Friday  •  June 19, 2020

Updates on HCPSS Ethics Panel Disbanding & Selection Process

Summary of new updates:
– A letter from HCPSS Board of Education (BOE) Chair Mavis Ellis has been obtained which details the investigation process on the recent Ethics Panel leak.

– MPIA request that sought this information was denied for a potentially illegitimate reason (incomplete citation of the laws surrounding exceptions to MPIA releases)

– BOE members Mallo & Taj, who recently violated the National School Board Association (NSCA) Code of Ethics are serving on the screening committee for the selection of the new HCPSS Ethics Panel

– The Howard County Democratic Central Committee reportedly is privately soliciting members of its political community to apply for positions on the new Ethics Panel

 

A speculative question to consider: Was the leak that led to the decision to disband the HCPSS Ethics Panel intentionally committed to provide the Board with the excuse to disband the Panel and the opportunity to stack the new Panel with members who are deemed to be politically favorable?

 

The HCPSS Ethics Panel was dissolved in April 2020 after an Ethics Panel advisory opinion was leaked to a member of the public (ScottE’s blog) in November 2019 ; since the Board was unable to determine the source of the leak after conducting an investigation, they chose to disband the existing Ethics Panel and select a completely new panel.

 

In late April, some initial questions and concerns about the disbanding of the HCPSS Ethics Panel and the need for transparency in the selection process for the new Panel were discussed in a previous postHere are the latest updates:

 

DETAILS ON THE INVESTIGATION PROCESS & CONCERNING MPIA REQUEST DENIAL
The attached letter has been obtained, which describes the investigation process into this Ethics Panel leak and the formal announcement of the Panel’s disbanding.

 

 

MPIA request # 2020-393 apparently sought the information contained in this letter but was denied by a response from the HCPSS MPIA office that claimed that the information was protected under an exception in the 14th edition of the MPIA Manual related to “personnel records of an individual……relating to dismissal”.

As noted in this MPIA request, the official response only cites the first part of a sentence from the MPIA Manual to justify this exception. The response from the HCPSS MPIA office claims that “The personnel record exception is not limited to paid offcials and employees”…..but fails to include the rest of the sentence that clarifies that the extension of this exception beyond records for paid officials & employees only applies to “biographical information submitted by individuals seeking to serve on agency advisory committees”. See Section 3-12 (page 31) of the Maryland Public Information Act Manual for details.

 

 

After fully reading the quoted sections from the MPIA Manual, this exception does not seem to extend to records related to the dismissal of volunteer committees comprised on members who are not paid officials & employees of HCPSS, since records related to the dismissal of such a committee are not “biographical information submitted by individuals seeking to serve on agency advisory committees” or “the names of those seeking appointment to an office if the information is derived from their applications”.

 

Why was this letter withheld from the public despite being requested in an MPIA and seemingly not being covered as an exception?

 

Why was section 4-311 of the MPIA Manual interpreted so loosely (and wrongly) in order to prevent the public release of this letter?

 

Why was the investigation into the Ethics Panel leak so half-baked, with the scope of their records search restricted to only those sent to the local blogger and not to any other parties? Couldn’t the information have been leaked to another party prior to being leaked to the local blogger?

 

The information leaked was not a case of “whistleblowing” and did not benefit HCPSS or its staff or students. Despite this, the blogger who received this information apparently decided to grant blanket “source protection” to the person who leaked the information to them. Whistleblower protections are valuable and important, but in this instance, the only people who seem to have benefited from the leak and from the protection of the source are whomever may have wanted to have the excuse to disband the Ethics Panel.

 

NEW ETHICS PANEL SELECTION PROCESS & CONCERNS OVER BOE MEMBERS SERVING ON APPLICANT SCREENING COMMITTEE

 

According to HCPSS Policy 2070 (Implementation Procedures – Ethics)the selection of the new HCPSS Ethics panel begins with the Board of Education Chair (Mavis Ellis) appointing two Board members to serve as the screening committee for applicants, along with legal counsel and a Human Resources staff member. The two Board members selected by the Chair to serve on this committee then make recommendations to the full Board for candidate appointments to the new HCPSS Ethics Panel.

According to those close to the process, the two Board members who are serving on the screening committee for applicants (conducting interviews and offering formal recommendations to the full Board) are Jen Mallo and Sabina Taj…..the very same two Board members who were caught violating the National School Board Association (NSCA) Code of Ethics.  Prior discussion of this violation can be found here and here.


On top of that, it has been reported that the Howard County Democratic Central Committee (HCDCC) reportedly has been privately soliciting members of its community to apply to serve on this new Ethics Panel. This information, coupled with the strong ties that both Jen Mallo and Sabina Taj have to the HoCo Democratic Central Committee and associated local politicians & entities, adds to the concern over the decision to completely disband the Ethics Panel and the potential politicization of the selection of the new Panel.  What measures are being taken to minimize political influences on this process?


Why are the two Board members who have recently violated both the Open Meetings Act as well as the NSCA Code of Ethics serving on the applicant screening committee for this new Ethics Panel?

 

And a couple closing questions….

 

Where’s the transparency in the selection process for this new Ethics Panel?

 

What measures are being taken to minimize the risk of a future leak that requires the Panel’s immediate disbanding?

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