Caucus to review procedure School board vote stirs controversy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Amid claims that national religious groups circumvented the rules to get their candidate nominated to the Harford school board, the 33-year-old nominating process is about to be revamped.

Leaders of the Permanent Nominating Caucus plan to meet tomorrow to begin their review, said Dee Schuette, the chairwoman.

The caucus drew criticism when the Harford teachers union demanded a new vote, citing "a deliberate effort by religious groups to stack the deck" to secure the nomination of the candidate they backed, H. Everett Smith.

The union, the Harford County Education Association, charged that some delegates cast ballots in the May 13 election under the names of groups they did not represent. The union also said some groups unfamiliar with school issues did not register until the last minute, and the caucus had no way to determine whether delegates actually represented the groups they said they did.

Credentials of groups registering have never been checked, said Mrs. Schuette. "I guess that is something we will have to do next. We just always trusted groups and assumed people would do the honorable thing," she said.

Mrs. Schuette said her suggestions on reforms will include requiring advance registration of two delegates and two alternates for each member group and ending the practice of substituting registered delegates with people not previously registered.

The controversy centers on whether members of conservative groups, including the Concerned Women for America and the American Family Association, should have been allowed to review registration lists and find last-minute substitutes for delegates who had not signed in.

The caucus, composed of various civic groups, including PTAs and churches, voted to nominate Mr. Smith to the school board's Bel Air seat, with 94 votes. Incumbent Anne D. Sterling, the board president, placed second with 85 votes. The other candidates, Kimberly Lynn Keene and Janet Bush Handy, each received eight votes.

The caucus sends the top two nominations to the governor, who makes the final appointment. The governor, while not bound by the caucus's recommendation, almost always goes with its first choice.

Mrs. Schuette said 108 groups, of 112 registered, attended the May 13 caucus. Ballots were given to 197 delegates, and 196 cast votes, she said. "The numbers speak for themselves," she said. "The vote proves that there was no ballot-stuffing."

Mrs. Schuette said that this year's caucus drew the largest turnout ever -- up from 80 groups last year. Each group is eligible to send two delegates.

Last-minute substitutes

But delegates from conservative religious groups were accused of scurrying to find last-minute substitutes when some groups sent only one delegate to the meeting.

Members of the conservative groups who attended the caucus denied any impropriety.

Kathy Carmello, a delegate for the Bel Air Middle School PTA, said she heard other delegates talking about the number of votes they needed to get Mr. Smith elected. And, she said, they worried about finding people at the last minute to replace no-shows. She also said she heard delegates say, "We've got to get more votes. See who you can call to come."

Mr. Smith said he appreciated the support he received, but denied he was a "plant" from any particular group.

"Nobody owns me. I'm my own man," he said. "I don't represent any group, but I fully intend to represent the children of Harford County."

Mr. Smith said that the votes he received represented not only church groups, but community organizations and PTAs as well. He said his work and other experience qualify him for the job.

He said that like the other candidates, he encouraged people to join the caucus, listen to the candidates and vote for the person they believed would do the best job.

Lobbying for candidates is not unusual, Mrs. Schuette said. And substituting a delegate the night of the caucus because someone originally registered couldn't attend does not violate the caucus bylaws, she said.

But, she said, delegates looking at the registration list at the last minute, then trying to fill empty spots, violates the spirit of the caucus.

"That, to me, speaks of their integrity," said Mrs. Schuette. "The groups who violated the caucus's trust should be looking at what they did."

NB Perhaps the caucus should not have been so trusting, she said.

Never checked delegates

Mrs. Schuette, a caucus volunteer for more than 20 years, said the caucus has always operated under a code of honor and has never had to ask for delegate identification.

"It was always a matter of trust, a forthright, upfront process -- that has always been our procedure," she said. "There was no way of anticipating this. Obviously, some people were taking advantage of the process, and that saddens me greatly."

She said the caucus allows people interested in education to seek an appointed position on the school board. The caucus sponsors a candidates' night to provide caucus members with an opportunity to become familiar with the candidates and question them before voting.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said she would support Mrs. Sterling for the board seat because of the "excellent" working relationship the two had. But Mrs. Rehrmann said claims that special-interest groups corrupted the caucus to get Mr. Smith nominated had nothing to do with her support of Mrs. Sterling.

Sen. Habern W. Freeman Jr., Harford's county executive from 1982 to 1990, sought in the past to change the way the school board is chosen. He said that the caucus has done a fairly good job, but that it was just a matter of time "before the fiasco that happened last week occurred."

Under the 34th District Democrat's proposal, which he said he would introduce again in the Maryland legislature, the Permanent Nominating Caucus would send its nominations to a seven-member executive committee that would make final choices, removing the governor from the process.

Mr. Freeman said such a committee, with representatives from the County Council, the Harford County Farm Bureau and the county teachers union, would make the school board less political and more responsive to the community.

"An executive board could oversee the process and make sure that no narrowly focused special-interest group could dominate the process," he said.

But, he added, whenever there's a close vote, "there is always a lot of screaming and yelling, whether it takes place in South America or in Harford County.

"The groups that normally stack the deck got the deck stacked against them," Mr. Freeman said. "The ones who are complaining have done the same thing in the past."

Favors changes

Jeffrey D. Wilson, the County Council president, said he supports Senator Freeman's suggestion for revamping the caucus.

"The problems at the caucus are state problems, not an issue that the county has any say over whatsoever," he said.

Jean Thomas, president of the county teachers union, said the credibility of the caucus has been eroded.

"I regret that I have had to be part of that erosion, but if the caucus is going to remain credible, it must take steps to protect that credibility," she said.

Mrs. Thomas, who did not attend the nomination meeting, said she asked for a new vote in a letter to the caucus based on reports from two union representatives, Sheron Lumsden and Elizabeth Burley, delegates at the May 13 forum.

Mrs. Thomas said that based on the information she has received, there is no assurance the vote is representative of the participating groups.

"It might be, but there remains a question in my mind, and because of that question, I believe the caucus should reconvene, using a more stringent balloting process" she said. "If the outcome is the same, then so be it."

Andre A. Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, also called for a change in the balloting procedures.

"Caucus members have done an excellent job for years, but society has changed, and that dictates changes of the election process," he said.

Both Mr. Fournier and Mrs. Thomas suggest stricter registration requirements, including preregistration, and proper identification when signing for ballots.

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