Cumberland Times-News

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January 27, 2014

Bill to abolish ex-officio position introduced

CUMBERLAND — A bill which would end the practice of having a county commission member on the Allegany and Garrett counties boards of education should have little trouble getting through the General Assembly, said Sen. George Edwards. Edwards has introduced a bill to abolish the position in the Senate and District One delegates have introduced a companion bill in the House.

If the position is abolished, it would eliminate a major recent source of battles between Allegany County commissioners and the Allegany County Board of Education.

Both county commissioners and board of education members were consulted and are on board with the move, said Edwards. Only three counties in the state have an ex-officio board member, Edwards said. Bills that only affect a few localities are typically easier to pass, Edwards said.

A commissioner in both counties holds an ex-officio seat on the board as a non-voting member, but with the right to attend closed executive sessions.

The Allegany County Board of Education president and an Allegany County commissioner had different takes on the situation and the bill.

“We will neither oppose nor support that piece of legislation. We offered to abolish the position last session,” said Commissioner Bill Valentine. Valentine said things might work better if handled differently.

“During the year that I served as the ex-officio, the only ‘dialogue’ I took part in was when the Board of Education attacked the commissioners, or the sheriff. It will be a much more efficient use of time for the board, or a representative, to attend a commissioner’s public meeting to have a dialogue. At our meetings, citizens will be allowed to ask questions and expect to have their questions answered. The board of education has a policy against such interaction with the public,” Valentine said.

“While we value dialogue and face-to-face conversations, we support this bill, and thank Senator Edwards and our delegation for sponsoring it. ... Regardless of this legislation, the commissioners will always be welcomed at our open meetings,” said Board of Education President Laurie Marchini. The position creates problems, including potential conflicts of interests, Marchini said.

“I recognize the inherent conflicts of interest an ex-officio has when attending our executive sessions. There are many times when it is only appropriate for him to remove himself based on these conflicts. This is the same standard to which the five of us are also held. We value our executive sessions and take confidentiality very seriously since so much of this time is spent dealing with very sensitive and complicated issues regarding our students,” Marchini said.

The debate over the position needs to end, Marchini said. The board is responsible for thousands of students and a large operations and capital budget.

“There is a great deal going on, and we simply don’t have time to belabor this issue anymore,” said Marchini.

Recently, commissioners accused the board of education of holding illegal executive sessions. Commissioners also said they will no longer send a commissioner to school board meetings. It was at the beginning of 2013 that Commission President Mike McKay suggested abolishing the ex-officio position, with board of education members opposing getting rid of it. Since that idea was broached by McKay, the ex-officio position has become the latest in a series of battles over the past few years between county commissioners and members of the board of education.

School board members have said that it is not ethical to have the ex-officio present during sensitive personnel issues and funding negotiations. Conflicts arise when the agenda includes collective bargaining and personnel items, board members have said.

The ex-officio bills are Senate Bill 383 and House Bill 343.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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