Rhode Island Government in Miniature
Distribution of literature as to candidacy, bond issues, or other public question to be submitted at election: prohibited. No literature which is any manner and in any part thereof promotes, favors or opposes the candidacy of any candidate for election, or the adoption of any bond issues proposal, or any public question submitted at any general, municipal or school election shall be given to any public school pupil in any public school building or on the grounds thereof, for the purpose of having such pupil take the same to his home or distribute it to any person outside of said building or grounds, nor shall any pupil be requested or directed by any official or employee of the public schools to engage in any activity which tends to promote, favor or oppose any such candidacy, bond issue, proposal, or public question.
There are several areas of particular concern to the Board with respect to this law:
1. No school paper or supplies or reproducing equipment nor any other facilities of the school are to be used for the purpose of campaigning for or against passing of the budget or for any candidates. These provisions apply to all formal school publications.
2. Lists of student names are provided only when needed for school activities and are not to be used for other purposes and should contain a warning against their unauthorized use.
The committee’s lawyer, Stephen Robinson, argued that various suspect uses of public resources — a PTO letter on school letterhead and a recording of Superintendent Bill Rearick issued via the district’s telephone notification system, both encouraging attendance at the financial town meeting — did not violate this policy because the materials did not offer instructions “for or against” the budget. “Where public bodies get into trouble,” he explained, “is when they go out and hire a PR firm” — when they take up a political campaign “to maximize the troops.”
Even putting aside the fact that at least one of these communications used language suggesting that attendance was necessary for cuts to be “avoided,” the context leaves little doubt about the intention, no matter what linguistic legalistic niceties might permit. It was only after voters rejected an excessive increase in taxes that the communications went out from public bodies with reference to the follow-up meeting, at which that vote was ultimately reversed (with undertones of disenfranchisement).
Indeed, both Committee Chairwoman Denise DeMedeiros and Vice Chairman Michael Burk evinced no compunction about their belief that it is their job to advocate for the budget on which they’ve settled as elected representatives. Mr. Robinson might be better equipped than I to address the question of whether there’s a hidden clause in area of concern #1 (quoted above) to the effect of: “except when citizens behave as if direct democracy is actually supposed to allow contrary outcomes.”
This is where something more broadly typical of Rhode Island governance comes into play: One of my fellow small-government types in the audience pointed out, after the meeting, that some of the strongest voices in defense of the district’s political activities have also been among the strongest holding the budgetary line, especially when it has come to negotiations with the teachers’ union. Targeting DeMedeiros and Burk for elimination would not likely serve tax-conscious voters well, and yet they apparently both possess a view of governmental processes that ought to be of grave concern.
By their ire last night, they gave the impression that the voting booth ought to be the only point of public interference with their authority. In their view, they’ve done their best in accordance with elective mandate to develop a budget, and it follows naturally from that mandate that they are to advocate, promote, and push their result toward passage. The idea that any means at their disposal ought to be disallowed from that end seemed visibly to agitate the pair. If (hypothetically) they pushed an envelope while flexing their muscle as part of a coordinated, cross-municipality campaign to effect a particular democratic result, then the only legitimate forum for grievance is the next ballot with their names on it.
The local effect of such a regime is to dilute public input, as voters misconstrue which officials are most directly to blame or are bedazzled by political maneuvering. It also discourages participation beyond general election votes. As the arrogance moves up the governmental scale, however, the corrupting influence of believing that the “democracy” ought to be minimized in a “representative democracy” becomes more problematic. “Take me or leave me” presents an elected official with compoundingly greater leeway than “take me, but forbid me that.” I imagine it’s a relatively simple matter to conclude that it is in the public interest for its officials to prosper, after all.
Factor in the consideration that these particular elected officials are our neighbors, whom we see regularly and whom we know personally, and the Tiverton School Committee is Rhode Island government writ small. In it we can observe, as in a model, the intellectual strains and policy structures that have brought us to the leading edge of state-level corruption in the U.S.A. If there were a good-government advocacy group with an interest in civil rights and constitutional litigation, these small axes would certainly worthy of some grinding; the sparks might start fires more broadly than might initially seem likely.