Sunday, August 5, 2012

That Messy, Messy Democracy

Meetings of the Pottstown School Board may not be debates of Constitutional significance, but they are one of thousands of examples of local democracy on which our republic is built.
 One of the school boy illusions about our founding fathers that has been happily shattered by my closer reading of history in recent years, is the image of the serene and omniscient statesmen, collectively sailing the ship of state toward its destiny by unanimous agreement.

The portraits of their stately and firm-jawed countenances looking off into a certain future is, no doubt, an image to which they cleaved and wished dearly to project to posterity.
George Washington was a careful caretaker
of his image and his legacy.

But in truth, they fought like cats and dogs, and many of them put their full political weight behind what, in retrospect, where truly ludicrous ideas.

Hamilton and Jefferson loathed each other's politics and participated in the kind of vicious and underhanded political attacks that would put many of today's negative attack ads to shame.

Washington worried endlessly about sullying his reputation and Adams, with his manic swings between brilliant statesmanship and grasping egotism was his reputation's own worst enemy.

So you get the picture. Nobody's perfect.

So, as a result, neither is democracy.

It is, after all, of the non-perfect people, by the non-perfect people, for the non-perfect people.

Sir Winston Churchill
As Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

So it should be expected that from time to time, those in any given democratic institution, say the Pottstown School Board, should display occasional imperfections.

Pottstown School Board President Judyth Zahora took a stab at perfecting her board's procedures Thursday when she asked the board if it wanted to continue to use the committee system.

The idea behind the committee system is that matters are brought to a small committee chose specific charge and, hopefully eventual expertise, and relevant aspects of the matter in question can be explored in detail, and then a recommendation can be brought to the full school board.

Presumably, the grimy details and alternatives explored by the committee can be dispensed with by the full board because the committee has already done that work.

Judyth Zahora
But as Zahora rightly observed, it doesn't always work that way.

By design, the board is of course free to reject the committee's recommendation, but in the general ever day matters, it is hoped that the judgement of those who have studied the matter in detail will prevail.

The school board must decide,
Zahora said, between committees or...
Lately, however, Zahora noted that not only are many committee debates being re-debated at the full board level, but a lot of committee members are not even showing up their meetings.

So Zahora asked the board if they even want to keep the system, or just hash it all out at the board level, making for much longer but less frequent meetings.

While the thought of longer school meetings did, admittedly, turn my skin paler than it already is, the bottom line is I get paid by the hour. So if the school board wants to meet for five hours a night, that's just money in my pocket and I can pay off that house I bought in the south of France.

....longer school board meetings. No one wanted that.
But the board members, all of whom are volunteer and don't see a dime for their service, didn't take kindly to that prospect and asked to keep the current system.

It is a system, Zahora said, that depends on "trust."

Presumably, this means the board members have to trust in the judgement of the others serving on the committees.

But it occurs to me that trust is a two-way street and often best encouraged by example.

During the discussion on the committee question, several board members told Zahora that she should expect a full-throated debate among the full board on major matters.

"Of course," Zahora replied. "I have always been about open discussion. Everyone knows I never want to stifle discussion."

This proclamation struck me as ironic because as long experience -- and the evidence of long unpalatable hours of video recordings -- confirms, this is simply not the case.

There is one particular school board member whose remarks and observations are so often cut-off, curtailed and interrupted by the board president that it is almost too many to count.

This board member, who has a tendency to "start at the beginning" with his comments, is repeatedly shut down in mid-sentence and told "we don't need another history lesson" and his recitation of past events often leads to reviving debate on those events.

By contrast, a different board member has been known to wax on significantly, often calling the sparse audience back not just to recent history, but things that happened 20, 40 or 60 years ago. "We have to learn from past mistakes," he has been known to say ... often.

As the video-taped evidence of meetings would show, if anyone had the stomach to wade through them, this behavior is not only countenanced by the board president, but encouraged and appreciated.

Now on the surface, this would seem like uneven treatment and not something likely to build trust among those who do not always agree. That's because it is imbalanced and clearly so.

But substitute the names Tom Hylton for the first board member and Bobby Hartman for the second and suddenly -- in Pottstown at least -- everything suddenly shifts into an all-too-familiar pattern.

Sides are immediately taken, past experiences recalled and minds closed.

No doubt, it won't take long for me (and by association The Mercury) to be accused of taking sides with our former editorial writer, and for some people to abandon reading the rest of this post for that reason.

This is but another sad example of the malady Pottstown cannot seem to shake -- Ron Downie's unforgettable phrase: "Policy by personality."

The history Mr. Hylton elects to recount, admittedly repetitive, is most often a history shared by those sitting at the table, and is treated as tedious and unnecessary lecturing.

But Mr. Hartman's recollections about everything from the warnings against erecting wooden light poles at Grigg Memorial Stadium 20 years ago to what Rupert looked like when he attended as a child, are allowed to meander ad  infinitum without a whisper from Mrs. Zahora's gavel.

I have a deep suspicion that were it not Mr. Hylton making long soliloquies -- often complete with well-research charts and hand-outs -- about why a previous board decision was wrong, the need to curtail discussion and "call the question" would suddenly be found to be less urgent.

Hylton is practicing only what he urged others on the board to undertake, "their homework and their critical thinking skills."

While it may sound high-handed, the fact of the matter is being a school board member is not about showing up at meetings. It's about making decisions and the better informed those decisions are, the better decisions they will be.

If you don't like what Mr. Hylton has to say, that is of course the purview of every American citizen. Don't listen, leave the room or check your hand-held device for messages as some board members now do regularly during meetings. But everyone has the right to speak and an elected official, perhaps even more so.

As school board president, Mrs. Zahora has a special responsibility to ensure that everyone the people of this town elected to represent them on the school board has an equal opportunity not only to speak their mind, but to share whatever they think may be helpful to the board's deliberations.

Exercising favoritism should not be countenanced by either the public or the board, and particularly not by someone identifying herself a champion for the exact opposite.

After all, even Jefferson and Hamilton managed to agree on some things.

Alexander Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson
There was that infamous dinner party when Hamilton gave up Philadelphia as the nation's capital to Jefferson's Virginia contingent in exchange for a federal banking system which took on the states' debts from the Revolution.

Further recall that the election of 1800 was thrown into the House of Representatives when Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes for president.

It was Hamilton, Jefferson's political enemy, who lobbied hard for Jefferson's election over Burr's because, Hamilton said that despite disagreeing with almost everything Jefferson stood for politically, Jefferson at least had character and acted on what he believed at heart to be the best interests of the nation.

Aaron Burr
"Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government," Hamilton wrote to those members of Congress who could be swayed by his opinion.

"Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself, thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands."
Jefferson was getting critical help at the critical time from the man who Jefferson had urged by investigated as the Secretary of the Treasury; an investigation which led to the nation's first sex scandal when Hamilton confessed an affair and being the victim of blackmail.

Surely nothing so equally dire has happened in Pottstown politics that we can't at least hear each other out.

Reasonable people can disagree, but they have to be allowed to make their case.

Suppressing debate does not engender trust, either among the members of a potentially fractious school board, or from the public who may sometimes wonder why they elected them.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Just a few points of clarification.

    First, I would like to point out that calling a question, which is not done all too often in my recollection, can be considered a wonderful favor. While I completely believe that every person sitting around the table deserves equally the opportunity to speak their mind, share information, and, yes, even give the oh so familiar "history lesson" ...that's really not what we are talking about here, is it? The saying, "beating a dead horse" comes immediately to mind. It seems to me that when someone redundantly gives the same "history lesson" two and three times in an evening - a lesson that has been shared two and three times at many, many past meetings - what they are really doing is blatantly disregarding the time of those sequestered in the room with them, as well as insulting their intelligence. (BTW, that includes your time and intelligence, Evan...hourly wage, and all. However, I have noticed that you enjoy the advantage of bringing a magazine with you to turn your attention to when things get ummmm, well - really, really boring.) As a matter of fact, I have myself called a question or two on Mr Hartman, as I agree that he does seem to enjoy the repetitive trip down memory lane just as much, if not more, than anyone else I've ever known.

    Secondly, and this is just to set the "Evan" record straight, when I have checked my hand-held during a meeting - recently, or when previously on school board - it was almost always to utilize Google pertaining to something being discussed at the meeting - not to merely to check my messages (other than when waiting for something important regarding my children, or the like). For instance, my latest Google search on my phone at a board meeting was on "alternatives to committees" and "alternatives to committee structure." That is, after all, why they call them "smart phones," is it not? ,)

    1. Thanks for your comments Amy.

      I am sad to report the my magazine subscriptions have all run out. Longer school board meetings might have given me the income boost I need to renew them.