Sunday, May 23, 2010

SBNC Update: Wrap-up for 2010

Introduction & Summary

On May 11 and 12, the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) interviewed candidates for District 30 and District 31.  On May 17 the SBNC heard testimony on behalf of the candidates and then voted for two nominees for each district.  The two nominees for District 30 are Richard K. Giroux of Arnold and Solon K. Webb of Annapolis; for District 31, Deborah T. Ritchie of Pasadena and Lisa Shore of Pasadena .  The links point to the applications they submitted.  The SBNC removes applications from the public portion of its website after the electoral cycle is complete, so if you want to see the applications, I recommend doing it now.
The three hearings, followed by a vote, showed off the SBNC at its finest.  The candidates were well-qualified to serve on the Board of Education (“School Board”), and the SBNC commissioners came across as thoughtful leaders working on behalf of the community.
The average number of candidates running for each open seat declined from 12 during the first SBNC nominating cycle in 2008 to 3.5 in 2010 (four for District 30 and three for District 31).  Assuming that all the candidates had an equal chance of winning, those running in District 30 had a 50% chance of winning while those running in District 31 had a 66.7% chance of winning.  The decline in number of candidates highlights the growing importance of the early and invisible part of the SBNC nominating cycle, whereby candidates are recruited and otherwise given incentives to formally apply for a nomination.
The Governor must now appoint a representative from districts 30 and 31 by July 1, when the next Board of Education takes office.

Based on a legal opinion delivered by Maryland’s Attorney General on April 8, 2010 (and posted on the SBNC’s website only AFTER my last SBNC Update on May 9, 2010), Board members appointed after June 30, 2008 are automatically reappointed by the Governor for a second term and are not subject to a competitive election for the duration of their two terms in office, for a total of 10 years (two new terms) or as many as fourteen if they came to office midterm (two new terms plus the completion of a partial term).  School Board members are only allowed to serve two full terms.  School Board members are subject to a second reterntion vote at the next general election AFTER their second term begins.

The next big event on the School Board electoral calendar takes place on November 2, 2010, when four sitting Board members, half of the adult Board, are on the ballot for a retention vote, often called an “approval” vote in the political science literature.  Board members who pass this hurdle will then be able to serve for as many as 6.4 years before being subject to another reterntion vote.  The 6.4-year calculation is as follows: Board terms are for five years.  Those appointed after June 30, 2008 are automatically appointed to a second term and subject to a retention vote at the next general election, which is 16+ months later during odd-year automatic reappointments (and four months during even years).  Five years plus 16 months equals 6.4 years.  In practice, however, it may take many months after a lost reterntion vote for the SBNC to nominate and the Governor to appoint a replacement, during which time the incumbent board member stays in office.  Note, too, that there appears to be no DEADLINE to replace an incumbent who has lost a retention vote.  Thus, the 6.4 year figure is a MINIMUM term of office for odd-year appointments.

The duration of an Anne Arundel County School Board member’s term of office without facing a competitive election is striking because I believe it is the longest such term of office for any school board member in not only Maryland but possibly also any elected office, other than a judge, in the entire United States.

Unless there is an unexpected development, I expect this to be my last SBNC Update until the next SBNC nominating cycle in 2011.

The outline of my observations and analysis follows:

1) May 10 District 30 Public Hearing
2) May 11 District 31 Public Hearing
3) May 17 Hearing for Candidate Testimonials and Vote
4) Implications of Ned Carey’s Withdrawal Announcement
5) November 2, 2010 Retention Vote for Four Board of Education Members
6) Third Complaint Filed with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board

1) May 10, 2010 District 30 Public Hearing

All SBNC Commissioners plus their legal counsel and four members of the AACPS Public Information Office (including three TV producers) were in attendance.  No reporter was present.  Thirteen individuals were in the audience, including only three people not affiliated with the candidates or the Board of Education.   I left after about an hour, during the mid-hearing break, and watched much of the remainder of the hearing at home on my TV.  Although the half-million dollar TV setup in the Board room and quarter-million dollar TV backroom facility can support high definition television, the production was in standard definition due to ongoing negotiations with Comcast about high definition carriage.
Four candidates were competing for the two nominations for District 30.  However, one candidate, Richard D’Amato, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, couldn’t make it for the District 30 hearing, so he was allowed to join the District 31 hearing the following evening.
Each commissioner was allowed to ask a question of the candidates.  The hearing ran for more than two hours.  Those not present could watch via TV, which was broadcast at a higher quality than most C-SPAN coverage of public affairs events but at a lower quality than network TV coverage of presidential debates.  For example, C-SPAN covers most think thank events with a one or two person crew, not the three person crew used here (four people if you include the TV crew’s boss).  Similarly, C-SPAN usually doesn’t operate in a conference room with a half dozen robotic cameras and perfect lighting; indeed, it is unlikely that there is a single think tank in Washington, DC with a conference room—even one used for events a half dozen times a day—outfitted with a half million dollars of TV equipment ($464,000, to be exact).

I will not summarize the Q&A here.  But I’d like to note one part of the Q&A that might be of particular interest to citizen advisory committee readers.  Commissioner Christine Davenport, following in a long tradition of School Board candidate questioners in Anne Arundel County, asked the candidates what they would do to enhance parental involvement.  Candidate Victoria Garcia replied: “televise CAC meetings.”   The following night, responding to a similar question, two other candidates advocated using more “technology” to get parents involved in the school system.

I agree with Candidate Garcia that when a high level public official comes to speak to a CAC meeting, especially of the Countywide CAC, those not physically present should have the opportunity to hear what is said.  Coming from the think tank world, where it has become routine to webcast events, I would consider such coverage a no-brainer.
(Incidentally, more parents in Anne Arundel County now have broadband than cable TV connections; note that satellite TV is separate from cable TV and that satellite TV customers cannot see the County’s educational channels.  In addition, County libraries provide free broadband but not free cable TV service.  So broadband is now not only the most convenient but also the most equitable medium for educational public affairs TV coverage.  Of course, there is no reason that CAC TV cannot be delivered over BOTH broadband and PEG cable TV, as is now done in many U.S. towns with a population a fiftieth the size of Anne Arundel County and a commensurately smaller TV/PR budget.)

However, I consider the odds of AACPS allowing the Countywide CAC to televise its meetings close to zero.  Indeed, Riva Road is so senstive about its public officials saying anything controversial on TV (or otherwise on the record) that I would bet that it would greatly restrict access to senior level ACCPS officials if the Countywide CAC recorded their presentations and Q&A. A caveat would be if Riva Road could keep the video under lock and key, as it does the SBNC’s video recordings. This would allow it to preserve an important measure of control.  But such restricted access would defeat much of the purpose for providing video coverage in the first place.  Needless to say, I believe Riva Road’s mindset seeking to tightly control information is harmful to public participation and our democracy.  I hope and expect that the current tight control of information will loosen up in the coming years.

Commissioner Sandra Anderson, in charge of the SBNC’s communications plan (a euphemism, in my opinion, for PR), closed the meeting with the following observation: “Regardless of how many press releases we send out, we’re not overwhelemed with people coming to our hearings….  Please think about how we might engage the parents on these topics.”

Commissioner Anderson’s observation about poor parental involvement was, of course, correct. I attended every SBNC event this election cycle and I could count on my fingers the number of audience members who weren’t AACPS officials, prospective candidates, or relatives of prospective candidates.  Even the Capital reporter stopped coming during the SBNC’s last five public meetings.
So I applaud Commissioner Anderson’s heartfelt concluding remark.  But who or what is to blame for the problem she describes?  It’s not clear to me why a rational member of the public would want to participate since the public has no real role in the SBNC’s selection process.  The public doesn’t select the nominees, and it doesn’t select the commissioners who select the nominees.  The democratic lines of accountability are so blurred as, in my opinion, to be all-but-unreadable by anyone except a handful of insiders.  Asking the public to participate is like asking someone from Anne Arundel County to participate in an election in East Podunk, Illinois.  Why should they?
The part of Commissioner Anderson’s statement that made me wince was her conclusion pleading for more parental involvement.  I’ve been attending School Board candidate hearings for close to ten years and have observed that there is no greater cliché in AACPS school politics than the plea for more parental public policy involvement.  Yet it never seems to happen.  The reason, unfortunately, is much more fundamental than the fact that politically astute parents recognize they have no meaningful role in the SBNC election process.  It is that real public participation—the way that democratic theorists define it—is often actually considered, at best, an annoyance.   Real public participation must come from the bottom up; that is, people must feel that they can make a real difference and that they aren’t being used just for show.  But the incentives, all too often, are to use public participation and the appearance of openness for show.  After all, we live in a democracy, and school boards and other public bodies get their public legitimacy from appearing democratic. Indeed, the calling of a public meeting with warm bodies in the audience has proven to be one of the most effective democratic shows.  Admittedly, there are pockets of real participation in AACPS.  But the SBNC hasn’t been one of them.
Lastly, I’d like to note one of my greatest frustrations attending the SBNC hearings in the Board room: no WiFI (wireless Internet) access for my laptop.   The Board room has two very strong WiFi hotspots, but they are only accessible to ACCPS employees with a password; the public is barred from access.  I routinely attend public events in federal buildings, hotels, and think tanks, and I can say it is now very common to provide free WiFi access during public meetings.  Such WiFi access greatly increases both the quantity and quality of public participation.  That’s because it’s much less burdensome attending a long, boring public meeting if one can multitask; and the quality of participation increases when audience members can become active listeners by looking up speaker references, better researching their questions, and exploring unexpected implications of what the speaker is saying.  The same goes for CAC meetings held in the evening in the Board room.  I just cannot fathom any reason why CAC members shouldn’t have WiFi access.
Actually, this is not quite true.  Try on this for an explanation:  Via its I-NET link, Riva Road can access broadband Internet access about 1,000 times faster than the fastest broadband service (about 20 Mbps) available to Anne Arundel County residents.  Perhaps someone is worried that if the public experienced Riva Road’s superfast broadband connections, especially in the evening when Riva Road is empty and the network unused, the Board room would be overwhelmed with public participation. :-)

2) May 11, 2010 District 31 Hearing

All SBNC commissioners were eventually in attendance, but two of the eleven commissioners arrived late.  No reporter was present.  Other than AACPS and SBNC staff, only two individuals, including myself, were in the audience during the first hour of the hearing.  This hearing went on for more than three hours.  I left after the first break and watched most of the remainder of the hearing at home.

Four candidates were present, one competing for a District 30 nomination, three for a District 31 nomination. 

This time the SBNC’s PTA representative, Commissioner Anita Owens, asked the parental involvement question: How do we increase parental involvement in the schools?  Candidates Lisa Shore and Richard D’ Amato both called for better use of technology.  But it wasn’t clear to me whether they meant more top-down communications (as in PR) or bottom-up communications (which, if not astroturf, I would call democratic participation).  Whenever the parental involvement question comes up, there is also the question of what exactly is meant by “parental involvement”: does it mean civic involvement or mentoring one’s own children with their schoolwork?  Often the latter is meant, but it is noteworthy that the candidates interpreted the question as including both parential civic involvement and child mentoring.
Perhaps my favorite question of the evening, also involving ambiguous concepts, was Commissioner Konrad Wayson’s: Should School Board members vote by district or at-large?  This question gets at a fundamental ambiguity in the current School Board electoral system.  Three of the four candidates, with some hedging, answered: “by district.”  The other candidate, who would go on to win the most votes of any nominee for District 31, answered: “at-large.”  Since School Board members are supposed to care about all kids first and foremost and forego anything resembling politics, I believe the at-large answer was clearly the politically correct one.

But a reasonable person, including a School Board candidate, could (and should) be confused on this point.  I’ve discussed this at length in earlier SBNC Updates, so I won’t repeat myself here.  The key points are that the design of the electoral system, how SBNC members are selected, and how the SBNC conducts its business, all send very mixed messages.  But what I want to add is that even if the electoral system unambiguously sent the message that “at-large” was the correct answer, it still wouldn’t be a politically plausible strategy for many of the School Board members.  That is because most School Board members in recent years have used the School Board as a launching pad for political careers.  And for all other legislative positions other than the School Board, the correct answer is absolutely unambiguous: by district.  School Board members aspiring for higher office have every incentive to represent the subset of Anne Arundel County constituents they hope to represent if elected to higher office.  Although I’ve never seen the Capital report them this way, high profile School Board earmarks should always be viewed, at least partially, based on Board room politics. (As an aside, the Capital’s lack of coverage of Board politics—either due to indifference or ignorance--remains a striking feature of its news and editorials.)

3) May 17 Hearing for Candidate Testimonials and Vote

All SBNC commissioners and support staff were present.  No reporter was present.  The initial audience, including candidates, candidate relatives, and those giving testimonials on behalf of the candidates, was the largest of the three hearings.  But only one member of the public, other than me, was present.

The meeting was supposed to consist of four parts: 1) designated candidate witnesses, 2) public comments about the candidates, 3) secret deliberations by the SBNC commissioners, and 4) the final, public vote.  Since there were no public comments about the candidates, that part of the meeting was skipped.

One confusing part of the testimonials in favor of the candidates was their separation into public and secret parts.  Those giving their testimonials in person did so in public.  But there were apparently a number of written testimonials that were not read and were otherwise publicly inaccessible.  The SBNC commissioners did not publicly state how or if the written recommendations had been privately distributed to them.  But it’s reasonable to presume that the SBNC commissiones had access to the written recommendations before the hearing.
Commissioner Greene opened the meeting reporting that today he had received a letter from School Board Member Ned Carey stating that Carey would not accept the Governor’s appointment to the School Board even if it was offered to him.  Greene noted that the letter was dated May 13.
One interesting feature of the TV coverage on May 17 compared to May 11 was the TV camera work.  I don’t recall any audience shots on May 11 when the Board room looked all but completely empty (note that I did miss part of the May 11 hearing).  But on May 17, when the camera could focus on a cluster of folks, the audience was introduced to viewers.
I thought the candidate testimonials were impressive and compelling.  I also thought there was a close correlation between the number and intensity of the testimonials and the number of votes the candidates ultimately received from the SBNC commissioners.

As a ballpark figure, I estimate that the total taxpayer cost of the three hearings was $3,000: $2,000 for the four AACPS staff ($200/hour for the four staff times 10 hours) and $1,000 for the SBNC’s attorney ($100/hour times 10 hours).  Of course, AACPS employees and the SBNC’s attorney (provided gratis by the Maryland General Assembly) are paid on a salary basis and don’t charge the SBNC for their services.  But they also certainly don’t come free for taxpayers.  If 50 members of the public watched the hearings (and this is little more than a wild guess), that comes to $40/viewer ($2,000/50 viewers = $40/viewer).
In my opinion, the public might have been better served by having an all-volunteer high school student TV crew televise the meetings (using their own equipment, not Riva Road’s), automatically index the footage to the agenda (standard even for tiny rural towns in Vermont), and then post the resulting footage on an independent website such as YouTube (one of the most common websites used by think tanks for public affairs events).

Note that these calculations assume that the SBNC has discontinued the costly (and secret) practice of transcribing the candidates’ testimony and Q&A.  These transcripts, presumably paid for by the Maryland General Assembly, were never posted on the SBNC’s website and were for the exclusive use of SBNC commissioners.
Overall, the lack of press coverage of the SBNC during this electoral cycle was striking.  In the old days of the nominating convention—and I’m not advocating a return to those days—the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Capital would all compete in their coverage of the School Board candidates.  In recent years, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun completely abandoned the School Board electoral beat.  And now we’re left with the Capital’s reports, which have evolved during this election cycle into little more than rewritten press releases.  As for informed and thoughtful commentary, I don’t recall that we ever had that, so there hasn’t been a change there.

4) Implications of Ned Carey’s Withdrawal Announcement

Following my two SBNC Updates describing the Attorney General’s ruling that incumbent School Board candidates elected prior to June 30, 2008 automatically have their names forwarded to the Governor for nomination, the Capital reported on May 14, 2010 that incumbent Ned Carey would definitely not accept an appointment if appointed to another term by the Governor.  Part of the article included the following statement:

Carey said he was unaware of the [Attorney General’s] ruling and assumed that by not submitting an application he was out of the running for a second term.  But to clarify his position, on the advice of attorneys, he sent a letter to the commission yesterday stating he doesn't want to stay on the board.

Assuming that the Capital accurately reported Carey’s statement, we have the following three implications:

a) The SBNC didn’t do its job. One of the primary duties of the SBNC is to encourage the strongest possible candidates to run for the SBNC.  If potential candidates are under the impression that a popular incumbent, sure to win the Governor’s endorsement, is likely to run, it is reasonable to infer that fewer and less qualified candidates would be likely to run.  In this circumstance, the SBNC would have a responsibility not only to ask Carey whether he was running but inform him of the Attorney General’s January 22, 2010 public legal opinion (issued more than three months before the April 30, 2010 candidate deadline) that his name would automatically be forwarded to the Governor and that potential candidates would learn that fact.  I say the January 22, 2010 “public” legal opinion because the Attorney General recently revealed an apparently private memo to the SBNC on May 1, 2009 (exactly one year before the April 30, 2010 application deadline) providing the same legal advice (see footnote 2 to the Attorney General’s April 8, 2010 legal opinion).   Accordingly, the SBNC had the correct information about the nominating system for Ned Carey more than one year before Carey says he knew that information.  (As an aside, my guess is that the May 1, 2009 memo was kept private because its public release on May 1, 2009 would have been highly embarrassing to the SBNC, which had already accepted applications, including 2 incumbent School Board members, and announced public hearings based on the original understanding of the law.)

The SBNC was chosen so that all important stakeholders would have a say in the nominating process.  Those stakeholders are in regular contact with the School Board, so it would have been easy for them to alert Carey of the January 22, 2010 legal opinion (or, presumably, the earlier, apparently private, May 1, 2009 legal opinion), but it apparently didn’t happen.

It is clear that throughout the winter and spring of 2010 the SBNC agonized over whether Carey would run and regularly asked him about his intentions.  Those who observed their deliberations could see that Carey was popular and that the SBNC did not at all relish the prospect of recruting challengers or even nominating anyone other than Carey for the District 31 opening.  In the end, I think the SBNC made a genuine attempt to recruit people to attend both the District 30 and District 31 field hearings and to encourage candidates to run in District 31.  Nevertheless, I believe its members were negligent in not informing Carey of the May 1, 2009 legal opinion and then reaffirmed in the January 22, 2010 legal opinion (which has been inexplicably removed from the SBNC website; the May 1, 2009 memo was never posted there).

An additional important consideration is that astute candidates for the District 31 seat would have recognized that even if Carey ran and was appointed by the Governor for a second term, it was to their advantage to run in this electoral cycle.  The best precedent here is Tricia Johnson, the former School Board president nominated for a second term starting on July 1, 2009.  The Governor appointed her to a second term, which she resigned weeks later when she was elected to the County Council.  The SBNC was happy with one of the candidates who was nominated with her and so, with minimal fuss in the middle of the summer (July 28, 2009), nominated him and someone else who had no chance of being selected by the Governor (by the way, this rushed, low profile electoral cycle is an excellent illustration of the SBNC’s invisible nominating system at work).  If this happened once (the last election), it could happen again, which may help explain the strong candidates who eventually applied for the District 31 seat.

b) The Capital didn’t do its job.  The Capital’s education reporter was at the January 25, 2010 SBNC meeting where the January 22, 2010 Attorney General legal opinion was publicly announced.  I then wrote about it in my January 27, 2010 SBNC Update, which is widely read throughout the County, including by various Capital reporters.  Here is what I said: “The AG also ruled that incumbent school board members don’t have to go through the SBNC nominating process to have their names forwarded to the governor; all incumbents eligible for an additional term will have their names forwarded to the governor.”

The Capital reporter attended some of the early SBNC meetings where the practical significance of whether Carey would run was repeatedly mentioned.  The Capital then reported three times, presumably based on first-hand communications with Carey, that Carey was undecided.  Two of these reports, the last on April 23, 2010 (7 days before candidate applications were due), came after the January 25, 2010 SBNC meeting where the January 22, 2010 Attorney General letter was discussed.
I do not believe the Capital should have been held responsible for not knowing about the SBNC’s apparently secret May 1, 2009 memo from the Attorney General.  But several Capital reporters were aware of my complaints concerning the SBNC’s pattern of violating both the spirit and letter of Maryland’s right-to-know laws.  Indeed, the complaints were featured in my May 30, 2009 wrap-up to the 2009 SBNC nominating cycle (which, I think, comes off as prescient in light of the fact that at that time I was ignorant of the May 1, 2009 legal opinion).  The Capital’s determination that these complaints—or even an earlier ruling that the SBNC had violated Maryland’s Open Meetings Act—were not newsworthy helped establish an environment where vital information, such as the May 1, 2009 legal opinion, could be withheld from the public, including apparently, the president of the Board of Education.

c) Ned Carey didn’t do his job.  Please note that I have great respect for Ned Carey’s skill as both a member and president of the School Board.  But logic leads me to conclude that in this particular case he didn’t do his job.
Carey is in frequent contact with both SBNC commissioners and the Capital reporter.  As president of the School Board, he also recieves copies of Capital articles and my SBNC Update.  Regardless of whether or not he knew of the Attorney General’s May 1, 2009 and January 22, 2010 legal opinions, he certainly knew about the April 30, 2010 deadline for candidates to submit applications.  He also knew that the Capital repeatedly reported on his indecision and that the SBNC repeatedly asked him about his plans.  This was not for no reason: everyone with any political knowledge knew that Carey’s plans could have great practical significance, and Carey must have known that, too.  Of course, Carey has every right to want to keep his political options open.  And, nothwithstanding his lawyer’s apparent legal advice (see the Carey quote above), elected officials have generally not faced legal obstacles when holding one office while running for another. (Here I’ll add two caveats: I’m not a lawyer, and the current School Board electoral system is so bizarre and has been subject to so many Alice in Wonderland interpretations that perhaps I’ve overlooked something.)

However, the claim here is one of ignorance, not whether Carey had a duty to announce his political plans.  Candidates who run for the School Board are regularly told that they need to be good listeners and regularly reach out to major stakeholders for information. If all the SBNC commissioners, the Capital education reporter, and senior AACPS staff knew of the January 22, 2010 legal opinion (if only because they religously read my SBNC Update!), then there was a striking breakdown in communications between Carey and the school system’s key stakeholders in the three plus months between January 22, 2010 and April 30, 2010 (or, if May 1, 2009 is used as the reference point, the twelve months between May 1, 2009 and April 30, 2010).  In my opinion, the democratic implications of such a breakdown are scary.

5) November 2, 2010 Retention Vote for Four Board of Education Members

On Novermber 2, 2010, the four School Board members appointed by the Governor during 2009 and 2010 will have their names placed on the ballot for a retention vote.  I expect this to be an invisible election, as is almost always the case with retention votes for judges (an incumbent who hasn’t done anything extremely controversial has historically had virtually no chance of losing a retention vote).  One way to explain this phenomenon is that in an election for “X” or “Nobody,” X should always win because it’s better to have someone in office than no one.  Public officials do have an important job to do, and somebody, not Nobody, needs to do it.
Nevertheless, this is a big and potentially highly visible vote because it’s for an uncontested term of up to ten years—quite a novelty in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, U.S., and perhaps even world politics.

Please note that I was incorrect in my May 9, 2010 report on the interpretation of the Attorney General’s April 8, 2010 legal opinion.  I was operating from memory and should have reread the legal opinion, which at the time was still not posted on the SBNC’s website. (It can now be found there, and I’d encourage anyone interested in the School Board electoral system to read it.)

Here is the correction: Incumbents appointed after June 30, 2008 are automatically reappointed for a second term, but—and here is the correction--they do have to undergo a second retention vote at the next general election after their automatic reappointment.  The second election, like the first, is uncontested.  And, like the first, the SBNC is under no obligation to replace the incumbent by a specific deadline.
Now let’s suppose one or more of the four candidates on the ballot lose the retention vote.  Since the enabling legislation creating the SBNC is very vague on what happens next, I suppose we’d get a new series of Attorney General legal opinions telling the SBNC what it should do.  One of the problems is that the retention vote doesn’t appear to be like any other retention vote held in Maryland or possibly the U.S. for that matter.  On the surface, the retention vote looks like it is binding (hence the legislators’ claim that the new school board electoral system gives the public a meaningful vote).  But, in fact, the election is only advisory because, as far as I know, there is no date by which the SBNC must select a replacement.  So it is conceivable (but exceedingly unlikely) that a candidate could serve ten years even after losing a retention vote.

It gets much more interesting, especially from a political standpoint, if all four candidates lose the retention vote.  I consider this as unlikely as a large asteroid hitting the U.S. on November 2, 2010 and creating a second Grand Canyon.  But it’s still an interesting thought experiment.

This would mean that in one year the SBNC could replace 5 of 8 adult members of the School Board.  I don’t think it would want to do that, both because it would be too much work and would eliminate too much institutional knowledge.
At the same time, the Maryland General Assembly would have a firestorm of proposals to modify or completely can the legislation creating the SBNC.  This would create a lot of uncertainty, which could provide the SBNC with many excuses for delay or other impromptu actions.

But now what if a Republican were elected governor in November?  Then I would imagine there would be a panicky rush to 1) appoint five new school board members before the governor could appoint new SBNC commissioners and take control of the School Board, and 2) draft legislation canning the SBNC.

In any case, I would be shocked if during its next session the Maryland General Assembly doesn’t pass some legislation reforming the statute creating the SBNC.  In the wake of the last three Attorney General legal opinions, there are just too many easy pickings for reform for a smart legislator not to pick up the ball.  I’d start by reducing the extraordinarily long terms to a more democratic length.

My further sense is that, regardless of the outcome of the November 2 elections, we may be entering the home stretch for the SBNC during the next four-year term of the General Assembly.  It’s hard for me to imagine that during a single session (that is, one year) the Anne Arundel delegation to the General Assembly could come up with a politically viable substitute for the SBNC.  In the short-term, only expect some easy patches (such as eliminating the automatic second term).  But a sense of inevitably could quickly emerge that the SBNC is doomed.  Despite my criticism of the SBNC, I think that would be a misfortune.  Just as the legislature (and press and citizenry) mindlessly rushed into creating and endorsing the SBNC, the danger is that it will equally mindlessly rush into destroying it rather than thinking carefully about how a commission nominating system could preserve its virtues while also ensuring a greater measure of genuine democratic accountability.  What a tragedy that the Maryland General Assembly and our local press appear to be completely unable to engage in an adult conversation on electoral systems.

Meanwhile, an advocate for the current retention voting system should demonstrate that, as promised, it is possible for the November 2, 2010 retention vote to actually mean something other than a PR gambit.  I’m not sure how that could be accomplished, but a good starting point would be to post the SBNC candidate testimony online.  Unfortunately, that means going through the AACPS Public Information Office to ask for a controversial piece of information—an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  During the first electoral cycle I asked for those tapes (because during Spring Semester 2008 I was a fellow living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and couldn’t watch the hearings in person), and it took me something like three months of enduring excuses and being referred to different people to get them.  When you ask for a controversial piece of information, you’re immediately pegged as a potential troublemaker (this type of phenomenon was written about by the famous German sociologist Max Weber during the 1920s).  As the delays pile up and you don’t go away, this only confirms the original suspicion that you’re a troublemaker.  It’s sort of like the Salem witch trials: there is no right answer for the inquisitor.  But the Salem witch trials eventually came to an end, and I suspect that the Public Information Office’s instinctive practice of hoarding video is not sustainable.  And, in this case, there is nothing to hide: the video records are perfectly innocuous.  The AACPS Public Information Office could have its cake and eat it, too.  None of the above should imply that AACPS doesn’t have an exceedingly talented Public Information Office that is just doing its job. 

6) Third Complaint Filed with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board

On Monday, May 24, 2010 I will file my third set of complaints concerning the SBNC’s compliance with Maryland’s Open Meetings Act (see for a copy).  The complaints primarily deal with loose ends remaining from my complaints filed at the end of the SBNC’s last electoral cycle.
The three most striking lessons I have learned from dealing with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board are the following:

1)      The Open Meetings Compliance Board is only concerned with providing legal opinions about the letter rather than the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.

2)      The Open Meetings Compliance Board primarily serves to advise public bodies on the absolute minimum they need to do to comply with the letter of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.

3)      The Open Meetings Compliance Board has adopted a standard of evidence that, in practice if not theory, not only strongly favors public bodies over citizens, but is inconsistent with widely adopted norms of evidence that require documentary evidence of compliance with documentary legal requirements.

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