Thursday, November 8, 2018

RISD TRE: The Facebook Election

In a tax ratification election (TRE), voters in Richardson ISD approved a tax rate increase by a ~7% margin. In a normal non-partisan May election that would be considered close, but in a November general election where the turnout is eight times as high and tribal politics rule, 7% is a comfortable margin. The outcome was never in doubt once the polls closed and the early vote totals were released.

The TRE passed in all areas of RISD. The precincts that voted "No" were scattered. There was no geographical base of support that controlled the election. Nor was there a base of opposition. The precinct with the highest support had 66% "Yes". The precinct with the lowest support had 34% "Yes." The rest of the precincts were spread evenly between. About half of the precincts voted for the TRE in higher percentages than the overall margin, about half in lower percentages.

Still, the run-up to voting was contentious. The campaign was fought on two Facebook pages, ironically both identically named "Richardson ISD Politics". Confusing, right? It's a shame that RISD residents can't discuss RISD issues except cocooned in their own bubbles with name-calling, shunning and herding, but that has taken over politics at the national and state levels, so why should local politics be immune from this disease?

(Note: Even this criticism of public discourse is likely to raise hackles, with some arguing that one side or the other behaved worse. And you know what? I agree. One side was worse. You might have found this article from a link on one of the two Facebook pages, the one where my own articles don't mysteriously vanish without a trace or explanation. But I really don't want to reopen unproductive arguments. I've already said more than I should have. My bad. On to more positive things...)

There was one hopeful sign in this contentious campaign and that was trustee Karen Clardy's willingness to engage the public. She answered questions, provided information, and by and large showed an admirable willingness to absorb insults. The board of trustees has been accused of a lack of transparency and an unwillingness to listen to constituents, so her presence on Facebook deserves recognition. Still, I have to offer a cautionary note.

There are legal risks to her for doing so, given the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA), which is well-intentioned but can have unfortunate unintended consequences.
A 2010 report by the Senate Committee on State Affairs discussed the possibility of walking quorums occurring via emails, text messages or social media as well by phone and in person. In the report, the committee also raised the possibility of a quorum existing if the majority of the governmental body discussed public business on a Facebook wall, for example; such a discussion might be considered either open or closed to the public depending on privacy settings. Regardless of the forum for the discussion, any discussion of public business for a quorum of a governmental entity is most likely subject to the Open Meetings Act. Because of this, public officials should be extremely cautious when discussing any public matter on social media.
In other words, Karen Clardy engaging the public on Facebook is OK. A quorum of trustees doing the same thing might open them up to a charge of violating the open meetings act. That's my pet peeve about the TOMA. In the guise of making government more transparent, what it does is scare elected officials into clamming up except in carefully controlled and scripted venues like board meetings. In short, to Karen Clardy: good job, but be careful. No good deed goes unpunished.

P.S. I read (somewhere, source forgotten) of a mother who told her five-year-old daughter she was going to vote, but that she'd be home soon. When she got home, she found her daughter in her husband's arms, in tears for having been left behind. Trying to make it up to her, she got back in the car and took her daughter back to the polling place and showed her how it all worked and gave her a little inspiring talk about democracy. On the way home, the daughter said she had been upset because she thought her mother had said she was going "boating."

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