Out and About (Sort of): Democracy in Action by Howard Freedlander

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Returning last Wednesday morning to the Governor’s Reception Room in the State House, a place where I spent many sometimes agonizing hours attending bi-weekly Board of Public Works (BPW) meetings, I again found a healthy portion of contentiousness.

Right from the beginning of the meeting.

This time, I watched and listened as Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp argued about the governor’s decision to use his executive authority to order Maryland schools to open after Labor Day. Gov. Hogan opined that he had wide support for his decision; Treasurer Kopp questioned the governor’s use of an executive order to act on an issue normally left to local school systems, saying she awaited a decision by Maryland’s attorney general on the legality of the governor’s action.

For full disclosure, I worked for nearly eight years as deputy treasurer, serving as the treasurer’s liaison to the BPW, which in simple terms oversees procurement of all contracts $200,000 and above in state government. Comprising the governor, treasurer and comptroller, it is the only constitutionally mandated organization of its type in our country.

Another disclosure: I attended the meeting, my first since I retired in May 2011, as a board member and representative of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The BPW was considering an agenda item that sought approval of a capital grant and loan for the museum.

Though typically a low-key, intelligent and level-headed person widely respected throughout state government and beyond, Treasurer Kopp fiercely defends legislative prerogatives. She is elected by the General Assembly, where she served for 27 years before being elected treasurer in 2002. In this case, she believed that Gov. Hogan ignored the legislature, which twice had refused to support opening of public schools until after Labor Day.

Gov. Hogan countered Treasurer Kopp’s point by citing a poll that showed that more than 70 percent of Marylanders supported a post-Labor opening of schools. He also expressed frustration with the legislature, dominated by Democrats who frequently clash with the state’s Republican governor.

The contretemps, which occurred before the Board of Public Works even considered its normal agenda, drew media attention, as expected. Articles that I read on Thursday morning led with the brief confrontation between Hogan and Kopp. The business of approving, disapproving or deferring state contracts is typically unglamorous and tediously esoteric. Hence, these contracts, though worth millions and millions of dollars, draw yawns and disinterest from the media.

I found the discussion between the governor and treasurer rather fascinating, if not somewhat ironic. In our nation’s Capital, a Democratic president, frustrated and flummoxed by a Republican-dominated Congress, has issued several executive orders in recent years. Federal legislators too feel slighted, and the legislative process subverted by these aggressive actions. In some cases, these executive orders have been debated in court.

As to the issue at hand about opening public schools after Labor Day, I feel torn. I too think that formulation of school calendars belongs in the hands of local school officials. I understand the argument that school children, particularly poor, underprivileged ones, benefit from an early opening. I am concerned about the impact of increased cost of expensive day care on parents. I also wonder about reduced vacations necessary to compensate for lost school days; families will have less time to spend together.

Elected on a pro-business platform, Gov. Hogan believes that opening schools after Labor Day will enhance tourism dollars, particularly in Ocean City—and allow families to spend one more week together. He knows that schools formerly opened after Labor Day. He also thinks that a later opening and earlier closing will reduce the need for air conditioning, particularly in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where apparently some schools lack air conditioning.

Perhaps because of my service for nearly eight years in the State Treasurer’s Office, and consequently close working relationship with state legislators, I support legislative action—both in Annapolis and Washington, DC. I think that executive orders dangerously circumvent the will of the people and their legislative representatives. While I understand frustration and anger on the part of a U.S. President or the Governor of Maryland– their initiatives often falling victim to stubborn opposition and inaction– I believe the legislative process yields a better, more thoughtful solution.

It’s said you can never go back. That’s certainly true. What was once standard fare is still enjoyable to me, however.

Drama aside for wide-eyed spectators and grateful media, the confrontation between Gov. Hogan and Treasurer Kopp epitomized democracy in action. It was honest disagreement in full public view, not hidden behind closed doors and manipulative spin by savvy spokespeople. Two well-meaning public servants engaged in a lively discussion.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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