In theory, people who want to run in Baltimore County’s first-ever school board election have more than two weeks to file their paperwork.
But the practical deadline is coming much more quickly. And that’s a problem, because so far only five people have signed up to run for the seven open seats.
Officially, candidates have until 9 p.m. on Feb. 27 to file with the county board of elections.
But they can’t complete that paperwork until after the school system’s ethics review panel has confirmed they have properly completed financial disclosure forms.
The catch? The ethics panel meets only once a month. And its last meeting before the filing deadline is Thursday.
That gives candidates just three more days to complete, sign and deliver the 17-page forms to the panel for review.
“It’s really important to get it done early,” said former Randallstown High School Principal Cheryl Pasteur, running for the board from Pikesville. “If you miss that you are pretty much left up the creek.”
So what will happen to candidates who fail to file their forms with the ethics panel before Thursday? It’s not clear yet.
Katie Brown, director of the county board of elections, did not return calls and emails seeking comment. But candidates who have filed said they have received calls and emails reminding them about the disclosure approval requirement.
But those alerts have been confusing.
“For a candidate to appear in the 2018 election, they must file a calendar year 2017 updated financial disclosure prior to March 1st or they will be removed from the ballot,” the board advises in an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun. “We would prefer that updated disclosures are filed prior to February 27th.”
The email makes no mention of the ethics panel. The instructions on the school system’s website are slightly more specific.
“After you file your Financial Disclosure Statement with the Ethics Review Panel and it has been deemed complete, you will receive a receipt verifying that you have filed a completed Statement,” the system says. “RETAIN THIS RECEIPT. It must be filed with the Board of Supervisors of Elections.”
But there is no mention that the review panel meets only once a month.
“That’s some ancient language,” said Donna Duncan, an assistant deputy administrator at Maryland’s Board of Elections. “There hasn’t been a board of supervisors of elections since 1999.”
“You can’t stop someone from filing for office,” Duncan said. “If that’s the case, they’re imposing a different deadline” than Feb. 27.
Ethics review panel member T. Ross Mackesey said the panel is likely to discuss a system for processing forms submitted after the Thursday meeting and before Feb. 27. The panel could meet again before the deadline or establish some other review process.
But, he added, “I haven’t heard of anything yet.”
Neither the panel’s chairman nor its attorney returned calls seeking comment.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican running for county executive, said he believes the ethics panel’s manual review process could be “unconstitutional” if it prevents candidates from filing.
“There is a chance they could be denied access to the ballot,” McDonough said.
Lily Rowe, who has declared her candidacy but has not formally filed yet, is upset by the confusion.
“Nowhere in the document by the school system does it explain that they only meet once a month and that you don’t get the receipt until after that meeting,” said Rowe, president of the Greater Hillendale Community Association. “And it doesn’t even say how many days before the filing deadline a person should do this process in order to expect the signed receipt on time.
“I’m not even sure it’s compliant with election laws because it gives the Board of Education’s ethics review panel the ability to prevent candidates from filing simply by dragging their feet,” Rowe said.
Michael Lord, executive director of the state ethics commission, said the county’s process is compliant with the election disclosure process.
“Even at the state level [candidates] have to file the financial disclosure form before the board of elections will accept the candidacy,” Lord said.
But there is one big difference.
The state ethics disclosure process is fully automated. Candidates complete the forms online and receive a receipt in minutes, not days.
The confusion has frustrated the lawmakers and advocates who pushed for the 2014 law that established the new school board format, a hybrid board of seven elected and four appointed members.
The Sun reported last month that county election officials did not have a clear understanding about the new election process. They initially could not say whether candidates for the nonpartisan seats will appear on the June 26 primary ballots or just the Nov. 6 general election ballots.
Only five candidates have filed their candidacies in the seven County Council districts. Two districts had no candidates as of Friday.
Applications are currently being accepted from people who want to be nominated for the appointed seats.
“It’s very frustrating as a lawmaker that we worked as hard as we did to make sure people have a say in their school district and a lot of people still don’t know about the election,” said state Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat running for county executive. “There has to be a way to let people know the deadline is [Feb. 27].”
Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Towson Democrat, said the ethics review situation “sounds crazy to me.” He is equally “befuddled” by the lack of candidates.
“I’d like to see a very robust group of candidates,” he said. “I don’t know what may be holding people back. I think part of it is, it’s a big job.”
School board member Julie Henn, who has filed to run for the elected seat in the Perry Hall area, said the lack of interest probably centers around the public’s awareness of how hard the job can be after former Superintendent Dallas Dance was indicted on perjury charges.
His indictment — and criticism of his successor, interim Superintendent Verletta White — center around their failure to report paid consulting work on the financial disclosure forms filed with the school system’s ethics review panel.
“With the school system in the news with Dance’s indictment and all the drama around that I’m not surprised more people haven’t filed,” Henn said. “It’s not a paid position. And it’s tough work. And the public is seeing what we have to deal with.”