19 December 2006

If CA Board Members Type, Can We Hear it?

I have been struggling with a letter to the editor published in the December 14, 2006 Columbia Flier. It appears that CA Board members elected to bring greater openness to CA have been discussing CA issues via email. When a former board member raised concern about this practice, the response was to attack the person that brought the issue to light. The letter was authored by Barbara Russell and Phil Marcus and reads as follows:


Former board member's own history includes caucus

Recently, Mr. Jud Malone complained in these pages about a "secret meeting in a secret caucus" by five members of the Columbia Association's board of directors. Anyone who has served on any board or similar body knows that meeting in a caucus of less than a quorum is extremely common, whether by phone, e-mail or in person, to achieve a common view. So we wonder what the uproar is about.

We are all the more puzzled since Mr. Malone, during his term on the same board, as a member of a caucus of five members that discussed who should be elected board chair and other matters. That group also included Joshua Feldmark (who became chair), Wolfger Schneider and the undersigned.

What I find most troubling is that last spring we had a little thing called an election (and in the interest of full disclosure, I ran for office in that election, and lost). Reports in the local papers indicated the outcome of the elections (in the competitive races) was based on voters wanting more openness from the CA Board. Then newly elected CA Board member Phil Kirsch was quoted as saying, “I think the two victories send a clear message that (voters) are looking for
better communication and openness”

Fast forward to today, and we find that Mr. Kirsch, along with his freshman comrades Cindy Coyle and Gail Broida (in addition to Barbara Russell and Phil Marcus) appear to prefer debating, discussing, and deciding issues (aka “achieving a common view”) via email, away from the eyes and ears of the electorate.

As stated in Mr. Marcus’ and Ms. Russell’s letter, this has been done in the past. In fact, the issue of email has come up before the CA Board as it is currently constituted. In the July 18, 2006 Baltimore Examiner, an article by Laura Greenback (Columbia Association board debates e-mail use ), states:


However, at least one board member said the board uses e-mail as a forum for
debate.

“Why bother to fight in front of people when we can look
like we know what we are talking about, and be more comfortable with our
position, if we talk through e-mail?” Board Member Cindy Coyle said.

Now, I want to be cautious here. Many people get misquoted in the paper, but if this quote is accurate, I am very concerned. I am only one person in this town, but it is my opinion that people on the CA Board should know what they are talking about, and if they don’t know what they are talking about, we should know that, so we can vote them off the board. There should be no “look like we know what we are talking about.”

In an interesting side note, when I first read this article, I brought this concern about CA Board email (and phone) discussions to the Wilde Lake Village Board. The following is an excerpt from the August 7, 2006 Wilde Lake Village Board minutes (note: scroll down about 70% to find them).

RESIDENT SPEAKOUT
Mr. Santos was also concerned about CA conducting votes and discussions via email or by phone, since these discussions occur out of the public view. Mr. Santos suggested that the Village Board comment on this to CA. Ms. Pivar noted that there was an email discussion about opening the pools during a heat emergency; however, it was an open discussion and no vote was taken. The Board agreed that it is bad public process to vote or discuss policy via email or phone.

So apparently CA board “caucus discussion” emails can at times involve Village
Board members such as Ms. Pivar. Given that the emails have never been made public, I still don’t know what an “open” email discussion is.

Also of note in Examiner article is a passage attributed to Mr. Marcus:

Board member Phil Marcus said the group should post its discussions on a blog that is accessible to residents. “There should be such a forum, where speed and convenience is available,” Marcus said. He said the board is “not playing by the rules” when it uses e-mail to talk about issues such as selecting a consultant to form an energy cooperative.

I would be interested to hear how Mr. Marcus reconciles his “not playing by the rules” statement in July 2006 with his “a caucus of less than a quorum is extremely common, whether by phone, e-mail or in person” letter in December 2006. For the record, Mr. Marcus has a publicly accessible blog. When I last checked, he had not posted any emails regarding “caucus discussions.”

In closing, it is apparent that less than a majority of the CA Board has been discussing at least employment contracts, opening pools during heat emergencies and the selection process for consultants via email. Moreover, it is not known if any other topics were discussed or what other parties have been included in these email discussions (CA staff? Consultants? Village Board members?). It seems to me that the practice is neither open nor accessible, and the voters are not getting what they asked for. In fact, if these board members had told the voters in their respective villages that they believed in openness, but would relegate the discussion of issues to email among CA Board members to “achieve a common view,” I am not certain they would be serving as board members today.

3 comments:

Phil Kirsch said...

Bill is of course entitled to his own opinions but he is not entitled to his own facts. Here are a few facts:

There is no state law or CA policy that prohibits people from getting together to discuss any issue. In fact the first amendment to the constitution guarantees that right. There is a state law that prohibits the a majority of the CA Board from holding an unannounced meeting. Five is not a majority of the CA Board.

I have voted against closing CA Board meetings more than any other CA Board member this year. This is a matter of record. The vote to close every CA Board meeting is included in the announcement of the closed meeting.

There was only one item were CA Board members were asked to approve by phone a CA position on a matter before the County Council. I was the only CA Board member who did not agree to take a position on this item.

I was responsible for a policy that allows CA to release confidential information without going into a closed meeting.

CA has had fewer closed meeting this year than in previous years.

I admit to using email to ask question and request information from CA Board members, CA staff and the public at large. I have used the phone for the same purpose. I also admit to using the the information I obtained for discussion and decision making at CA Board meeting.

I admit to giving my view freely to CA Board members, CA staff, and members of the public even when I am not in a Board meeting.

Phil Kirsch,
CA Council Representative
Wilde Lake

B. Santos said...

Phil,

Thanks for your comments on this blog. Your participation is truly appreciated. You and I have a relationship going back a few years and I have always felt the relationship was of mutual respect. You are a good man. It is because of this that it pains me to see you in this current position.

The items you state above are laudable, and I appreciate your efforts with regard to closed meetings. I also applaud your efforts to reach out to fellow board members, CA staff, and residents to obtain a greater understanding of the issues before the board. The CA Board learning curve is steep and I encourage the acquisition (or dispensing) of knowledge via electronic or any other means.

Beyond that, I believe you and I differ in opinion. I am always leery of people who begin their arguments of “well, it’s legal,” or “the law says I can do that.” With respect to a leadership position (such as a CA Board member), the test should not be only “is it legal?” but also “is it right?” Granted, the “is it right” test is not clearly defined, and may never be, but this test, however imperfect, must be applied.

Staying on the legal topic, I am a bit confused at to your inclusion of the 1st amendment in this discussion. This is not about your right to speak (quite frankly, I wish you would speak more). This about the electorate’s (for lack of a better word) right to hear what you say.

As I said, your record on closed meetings is clear, but the analogy I am struggling with is as follows:

Suppose an individual commits to a diet for the purpose of losing weight. As part of the diet, the individual abstains from eating cookies, cake, and ice cream. However, the same individual begins to each chocolate as a greater proportion of their diet. As the weeks go by, no weight is lost.

In other words, the CA Board has limited closed meetings (no cookies), but at the same time, it has continued (and possibly increased?) to deliberate and decide issues beyond the public’s eyes and ears (more chocolate).

Based on the contents of a widely circulated and reported email message, it appears that you and your cohorts did far more than discuss and issue. Decisions were made. Decisions that, (even though less than a quorum was involved) should have been (in my opinion) made in a public forum.

I will conclude this comment with a brief discussion of the closed meeting issue. Yes, it is true that there have been less closed meetings this year, something that I believe pleases most residents. However, there is a caveat to this accomplishment. In the last few years, the CA Board has taken on some issues that are directly addressed by the Homeowner’s Association Act as reasons for closing meetings, so there was a greater potential for a closed meeting. Should they all have been closed meetings? I think you and I have the same point of view on that question (NO!). Was it legal? (ahh, yes the legal excuse cuts both ways, now doesn’t it?). In my opinion, yes. So we get back to “is it right?” test. I hope that you can see the parallel structure with respect to closed meetings and email debates and decisions. I also hope you will champion eliminating these type of email discussions with same fervor that you and I campaigned against closed meetings last spring.

Anonymous said...

You can't possibly believe that you can elect ANYone who "knows what they are talking about" on every issue that will come before them. AND.. even if they were well versed in most of the issues they will confront as an elected person- wouldn't you hope that they kept an open mind and that they would benefit from debate and interaction? So then, doesn't the question really come down to- not whether or not someone is smart enough to engage in debate to help them articulate an informed opinion- but whether or not email is the appropriate place for such debate?

I think you have a point that group emails to Board members may prohibit important debate and discourse from being part of a public process. (After all, don't citizens also need the benefit of debate and discourse to articulate informed opinions?)

But maligning debate because you expect your elected to already be well-informed is the wrong argument to make.

Group emails could be public domain. Debate could take place on a public bulletin board. Ideally- all Board members- as well as county council members- should feel comfortable to engage in discourse, questions, answers, and vigorous debate in public meetings... unfortunately.. comments like yours- indicating you expect folks to know it all upon election- will always discourage this from happening.