Citizen participation in public governance, in my opinion, extends far beyond casting ballots for candidates. One of my core values is a commitment to facilitate and, even, to instigate citizen involvement in public policy formation, planning, prioritization and even in the day- to-day operations of government at all levels. Many politicians share this commitment.
Unfortunately, though, far too many politicians on both ends of the political spectrum regard continuous and intense involvement with community “activists” as a burden that must be endured. One former colleague on the School Board propounded a “theory” for dealing with parents and others who attended Board meeting to advocate their interests—often quite movingly. His view? Ignore them. They are a vocal minority who do not represent the majority; that majority wants School Board members to make these decisions for them.
This brings me to my theme: the arrogance of power. You may remember the book of this title by Senator William Fulbright, whose premise was that it is wrong for nations to equate power and strength with virtue. I think this captures the essence of an insidious belief driving decisions and actions of politicians and government administrators alike. Many politicians and administrators feel perfectly comfortable working in the shadows to accomplish what they believe is a desirable outcome. They regard stakeholder involvement as either a waste of time or an impediment, because they already know what is best. In my experience, policies and decisions that spring unchallenged from the minds—and egos—of politicians and administrators are almost always wrong…and, if not wrong, create consequences that will undercut public trust.
Examples? Where to I start? Recent headlines demonstrate the breathtaking arrogance of power displayed by elected and appointed public leaders in Virginia. The UVA Board of Visitors’ sudden firing of UVA’s President, Theresa Sullivan, is a great example. A much-publicized talent search by this same Board of Visitors (BOV) culminated in choosing Dr. Sullivan to lead the University of Virginia less than two years ago. Without warning or public explanation a majority of this appointed Board dismissed her. The resulting uproar at UVA—Dr. Sullivan had overwhelming support from the Faculty Senate–and throughout the state has not penetrated the righteous arrogance of the BOV one iota. I am more than disappointed that our Governor has not demanded an immediate and public accounting of the decisions made by those whom he has appointed to oversee our flagship university. Is this sudden firing based upon a clash of visions for the future of higher education? Is it an example of corporate values wresting control of a public institution?
Tracy Thorne-Begland’s Richmond District Court judgeship nomination is a case of arrogant refusal by elected leaders to respect the wishes of their constituents. The General Assembly failed to confirm him for the Richmond bench despite the bipartisan, unanimous support of the Richmond delegation. This month Thorne-Begland was temporarily confirmed by the Richmond Circuit to the great satisfaction of those he will serve. In response several Delegates made public statements to the effect that appointed leaders should not tangle with elected leaders. This seem to predict another opportunity for the General Assembly to get it right and vote in 2013 to uphold the wishes of the voters, not to uphold the personal biases of those elected to represent them.
Arrogance by local administrators is on display as well, in yet another overly-harsh discipline ruling made by Fairfax County Public Schools to deny a high school student the opportunity to participate in his school’s graduation ceremony with his classmates. This honor student was accused of planning a prank in which he ultimately did not participate. The vindictive punishment he received clearly did not fit the intended crime. In my view this was a lost opportunity to teach restorative justice; and the lack of comment by any School Board Member was a lost opportunity to strengthen public trust.
Each of these cases called for an open process allowing stakeholders to be heard and receive a credible response; a process which culminated in a public decision based on reasonable consideration of the interests and principles involved. The outcome might well have been the same, but the impact of such openness would have confirmed the accountability of those entrusted with power, not demonstrated their entitled arrogance.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].