When Steuart Pittman ran for Anne Arundel County executive in 2018, he promised to improve Anne Arundel government accountability via improved transparency. After he was elected, he featured that promise in both the opening sentence and headline pullout quote of his “Office of the County Executive” homepage: “The mission of the County Executive’s Office is to build a transparent government that encourages community participation.” Elsewhere, he publicized the “greater transparency” of his budget process.
To test his claimed commitment to budget transparency, I chose K-12 compensation transparency. More than 50% of the county’s total budget goes to its schools, and more than 80% of that goes to employee compensation. I know of no Anne Arundel politician who has dared to say publicly that the public isn’t entitled under Maryland’s Public Information Act to see such information. But a chasm exists between acknowledging the public’s theoretical right to such information and providing that information. Would Pittman, unlike his predecessors, be willing to be transparent about the most politically sensitive part of his budget, the so-called third rail of local open government politics: top teacher pay?
At the time, the county’s highest paid teachers were paid over $150,000 per year, excluding deferred compensation but including dozens of extra pay categories such as summer and evening school, coaching, and bonuses. (Using accrual accounting, which public companies but not governments use, top teacher pay reaches more than $1 million per year, but only during the year such teachers reach their pension cliff, usually at age 55. I didn’t request that information because it’s not public.)
Three times I asked Pittman if he’d disclose individual-level data, excluding names, for the top paid teachers. The first request was at a civic association meeting, the second at a large public budget hearing, the third in written comments to the county’s budget portal. At the first, Pittman said he’d consider it; at the second, he smirked at me; the third got no response.
To be sure, I knew the request for teacher pay data was extremely politically sensitive and thus arguably unfair. Pittman depended on the teachers’ union to staff phone banks and place yard signs during his campaign, and the union doesn’t tolerate politicians who seek this type of government transparency. As an annual Education Next poll shows, when the public finds out what teachers are actually paid as opposed to what they think they are paid, support for higher teacher pay plummets. Thus, when politicians seek pay transparency, it’s interpreted as being tantamount to being anti-teacher. Politicians who don’t want the teachers recruiting, funding, and championing an opponent don’t champion this type of transparency.
Last fall, my next open government test should have been easier to pass. For more than 100 years, political scientists have known that government employees instinctively hide information about themselves because citizens who ask for such information tend to be troublemakers. Did Pittman counter these natural tendencies among his staff or let them thrive?
When embarking on a major project, the county’s Stormwater Infrastructure division is supposed to notify neighbors. But in my community, it failed to provide such notice and then denied the failure. After verifying the failure with my neighbors, I sought to double check by using the Maryland Public Information Act to view the invoices relating to the project. Would the invoices’ copious line items (476 in total) include an item for distributing public notice to neighbors? They didn’t.
Consider some striking details about how the county processed my Public Information Act request. The county’s online form to submit such a request failed to provide a county public information officer contact. The form stated that the county could charge for fulfilling all requests despite Public Information Act language specifying that the first two hours are free. Then, after submitting the online form, I received no receipt. After the Public Information Act’s 10-day and 30-day deadlines passed without the county responding, I notified the county of the violation and received an apology.
I don’t believe Pittman has been worse than other Anne Arundel politicians when it comes to implementing politically inconvenient government transparency. But he should be judged at least partly on the extraordinary discrepancy between his grand open government rhetoric and his abysmal implementation.
J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, lives in Severna Park.
Source: Snider, J.H., Pittman falls short on transparency pledge, Capital, January 13, 2022.