CAP Discusses Board of Education

Citizens Above Partisanship is focusing on two critical local races in the 2018 election cycle: Board of County Commissioners and Board of Education. At our October and November meetings we heard from speakers whose experience was relevant to the first race; at our most recent meeting, held January 22, we hosted speakers with Board of Education experience.

Panelists at the meeting were two past presidents of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Joy Schaefer and Donna Brightman. In addition to their experience leading MABE, Schaefer and Brightman are both past presidents of their local Boards of Education, in Frederick and Washington Counties respectively. A third planned speaker, Verjeana Jacobs, was unable to attend due to an emergency.

Both speakers stressed the nonpartisan nature of Boards of Education. Members “have to be concerned about every single kid in every single school,” said Schaefer, recommending that voters look for candidates who are talking about all students. Good Board of Education members are forward thinking and “in it for the long haul,” understanding that the work they do today may not pay off until long after their terms have ended. “Unfortunately, education has become politicized,” she said. “We need thoughtful, deliberative people who will not be swayed by the noise.”

Brightman mentioned several important structural and administrative features of Boards of Education, including the fact that members are state-level officials and are not beholden to local officials. In theory, this prevents the kind of politicization that Schaefer talked about, and Brightman said she would like to see a return to a truly nonpartisan Board of Education in Washington County. She also mentioned the unusually wide range of responsibilities of Board members, from budgeting to policymaking to adjudicating complaints and appeals. Because members have no staff to rely on, they must be prepared to handle all those responsibilities effectively themselves.

The Board of Education race fits perfectly into CAP’s mission to rise above partisan politics. We seek forward-thinking candidates who have a positive vision for public education in our county. In the months to come, we will support those whose vision will serve the common good, irrespective of party affiliation. Follow us to stay informed as we learn more.B & S panel audience

Washington County’s Ethics Fail

It was with disappointment, if not surprise, that we read the findings of the county Ethics Commission released late last week.

Where to begin? With the leaking of a document clearly classified as confidential by the county’s own Harassment Policy? With the decision that said leak was not unethical because it was not for “private gain,” a caveat that is nowhere mentioned in the policy itself? Perhaps with the twin decision that misleading the public by selectively leaking incomplete information is also perfectly ethical, for the same reason. Maybe we should begin with the county’s Ethics Ordinance, which deals almost exclusively with financial disclosure. Or with the murky Ethics Commission itself, appointed by the very commissioners it was charged to investigate. Apparently the entirety of Washington County government believes that nothing is unethical unless it leads to personal financial gain. As they say, foll­­­­­ow the money.

In any case, clearly nobody wants to begin where it actually began, with the allegations of gross misconduct brought against Commissioner LeRoy Myers. Oh, a powerful man made unwanted sexual advances toward a subordinate woman? Yawn. Nothing unethical about that.

Aristotle conceived of ethical behavior as the “good action” which is necessary for living a virtuous life. Ethical judgements are complex. We get that. Nevertheless, by any measure save their own, the Board of County Commissioners is an ethical failure.

Citizens Above Partisanship’s statement of priorities calls ethical considerations “the highest, philosophical level of our democracy;” the one that guides all our other priorities. “Ethics are a manifestation of our common values and our commitment to shared humanity,” the statement goes on. The necessity of doing the difficult, messy work of making local government reflect those values and commitment has never been more evident.

We call on the Board of County Commissioners to establish a robust, confidential reporting structure for ethics violations and a meaningfully independent Ethics Commission to handle such reports. If the current Board is unable or unwilling to do so, then we call on them to step aside for candidates who will. Good government presupposes selfless commitment to a common good. If our current commissioners cannot concretely demonstrate that they have that commitment, then we will elect commissioners who can.

 

November CAP Meeting: Keller & Gysberts Say County Needs “Vision”

Many thanks to Hagerstown City Councilwoman Emily Keller and former Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts for joining us at our November 27 meeting in Boonsboro. In conversation with CAP’s own Chip Cook, Keller and Gysberts discussed the qualities that make a good local politician, the relationship between the City of Hagerstown and the rest of Washington County, the opioid crisis, and their priorities as politicians and as citizens.

Gysberts said that, as a politician, “you have to have something you’re for, not just something you’re against… a vision for where you want your community to go.” He emphasized the importance of fiscal responsibility in achieving that vision. “Budgets are a reflection of… values and priorities,” he said, and it’s the job of the mayor and the council to guide municipal spending in a way that reflects and supports those values and priorities.

Keller talked about the importance of connecting with constituents and trying to stand in their shoes. She recalled doing a ride-along with each city department when she was first elected last year. She spoke of the experience as fun but eye-opening. “How can I make a good decision about what the police need if I haven’t seen what they really do?” she asked. A council member needs to talk to all stakeholders in order to figure out the impact that a decision will have on varied constituencies. She admitted that the job is more time-consuming than she had anticipated, but it’s work that “has to be done. I just drag my daughter along with me,” she said with a smile. An engaged citizen from a young age!

Both speakers reiterated the need to “put in the time” and “do your homework,” themes that emerged during former County Administrator Greg Murray’s visit at our October meeting. Both also decried the lack of action from the County Commissioners on the opioid epidemic facing not just Hagerstown but all of Washington County and, indeed, the entire country. It’s not simply that the commissioners are not dealing with the problem, they said, but that they seem to not even realize a problem exists.

Gysberts recalled a current commissioner remarking at the opening ceremony for the new Washington County Free Library building that it was “the biggest, most expensive homeless shelter we could have built.” It is exactly this kind of dismissive attitude toward fellow citizens that Citizens Above Partisanship seeks to remove from county politics. We thank Keller and Gysberts for their time spent helping us understand how we might best go about doing that.

Healthy Democracy

We introduced ourselves to Washington County in a letter to the Herald Mail on October 14. You can read it here. Or you can read the unedited version:

One day not long after the most recent presidential inauguration, two friends bumped into each other at the grocery store. Over the apples, they talked of their shared despair at the state of political discourse in our country, and of their shared desire to do something – anything, really – to raise the level of that discourse. Raising it at the national level seemed an impossible task, but perhaps something could be done to raise it here at home, in Washington County. There was a time in the not-too-distant past that they both remembered fondly, when people of all political stripes would work together to make our county a pleasant place for everyone who lives here. They looked at the current state of county and municipal governments and no longer saw that cooperation across differences, and they wondered if they could bring it back.

They went home and called a few friends who they knew shared these concerns. These friends were themselves from all over the political spectrum, but they shared a desire to see rationality and civility return to politics. The friends were interested.

So one night in March, they all got together for a glass of wine and a chat. There were over a dozen of them. They talked about how best to achieve this goal of rationality and civility in politics, and they agreed that something more than wine and chatting (pleasant though that is) was called for. Something organized. An organization.

Over the next six months, they met monthly, rotating among the homes of the members. New people joined the group, friends and neighbors who had heard about the work the new organization was planning and wanted to be part of it. By August, the group numbered about 50, and it had a name: Citizens Above Partisanship. In early September, it became a registered political action committee with the State of Maryland.

Citizens Above Partisanship (CAP) is a diverse, nonpartisan, grassroots coalition of Washington County residents who are committed to working across political differences to do the difficult, messy work necessary to support a healthy democracy that serves the needs of all its members.

We value civility, collaboration, and compromise.

We prioritize ethics, education, and the economy.

We believe in facts and the unbiased interpretation of facts.

We believe that rational people can disagree rationally, and that such disagreement is a necessary part of a participatory democracy.

We believe that people are individuals and should be treated as such.

We insist on real conversation about real issues and reject antagonism and posturing from all perspectives.

We strive to listen to what people are actually saying, rather than hearing what we expect them to say.

We work together to identify obstacles to political cooperation in Washington County and remove them.

We provide opportunities for rational people from all viewpoints to work together in pursuit of policies and practices in line with our values and beliefs.

We support qualified candidates for local office who support those values and beliefs, both in their campaigns and in their work once elected.

And we act as a watchdog to call out threats to and breaches of those values and beliefs.

Democracy takes work. Will you join us?