Note: I read the following testimony in two parts. On November 17, 2015 I had a total of eleven points and got through the first two below before being cut off. On January 7, 2016 I had fourteen points and got through the first eight below before being cut off.
Public Testimony of J.H. Snider
Before the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission,
2644 Riva Road in Annapolis, November 17, 2015
Congratulations to the new SBNC commissioners. My name is J.H. (“Jim”) Snider, and I have been an attentive student of the SBNC since the legislature passed legislation creating it in 2007. No member of the public or press has attended more SBNC meetings, and no one has published more about its proceedings. I, for one, consider the SBNC to be a very important democratic institution.
My primary focus, as someone with a Ph.D. in American Government and a career focused on democratic reform, has been to improve the SBNC’s democratic processes. My various observations and policy recommendations can be found at eLighthouse.info.
I want to preface my recommendations by applauding the newly constituted SBNC for televising this meeting to discuss administrative matters. From 2008 until now, not a single SBNC meeting to address administrative matters has been televised. But that’s the least of it.
No previous meetings to address administrative matters either allowed public comment or provided advanced public notice of the administrative agenda items to be discussed. Two of the SBNC’s most important administrative meetings shortly after the SBNC was created were conducted in secret and without public notice. Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board later rebuked the SBNC for conducting those meetings in private. Good luck finding that rebuke on the SBNC website. The SBNC’s public record keeping has given the memory hole in Orwell’s 1984 a good name.
But even that only begins to scratch the surface. At least those administrative procedures were passed at an official meeting of the SBNC. This year the former SBNC chair took to passing critical new administrative procedures by fiat. In particular, he encouraged applicants to bypass the public hearings process established by statute by sending him electioneering information to his private email account, which was then shielded from public scrutiny, including via Public Information Act requests.
I wish to express my thanks to the current SBNC Chair for inviting me to share my thoughts at this meeting on improving SBNC administrative procedures. I hope at least some of my eleven recommendations prove useful:
- Move from a supermajority requirement of 8 votes to a simple majority requirement of 6 votes to nominate an applicant. I’d specify it as “6 members” rather than merely “a majority” to clarify that you are talking about a “majority of members” rather than a “majority of members present and voting.” Ever since the SBNC forced through the controversial supermajority rule in 2008 without either public notice or allowing any public comment, I have been opposed to this terribly undemocratic voting rule. I should also add that, in this particular factual context, I believe it violates the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. But that’s a legal argument far too complex to go into here.”
- Move away from AACPS control of all recording keeping and PR functions. AACPS has a blatant conflict of interest when it fulfills such functions. In particular, candidate applications should not be sent to Molly Connolly, Secretary to the Board of Education—and sent secretly, to boot. When candidates submit their applications, they don’t know their applications have actually gone to her, a custodian of the interests of the incumbent school board members. Please note that I’m not questioning Molly Connolly’s skill or loyalty in serving members of the Board of Education. I believe she does her job well. But I cannot imagine, from an election integrity perspective, a less appropriate person to be given such a responsibility.
[Read to here at the November 17, 2015 SBNC public meeting.]
- Seek an explicit budget from the Maryland General Assembly for staff support. Maryland General Assembly Speaker Mike Busch and various AACPS superintendents have been generous in providing the Commission with free staff support with no budget authorization. Unfortunately, that type of secret and discretionary staff support violates basic democratic norms of transparency, accountability, and due process. I would be happy to elaborate on this point if you would like.
- Request that SBNC applicants disclose on their applications any financial relationships that their “immediate family members” have with AACPS. The term “immediate family members” has a statutory definition so it gets you out of the problem of defining what the phrase means. For an example of the type of disclosure form Congressional witnesses must sign, my written testimony published on eLighthouse.info provides a link.
- Alert applicants on their applications that their previous applications to the SBNC are public information and will be posted on the SBNC website along with their current applications. The public should be able to compare the promises of nominees with their actual behavior in office. [As an aside, I believe this has now been done.]
- Consolidate the SBNC’s scattered administrative rules so that one doesn’t have to earn a Ph.D. in SBNC procedure to understand them. The current rules are scattered in statutes, bylaws, minutes, opinion letters, informal advice from other government entities, and past practices established by fiat. I’ve regularly complained about the culture of secret law with regard to the SBNC since at least 2009. To its credit, since 2010 the SBNC leadership acknowledged the problem and repeatedly promised to do something about it. But six years later, after multiple broken promises, there is still no manual. I’d suggest that you request a copy of the SBNC manual drafted by Michelle Davis, the SBNC’s attorney. I’d also suggest, just as Ms. Davis did, using the judicial nominating manual as a reference point.
- Establish clear policies with respect to SBNC records retention and public access. The SBNC’s current record keeping makes a mockery of Maryland’s Open Meetings and Public Records acts. The Center for Public Integrity recently rated Maryland an “F” for access to public information. Based on that scale, I’d have to rate the SBNC as a triple F.
- Remove the AACPS Ethics Panel from ethics jurisdiction over the SBNC, which jurisdiction I believe was only formally instituted in 2013. I cannot imagine a less appropriate body in the world to serve as an ethics overseer for SBNC. The Ethics Panel itself is rife with conflicts of interest and routinely ignores its own rules. And, yes, Molly Connolly is also the Ethics Panel administrator. I’d personally prefer that ethics oversight be done, following the Massachusetts model, via the Maryland State Ethics Commission.
[Read to here at the January 7, 2016 SBNC public meeting.]