Republican lawmakers on the State and Local Government Committee suspect some cronyism was behind Democratic opposition Thursday to a series of bills that would allow for the recall of local elected officials, including school board members.
Under the various proposals, residents of Maine’s cities and towns would be given the option to request a vote on whether to remove a local official, be it a town councilor or a school board member, from office.
Committee members appeared to be getting caught up on the specifics of whether a local official would be subject to recall for any reason or only for prior violations of an ethical code, and how many petition signatures would be required to begin the process.
When the committee reached an impasse, Rep. Barbara Bagshaw (R-Windham), the sponsor of one of the recall bills (LD 1102), offered an example from her own district of an instance in which a school board official should be subject to a recall vote.
“We had one particular school board member that violated ethics, and we brought it up, and we were told by the chair and by the town that it has no teeth,” said Bagshaw. “We have a code of ethics, but it has no teeth.”
Bagshaw said local officials instructed her to “go to Augusta and make a law” if they wanted to hold a local official accountable for an ethics violation.
“So here we are,” Bagshaw said.
Bagshaw’s example was RSU 14 school board member Jennie Butler, a former Democratic candidate for the State Legislature who earlier this year was embroiled in a small town controversy over a simple question: Did she flip her middle finger to parents at a school board meeting?
More precisely, the question isn’t whether she flipped the bird — the video evidence is quite clear in that regard — the question is rather whether she intended to toss unhappy parents the one-fingered salute.
After parents reacted strongly to the perceived slight from an elected official, Butler claimed in a Facebook post that she has a medical condition that caused her to display her middle finger to the crowd of parents that had just finished airing grievances to the board.
However, the rest of the school board must have found her doctor’s note unpersuasive, as they voted to censure her for the act.
Butler never apologized and she remains on the school board.
For Bagshaw, Butler’s conduct is a prime example of the kind of behavior that might get a school board official recalled.
The committee chair, Sen. Tim Nangle (D-Cumberland), apparently saw Bagshaw’s argument coming.
“Okay, I was waiting for that to come up. Um, this is the picture that was taken at the school board meeting,” Nangle said, holding his smartphone up to the other committee members.
“This was the finger,” said Nangle, as if he held exonerating evidence.
When Rep. Randall Greenwood (R-Wales) raised a point of order over the unusual demonstration from the chair, Nangle became even more defensive and started to overrule Greenwood.
But the committee analyst broke in to tell Nangle that committee rules preclude him showing video or photos that can’t be seen by all members and spectators.
At that point, committee members went into a behind-closed-doors caucus where, presumably, everyone got a good look at Butler’s middle finger.
Moments after the hearing resumed, Democrats moved against Bagshaw’s bill.
Unmentioned during the imbroglio was the reason why Nangle might have been so sensitive about MiddleFingerGate: Butler was his campaign treasurer and the star of a professionally produced video for his campaign.
The undisclosed close relationship between Butler and Nangle caused many Republicans to wonder whether Nangle was influencing local recall bills in an attempt to protect his associate.
Before the finger flap, committee members appeared to be working toward a bipartisan local recall bill.
But after, the Republican bills were scuttled and what emerged was a Nangle-backed bill that Republicans said they can’t support.
The Nangle-amended local recall bill would subvert local control by replacing any existing municipal recall provisions with a new statewide recall process that sets a very high bar for a recall to succeed.
For the time being, at least, school board members can flip parents the bird in most Maine school districts without facing the threat of a recall.