A NEWCOMER to Howard County offers this testimony to local activists:
Should a piece of paper be dropped, it will have five signatures before it hits the ground.
The noble impulse to petition, in other words, flourishes. People move to Howard for the ambiance, the proximity to big cities, the good public schools and the opportunity to seek redress of grievances.
Petitioners have staying power, passion and finely honed outrage. Second only to the goal, itself, is the fervent belief that process -- being heard and respected -- is almost as important.
Take, for example, Leslie J. Greenberg, a lawyer who lives on Alpine Rose Bend in Columbia. Mr. Greenberg has been dropping paper in the form of letters all over the county and state recently in search of an answer to this question:
By what authority did the Howard County school board grant a $16,000 bonus to Michael E. Hickey, the recently retired county school superintendent?
Mr. Greenberg, who found the bonus "disgusting," wants a specific answer. He wants to erase whatever law allows the board to make such "gifts."
That desire has taken him down long and tedious path. He wrote to the board, to the board's staff lawyer, to the county executive, to several members of the county council and to the Maryland attorney general's office.
Assistant Attorney General Valerie V. Cloutier, principal counsel to the Maryland State Department of Education, said state law grants broad authority to local school boards. She referred Mr. Greenberg to Mark Blom, the school board's lawyer.
Mr. Blom cited the specific authority: "Local boards of education are independent legal entities in Maryland, separate from state or local governments, and have broad budgetary authority under Section 5-101 et seq. of the Education Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland." That law allows school boards to "spend funds to carry out the administration of the county school system as judged appropriate..."
Mr. Greenberg found that a non-responsive response. So he wrote to Mr. Blom again:
"The question was how this was judged appropriate when there is a lack of funding of any number of programs as well as a lack of funding for additional schools." What he wanted, he said, was the precise category of funds used to make the payment.
He wrote also to C. Vernon Gray, a member of the County Council.
Councilman Gray replied: "I received several pieces of correspondence on this issue. I did not respond to any other letters because I saw this as a school board issue. ... It was within their authority and discretion to award a bonus. However, I did have some problems with the amount." He hastened to say, however, that he had not expressed his views to the board -- lest he appear to be injecting politics into matters given exclusively to the school board.
Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican, said: "Like you, I find this frustrating and a waste of taxpayer funds. I sincerely hope you and other voters remember this flagrant misuse of taxpayer money when the board members come up for re-election."
County Executive James N. Robey wrote in the same vein: "I appreciate the frustration you must feel when everyone who responds to you seems to be avoiding your question. I wish I could be more helpful ..."
The executive, he said, must approve the school board's budget. But that approval does not extend to matters such as bonuses.
But if all that power allows "gifts" of public money, Mr. Greenberg wants to rein it in. But he may be looking for something that does not exist: information that will allow him to pinpoint the basis of the gift-giving authority so he can focus his campaign of opposition.
In a sense, no focus is possible -- by design. If each decision of a school board were subject to rejection by an angry citizen, a councilman or a county executive, the process would probably collapse. And, as it turns out, part of the answer to Mr. Greenberg's question has been made public (though not in any of the legalistic letters he received).
The money came from a contingency fund of $100,000. Set aside by the board in its annual budgeting, that money covers unexpected or unbudgeted expenses. Last year, the fund covered a single expenditure: Dr. Hickey's bonus. The rest was returned to the county.
In previous years, the money has been used to pay for improvements to the parking lot and grounds at Glenwood Middle School --, $100,000; the cost of a superintendent search effort, $25,000; and a study of salary structure, $75,000.
A contingency under state law would appear to be what the board says it is: most recently, landscaping, head hunters, salary studies and bonuses.
So, while Mr. Greenberg wants a more discrete authority to target and erase, he may find it does not exist. If that is so, then he must hope -- as Councilman Merdon suggests -- that people who feel aggrieved will see the November ballot as an anti-bonus petition and sign it with their votes.
C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.