CAP Hosts Panel on Diversity in Local Government

What can citizens and voters do about under-representation in Washington County government?

On February 25th, Citizens Above Partisanship hosted a panel discussion of this question at Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown. The event was attended by CAP members and concerned Washington County residents and was covered by local media.

CAP believes that our local leaders must be representative of the diversity of the entire population in order to understand the diverse challenges we face. Increasing diversity in local government is one of our long-range priorities, and hosting this discussion was a step toward being in a position to encourage and support a diverse and qualified pool of candidates for the 2020 election and beyond.

Panelists included:

  • Harry Jones, former Democratic candidate for County Commissioner
  • Sandra Oblitas, Director of the Kasandra Cultural Center
  • Andrew Barnhart, former Green Party candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates
  • Donna Brightman, former Chair of the Board of Education and Democratic candidate for County Commissioner

In the nonpartisan spirit of our organization, the discussion was moderated by Scott Bryan, former Republican candidate for County Commissioner and current CAP Candidates and Issues Coordinator.

Asked about the effects lack of diversity has on communities in Washington County, Jones pointed out that elected officials rarely engage with communities outside their own once elected. They don’t take the aches and pains of those communities seriously, he said, because they are not their own aches and pains. This leads to a lack of understanding of the challenges different communities face, and a failure of confidence among voters that government will work for their best interests.

Brightman and Barnhart both talked about structural barriers to broader participation in government, including the party-based primary system and the plurality voting method. Open primaries, ranked choice voting, and districted County Commissioner seats were all discussed as possible ways to overcome those barriers. Brightman also pointed out the newly formed Diversity Commission as a hopeful sign.

Oblitas, who immigrated from Bolivia in 2002, talked about the need for better communication channels to reach potential voters who may not understand the value of voting. She admitted that she would like to see a member of the Latino community in elected office, regardless of party affiliation, because such a person would understand the needs and concerns of that community in a way that is difficult for people outside of it. Both she and Brightman also lamented the lack of women in local government, with Brightman pointing out that there have been only three female County Commissioners in the county’s history.

The panel concluded with audience Q & A and a discussion of what citizens might do to encourage more diversity in local government. Jones summarized the answer to that question nicely with a call to get personally involved, saying, “in order to get change, you have to be willing to make change.” We agree – democracy takes work, and we’re grateful to all our panelists for taking the time to work with us.

 

CAP on A Miner Detail Podcast

Citizens Above Partisanship’s participation in a panel discussion at The Flying Camel on Sunday, February 3 was a clear indication that CAP is making progress for cooperative government in Washington County. The event was moderated by Ryan Miner of A Miner Detail and broadcast through A Miner Detail Podcast. Panelists were CAP board members Kira Hamman, Ken Buckler, and Scott Bryan. There were more than 20 people in attendance and more than 200 viewers of the online podcast, plus many online comments. CAP members had an opportunity to discuss CAP goals and core principles – ethics, education and the economy – and talk about the recent election and the state of local politics. Click here to listen to the conversation.

Kira Hamman, CAP Chair, pointed out that Republicans have a plurality in Washington County, but not a majority; there are a lot of third party and unaffiliated voters. Therefore, the community is poised for change, and the response to CAP has been visceral. CAP is working for a more cooperative democracy in which politicians work across political differences for the common good. Hamman added that CAP is not against partisanship, but above partisanship, meaning that the organization stays out of partisan politics and puts the community above party affiliation. She also criticized hyper-partisanship and the demonization of parties other than one’s own, which she said has no role to play in local government.

Communications Director Ken Buckler mentioned that the last two election cycles saw a lot of fear-mongering.  He said that on social media, there was a sentiment that supporting the Governor and the President necessarily meant supporting local Republican candidates and actively opposing Democratic and third-party candidates. CAP is working to counter that idea. Buckler also made the important point that CAP has many new people coming to meetings, and that our focus is on providing information and content that is not only educational but also highly engaging. CAP is on Facebook and Twitter, has a website with articles about local issues and a calendar of relevant local events, and will soon launch an Instagram feed. When citizens engage with the organization via any of those channels, or by coming to meetings, they become more invested in the community and in cooperative government.

Scott Bryan, Chair of the CAP Candidates and Issues Committee, emphasized that CAP is not telling people what to believe but is raising issues to talk at the local level and educating people about things that matter locally. He added that what draws him to CAP is his belief that if you want to make a difference in politics at the local level, you can do it with a group like CAP. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” he said, to an enthusiastic response from the audience.

The event illustrated that CAP’s message resonates with the community and is spreading among its citizens. We are grateful to Miner for inviting us onto his show, and to The Flying Camel for hosting us. Democracy takes work, and everyone at Sunday’s event was putting in that work.

We Must Do Better Than Hyper-Partisan Politics

By John Krowka

The following originally appeared as a letter to the editor in the Herald-Mail on November 16.

 

To the editor:

I wish to thank everyone who supported my campaign for Washington County Public Schools’ Board of Education and also thank the nearly 15,000 residents* who voted for me. Many thanks to Simala Wright, my treasurer, adviser and friend. Having an ex-Army sergeant guiding our efforts greatly helped keep us on track. Although we did not win, together we made a difference. We stimulated discussion and awareness. My campaign platform resonated well with residents: smart school spending, preparing students for jobs, community engagement and embracing diversity. I hope that the board members will take heed of my recommendations and I wish them success.

It appears that many voters chose a straight party ticket. Given the history of elections here and the hyper-partisan politics nationally, that’s not surprising. Perhaps in the future, voters can base their decisions more on merit and policies rather than party. About 47 percent of registered voters in Washington County did not vote. We must do better.

I heard frequently that voters felt that the Board of Education lacks vision. Long-term planning is much more effective than just crisis management. Instead of only asking “What do we need to do today?” we need to also ask, “Where do we want to be in five-10-plus years and how can we get there?” Graduation rates and test scores don’t tell us how well WCPS prepares students for achievement and ability to contribute to our community. Schools, community groups, teachers, parents and others are being asked to provide more resources and services for school children. Schools are the engine of workforce development to increase our tax base by attracting new industry and increasing workers’ earning potential. County commissioners and state representatives need to be better advocates for education. We must start working together more effectively for the children. They are the future of Washington County.

 

John Krowka

Boonsboro

*As of the final vote tally, Krowka had received 16,058 votes.

After the Election

By Greg Murray, Treasurer to the Donna Brightman campaign

What can we say about the election? Well, we knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to get a female Democrat elected to the Board of County Commissioners in Washington County. Even so, the goal was to get the message of change out to the public and help shed light on all the issues that any candidate would need to address. That happened. Washington County is the better for it.

Looking at the vote tallies it’s obvious that the party line carried the day, but what did that say? First, the five Republicans were followed by two female Democrats – Donna Brightman and Elizabeth Paul. Their voices were heard. Second, two new Board members were seated – Cort Meinelschmidt and Randy Wagner. And third, the voters overwhelmingly chose a new president for the Board, with the potential that the vice president will be one of the new members rather than an incumbent (pending final tallies, and of course the new Board must actually elect the new officers). Change carried the day. The voters wanted a different direction on the Board and they got it. Again, this is good for Washington County.

After 40 years as a Republican (I hear many of you groan), I saw in Donna Brightman someone who really understood the need to get the county back on track, and she helped make that happen. The outcome may not have been everything we wanted, but it also was not unexpected. We wanted to make change, and change was made.

Now it is up to the new leadership to carry that change forward for the betterment of Washington County. We support them in that. Hopefully we can put the nonsense aside and truly get back to business.

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.

 

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?