J.H. Snider’s Testimony Before the SBNC on June 24, 2015

On Tuesday, June 16, this lame duck School Board Nominating Commission voted to change its bylaws on an emergency basis.  This bylaws change was made without public notice.  When, at the meeting, a member of the public repeatedly noted that fact and the public’s inability to comment on the proposed change, the SBNC’s chair ignored him.

Was there a reason for conducting an emergency vote on the bylaws change?  If so, one wasn’t provided to the public before the vote.  Was there a reason for a lame duck SBNC to impose such a rule on the next SBNC?  If so, one wasn’t provided to the public before the vote.

Let’s assume that the SBNC debated this measure by email before the June 16 hearing.  In my judgment, that would be a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.  According to the Open Meetings Act, material public business is supposed to be debated in public, not behind closed doors.  And amending the SBNC’s bylaws is certainly a material procedural item.

The SBNC has always preferred to conduct its administrative rules behind closed doors and without the opportunity for public notice or comment, which is why early on in its existence it conducted two secret administrative meetings and was found by Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board to have violated Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.  I do not know the specifics of the current incident, but I’d like to remind the board that conducting a de facto meeting by email would violate the spirit of the Act.

As for the specifics of the bylaws amendment, allowing legislators to vote by proxy is a highly controversial procedure among government bodies.  Congress doesn’t allow its members to engage in such behavior; the Maryland General Assembly doesn’t allow it; the Anne Arundel County Council doesn’t allow; even the Anne Arundel Board of Education, to my knowledge, doesn’t dare allow it.  There is a reason for this ban, and the SBNC should have had a public debate so the public could know that it carefully weighed the pros and cons of its decision.

As it stands, both the method and substance of the bylaws change conveys the impression that the public candidate hearings are a charade; that the real decision making goes on behind the scenes.  During the last round of elections, the SBNC’s heavy reliance on secret testimony about the candidates confirmed such an impression.   I hope my recent Public Information Act request will help ascertain the scope of such behavior.

I propose that one of the ten members of the SBNC who voted for the emergency bylaws change on June 16 propose that the vote be reconsidered so that the question can be temporarily tabled and then voted on by the next SBNC with public notice and non-emergency parliamentary procedure.  At the least, I think reopening the discussion should be viewed as a courtesy to Joan Maynard and the governor, who appointed Joan on June 17, one day after the vote, and as the first member of the new governor’s SBNC.  Joan would have held the deciding vote on June 16.  She and the public should be told why this was not only a good decision but also an emergency one made without any public notice or comment.

Maryland law gives the Anne Arundel county executive in combination with Maryland’s governor tremendous power over the SBNC.  If they forfeit that power via ignorance or neglect, the public should hold them accountable.  In particular, the public should not allow them to later blame the school board and school board nominating commission for not implementing their agenda, when they have only themselves to blame for that outcome.



Post-Meeting Addendum: Analysis of the Election Results

On June 24, the SBNC voted for District 30 and District 31 nominees.  The vote totals were as follows:

District 30

James Appel: 2 yes, 9 no
Raymond Leone: 9 yes, 2 no
Solon Webb: 11 yes, 0 no

District 31

Terry R. Gilleland: Jr.: 6 yes, 5 no
Mark A. Gossage: Jr.: 5 yes, 6 no
Deborah Ritchie: 10 yes, 1 abstain
Lisa Shore: 8 yes, 3 no

Since 8 votes are needed for nomination, only Leone, Webb, Ritchie, and Shore were nominated. Gilleland received a majority of 6 but not the supermajority of 8 needed for nomination.

There were some interesting developments here.  For the first time, the Republican commissioners voted as a block.  These were Victor Henderson, who represented County Executive Steve Schuh and stood in for Amalie Brandenburg; and Joan Maynard, Governor Hogan’s first and newly appointed representative.  This is most vividly seen on the votes for James Appel and Raymond Leone: the two Republicans voted yes on Appel and no on Leone.

As usual, the two senior leaders from the teachers union (TAAAC) voted as a block.  These were Pam Bukowski (Vice President) and Bill Jones (Executive Director).  As usual, on key votes (make or break votes), they were joined by the representatives from the support personnel union (AFSCME) and the administrators union (AEL).  For the first two open seats of the 2015 SBNC election cycle, decided on February 18, 2015, Bukowski and Jones jointly held veto power because the commission was short two members (the governor and community college each failed to send a delegate).  For this round on June 24, all the commission seats were filled so that four votes were needed to exercise veto power.

The Lisa Shore vote was especially interesting because she wouldn’t have won without the emergency passage of the bylaws amendment that allowed proxy voting for Christine Davenport, chair of the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee. On June 16, Amalie Brandenburg, County Executive Steve Schuh’s SBNC representative, cast the critical vote supporting the bylaw change that let Davenport cast the swing vote without attending the meeting to vote.  If Brandenburg hadn’t done so, her replacement at the June 24 meeting, Victor Henderson, would have cast the deciding vote preventing Shore’s nomination. Perhaps there is some rhyme or reason to what the county executive is doing with his new found power over the SBNC.  If so, I haven’t figured out what it is.

The other vote that was especially interesting was for Mark Gossage because it vividly illustrates the prevalence of strategic voting by SBNC commissioners when their votes are non-critical.  Gossage is a very young man with an appealing personality and a mother who works at AACPS.  He was unquestionably unqualified to serve on the Board of Education. So why did he receive 5 votes, one short of a majority?  The answer is that SBNC commissioners often find it not in their self interest to vote sincerely (e.g., when voting for incumbents, otherwise appealing candidates, or too obviously in a partisan or typecast way) unless they perceive that they are casting a swing vote.  After all, why create a needless enemy or bad impression when one can be nice and cultivate public favor at no political cost?  This principle plays out in many different ways, which is why I believe that focusing on critical votes, votes that will make or break a candidate, is the best way to analyze SBNC politics. Remember that SBNC commissioners deliberate in secret over who to vote for, so when they come out in public to vote they already know if they are likely to be the swing voter.


The End of the “Jones” Commission?

The June 24 meeting marks the probable end of what I call the “Jones” Commission, my shorthand name for the current SBNC. Why name a commission after a mere commissioner rather than the commission chair, which is the usual practice for providing an informal name for a government commission?

I call it the Jones Commission rather than the Greene Commission not only because Jones has had the power to veto SBNC nominations, but because the SBNC chair knew he could get away with anything as long as he had Jones’ support. This was represented visually by the fact that the SBNC chair literally sat directly to Jones’ right; that is, as Jones’ “right-hand man.”

Whether the new SBNC chair and commission members will deserve the same appellation is an open question. Jones is arguably the most sophisticated political talent in Anne Arundel County. A keen student of politics, he cares not a whit what politicians say or what their party affiliation is; he only keeps score by what they have done. He also knows how to exercise power firmly but discreetly: out of the public eye and with plausible deniability.  He has the great political sense of knowing how far to go in pursuing his agenda combined with the discipline not to go one inch farther.

Most likely, Jones’ room to maneuver on the SBNC will be significantly curtailed during the coming year after Governor Hogan–in consultation with County Executive Schuh–appoints a new chair and slate of commissioners.  I expect to see some overt conflict within the SBNC, perhaps even with the incoming SBNC chair.  But even if the County Executive and Governor had genuinely wanted to make a difference on the Anne Arundel Board of Education (perhaps they have been preoccupied by other matters they consider more important?), the key moment for them has already arguably passed.  During the last three months, the SBNC appointed five of the eight adult members to the AACPS Board of Education.  It would take at least four years from now for the SBNC to change the balance of power on the Board of Education.  By then, there will be another election, and it could be a completely new political ball game.

The SBNC’s Commitment to Transparency & Accountability
(only for die-hard eLighthouse.info readers)

If you want to get a sense of the SBNC’s commitment to democratic transparency and accountability, take a look at the the minutes they have posted on their website as of June 25, 2015 (see the screenshot below).  Note that no minutes have been posted, including the individual commissioners’ votes,  for the  public meetings held  during the 2013 and 2014 SBNC nomination cycles.  Select minutes from meetings held during earlier years are also missing.   And the critical minutes for the February 18, 2015 meeting that include the SBNC commissioners’ voting records are still missing more than three months after that vote.

The commissioners approved an electronic version of the February 18, 2015 minutes without dissent at the start of the June 16, 2015  SBNC meeting, at which time the approved minutes were already on the computer of the SBNC’s legal counsel. Immediately after the minutes were approved, during the meeting break, and after the meeting, I asked her to email me a copy of the minutes on the computer directly in front of her, but she refused to do so, saying it wasn’t within her power to do so.


Postscript: The SBNC’s legal counsel finally sent me the February 18, 2015 minutes at 12:45 pm on June 26, 2015.

Source: Snider, J.H., The Lame Duck Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission’s Power Grab; J.H. Snider’s SBNC testimony on June 24, 2015, plus an analysis of the election results and reflections on the end of the “Jones” Commission, Anne Arundel Patch, June 26, 2015.


Addendum:  The Capital‘s Michael Collins has received emails with a copy of these posts for several years.  It was good to see him follow up on my latest to him with a column in the Capital: Collins, Michael, School Panel has Conflicts of Interest, Capital, August 4, 2015.  The online version has a different title: “Right Stuff: School Board Nominating Commission’s judgment suspect.”  He messed up on some of the details, but I certainly agree that the “panel has conflicts of interest.”