This afternoon I attended the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on HB1114, the bill to change Anne Arundel County’s system of appointing school board members. The event was labeled a “hearing” on the Maryland General Assembly website and on the agenda distributed at the event. But for those of you familiar with local hearings, it was a most peculiar hearing because no live public testimony was accepted and only the sponsor of the legislation was given the opportunity to testify. (We can only hope that the vaguely specified requirement in HB1114 that the Nominating Commission “shall hold at least two public hearings on the selection of nominees” is not similarly such a sham.)

The hearing was supposed to begin at 1pm but due to a delay in another meeting didn’t actually convene until 1:45pm. About half the delegate seats in the committee room were vacant. I was very lucky because HB1114 was the first bill on the agenda, which included 20 bills. Delegate Love, the lead sponsor of the bill and head of the Anne Arundel County delegation, was the only witness to speak. She started with the potent symbolism of noting that Alan Friedman, Director of Governmental Relations for County Executive Leopold, was sitting next to her. Friedman himself said nothing; his role was purely symbolic.

The testimony lasted all of about five minutes. Delegate Love summarized the bill by essentially paraphrasing its contents. That took maybe three minutes. Then there was one question from the Committee. A delegate wanted to know why the Maryland Senate last year rejected a very similar bill. Delegate Love replied that “the Senate passed it out earlier today, so we’re in a lovefest, no pun intended.” That was it. Delegate Love and Alan Friedman got up and left the room, and the Committee went on to attend other business.

There were only two statements submitted into the record for this hearing: mystatement mostly opposing HB1114, and a one page statement from AFSCME 67 (the section of AFSCME representing several thousand non-professional school employees in AACPS) giving HB1114 a ringing endorsement. Unfortunately, AFSCME 67 did not post its statement on its website (at least when I last checked around 10:30 pm today), so I cannot provide a link to it. Basically, in a few paragraphs, it endorses HB1114 for creating an elected school board and empowering the public.

In addition, Alan Lang, the former chair of the School Board Nominating Convention, sent out a written statement criticizing HB1114 to the entire County delegation. His comments are elegant and very substantial (far more substantial than mine). Indeed, in their meticulous attention to the subtleties and implications of seemingly innocuous clauses, I would call them brilliant. If you are interested in discovering why this is a carelessly drafted bill (good for a first draft; lousy for a final draft), you need to read Alan’s comments.

It is, of course, hardly unusual to have poorly drafted legislation filled with ambiguities, inconsistencies, and vital omissions. For example, a primary role of federal agencies is to take such language drafted by Congress and through the rulemaking process develop workable regulations. The problem here is that there is no such agency. Presumably, the Nominating Commission would be forced to deal with many of the problems Alan has identified. But giving the Nominating Commission such dramatically enhanced powers is certainly an unintended consequence of the way this bill is drafted. This is work that legislators should take on themselves, or, at the very least, explicitly delegate to others.

On the whole, the hearing was pretty sad for me. According to standard legislative norms, major pieces of legislation—and this is major—should be subject to public deliberation. All the real deliberation on this bill, however, has been conducted behind closed doors. And, as reflected in Alan’s keen observations, I have yet to be convinced that even that deliberation reflected a careful consideration of the policy issues as opposed to an astute political calculation that this fresh approach to school board reform could break the political logjam, which it has.

This bill is being sold as a bipartisan done deal with no significant controversy attached to it. Delegate Love’s characterization that the bill was being treated like a “lovefest” was right on the money. But, in my experience, the momentum behind such bills, even when it seems unstoppable, can quickly change. All that needs to happen is that a credible grassroots effort raises some valid concerns and wins an outspoken and credible supporter within the political elites. Then the aura of inevitability can quickly dissipate. If you have any concerns about provisions in HB1114, this is the time to contact your delegate and let him or her know. If you wait until after the vote has already taken place, it will be too late.