Legislative governance is not Kabuki theater
Brother Mike Blaska was renowned for his expertise in parliamentary procedure chairing the Dane County Board of Supervisors. He later taught the subject to county boards across the state.
“People appreciate a well run meeting,” he said.
That does not mean a rehearsed and scripted meeting, edited for television and formatted to fit the screen. But neither does it mean a free-for-all where mob action drives citizens from the chambers fearing for their safety — as occurs monthly at the Madison Board of Education.
It frustrates the white lab coats here at Blaska Policy Werkes that the WI State Journal and the WI Freedom of Information Council fret that individual Madison school board members may do an informational sit-down with the superintendent of schools. Sunday’s news headline reads: “Madison schools test limits of open government with private board member meetings.” THAT is the big issue at Madison schools?
Individually or in pairs, Madison School Board members spend hours each year in private “board briefings” with Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, discussing matters soon to come before the full board for votes that must be held in public.
The fear is that these sit downs might amount to prohibited “walking quorums” — that being defined as a number of members below the threshold required to establish a legal quorum (in the case of the Madison Board of Education — four of the seven total membership).
Walking quorums are illegal because they can “render the publicly held meeting a mere formality,” the Wisconsin attorney general’s office is quoted.
Under state law, school boards and other local public bodies must have a quorum — typically a majority or more — of members to take official action, and the action they take must occur in publicly noticed meetings. However, as Chris Rickert reports, no decisions are taken at the sit-downs with the superintendent. Certainly, an opinion could be formed — but that could occur brushing one’s teeth in the morning.
Laws and sausages
Here, however, the Werkes must acknowledge Bismarck’s observation about laws and sausages. Let’s just say: It’s messy.
It is lollipops and rainbows to think that a legislator (such as a school board member) comes into a meeting cold, uninformed, devoid of opinion before rendering his/her vote. Just not human nature.
School board members are the district’s board of directors. They should sit down with their chief executive. It is their duty to be informed.
Members must also be allowed to talk to other members. Not just arrayed around the council table but over the telephone, in the coffee house, and walking down the hallway. They are not sequestered from each other. They are not jurors in a criminal case. In “The Good Legislature,” the National Conference of State Legislatures posits:
The deliberative process is not restricted to the debate (or lack thereof) that goes on … on the senate and house floor. It is also a vital element of committee activity and continues in the frequent and unstructured exchanges in members’ offices, leadership conferences, at lunch, and in the corridors of the state house or legislative office building.
The law ultimately requires only that the vote of a governmental body be held in the open, properly noticed and recorded. How they got to that vote is mostly unknowable and, unless it involves outright bribery, immaterial.
The heckler’s veto
That openness is frustrated when a committed special interest group like Freedom Inc. abuses the open meeting laws as a tactic to eat up hours of time haranguing the school board, intimidating those with whom they disagree and, ultimately, shutting down the meeting. These suggestions:
• Have disrupters arrested. Not at the meeting. They want to be dragged out screaming “The whole word is watching” as they record their well rehearsed martyrdom. Instead, have the ring leaders arrested the next day and charged with disorderly conduct.
• Board president Mary Burke says she wishes she could respond to the public comments. She can. Put an item on the agenda called “Response to public comments.” No action would be taken, just response, which (in any case) good government demands.
• Set aside a special, public-comment only meeting. Follow up the next day with a no-comment action meeting. Even making the community cable TV audience wait two hours is an imposition.
• Restrict comments to Madison school district residents only. It is appalling that the board allowed comments from Milwaukee residents and that half the commenters do not bother to fill out the appearance forms — many just listing a first name.
• Do not let an issue fester. We’re past three years and counting on cops in schools. Get off the pot and move on.
• For true and open debate, elect someone from outside the Madison liberal-progressive-socialist bubble. (Not that we had anyone in mind, understand.)
Blaska’s Bottom Line: Let’s see how the new school board fares at tonight’s (04-29-19) meeting 6 p.m. at Chavez elementary school. You can watch live here.