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Legislator wants School Board recalls in voters' hands

He didn't call it the Cathi Martin amendment.

But state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, certainly had the Pasco County School Board member in mind Friday when he introduced legislation that would allow voters to recall elected School Board members.

"It has come to my attention through recent events and through researching statutes that School Board members can't be recalled anywhere in Florida. I don't think that's right," said Legg, who proposed his idea as an amendment to a bill called the "Ethics in Education" act. "It came to my attention because of Cathi Martin. … I heard about it when folks were trying to recall her."

Members of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee looked into how they might get Martin removed from office back in May 2007, after the Pasco Times reported that Martin had missed more than half of the board's meetings since her 2006 re-election to a third term. They gave up after learning that only the governor has the authority to remove constitutional officers, but pledged to pursue the issue with local lawmakers.

The conversations stuck with Legg, who suggested that if educators are to be held to a higher ethical standard, so, too, should School Board members.

"We wanted to put some accountability back to the voters," he told the House Schools and Learning Council, which was hearing the bill. "Perhaps the county has lost faith in a particular School Board member. This simply provides them that accountability."

Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, asked for an example of behavior that could lead to a recall.

"You may have a School Board member who fails to show up for three years of School Board meetings," Legg offered.

Some members and speakers said school boards face highly charged issues, such as redrawing attendance zones. If faced with the possibility of a recall, those speakers said, School Board members might be pressured into making expedient decisions rather than acting in the district's best interest.

Legg didn't bite.

"I have been in front of rooms with 1,000 people … where we had to have police escorts to walk out," he said, noting he faces re-election every two years. "I don't think one elected body has any more or less pressure than any other elected body."

Questions arose about whether the Constitution, which provides for removal of constitutional officers such as School Board members, would prohibit lawmakers from enacting his proposal. Legg withdrew the amendment for additional research at the request of chairman Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who said he would reintroduce it at the bill's next stop before the Policy and Budget Council.

Mixed reactions

Pasco leaders said they did not know Legg would put forth the recall concept.

"But I will say, I have heard concerns from my constituents about the question of accountability," School Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "I have heard rumblings in the community. We have had editorial comment in both papers. It is no surprise that people feel their elected officials have a certain job to do."

School Board member Marge Whaley didn't think the move would be necessary. The governor can remove board members, she said, "and that's where I think it should stay."

GOP executive committee chairman Bill Bunting, by contrast, welcomed the amendment. He said he planned to call House Speaker Marco Rubio to encourage his support.

"I hope it gets legs up there," Bunting said of the legislation. "It isn't just a bill. It's we the people. They forget when they ask, 'Can I vote by proxy from my house?' … (Martin) raised the awareness."

After missing a string of meetings, Martin began attending again late in the spring of 2007, at which time she explained her absences were because of a string of health problems and family commitments. She continued to come until the Nov. 6 session, when she took off for her son's wedding. While away, she broke her ankle and was assigned to bed rest until January.

The rest of the board rejected Martin's request to attend meetings during her year-end absence by telephone, saying district rules would not allow it.

She returned to the board in mid January, and made it for five meetings until she was sidelined by another broken ankle.

Martin was not available for comment Friday. Her husband said she was taking a nap about 11 a.m., and she did not return the call.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Legislator wants School Board recalls in voters' hands 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 5:22pm]
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