you know, I’ve been critical of the SBNC for violating the core democratic principle of one-person, one-vote (can you imagine allocating 40% of the seats in Congress to private interest groups?). But perhaps a more serious democratic problem is the decline of the press. The Washington Post has all but abandoned coverage of AACPS. The Baltimore Sun has reduced its news staff to a third of its former size, with a commensurate loss in the quantity and quality of AACPS coverage. The Capital has remained pretty much where it was—a typical small town paper with faux populism and a boosterish agenda. Unfortunately, Anne Arundel County is as big as some U.S. states. Overall, it’s not a pretty picture, and I suspect that the results will tell over the next few years. Paul Starr, in a recent article in The New Republic titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” closed with this observation: “Newspapers have helped to control corrupt tendencies in both government and business. If we are to avoid a new era of corruption, we are going to have to summon that power in other ways.” For the sake of us all, I hope his worst fears aren’t realized.

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