Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Maryland is known for its world famous crabs. But Prince George’s County will soon surpass the Chesapeake Bay as the capital of crabbing, given the irritable and irresponsible way its officials are publicly misbehaving.
Just like the cantankerous crustaceans, these prickly Prince George’s people are acting like crabs in a barrel each one trying to pull the other down when, if they’re not careful, they’ll all end up in the boiling pot.
What’s fostering the feud between the school board and the school superintendent? Why did the police chief’s resignation smell just a little stale? What’s so fishy about the hasty and haphazard way in which state representatives are snatching control over county issues?
Some county folks have been quoted as saying that Prince George’s County, with its predominantly middle-class black populace, is simply undergoing political “growing pains.” Some insinuate the county’s largely black leadership is inept. Still others imply there’s a hidden hand using public education and public safety as ploys to push a hidden statewide political agenda.
Perhaps it’s all of the above. With so many elected offices up for grabs and so many wannabes jockeying for position in the upcoming November elections, a critical leadership chasm may be the greatest culprit.
“Transition is the proper word, and that’s normal at the end of an administration,” Delegate Dereck Davis, Prince George’s Democrat, told The Washington Times.
“Structural power relationships of the old days are still there,” Ronald Walters, University of Maryland political science professor, told The Washington Post.
“There is a major paradigm shift going on,” Clinton community activist Rodamays Cabrera said yesterday. “There is a leadership vacuum because the [Democratic Party] machine is dead, and the black leaders they elected are old and out of touch with the community. In this leadership vacuum, nobody knows who speaks for Prince George’s County.”
Who is in charge? Whom do we follow? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are the often-asked questions. When there is no apparent maestro leading the pack, the clawing gets awfully loud and contrary.
Nonetheless, the state officials’ machinations to turn Prince George’s governance back on its “Ugly Sister” head is not the answer. When they take up the measure in the General Assembly this week to eliminate and reconstitute the school board, their actions may be illegal.
“Do you throw out the baby with the bath water because of a policy disagreement?” Mr. Cabrera says. “This is a state, not a city, and the state can’t just change things willy-nilly.”
Mr. Cabrera said he has been in discussions with the state Attorney General’s Office about an apparently overlooked statute in the Maryland Code that states that no measure creating or abolishing any office, or changing the salary or duties of any officer, or granting any franchise or special privilege or creating any vested right shall be enacted by using emergency law.
In the Prince George’s County Journal this month, Mr. Cabrera pointed out that Richard Israel, an assistant attorney general, said that using emergency legislation in this manner poses problems.
If the General Assembly passes the emergency legislation and the governor signs it, the action against the school board would take effect immediately, Mr. Cabrera notes. If the legislation is passed through a normal process, the legislation could not be enacted until Oct. 1, which is too late for the September primary. In effect, the state’s reconstituted board could not be seated before 2005.
Since the traditional process to alter a governing body should take two years, Mr. Cabrera intends “to sue in federal court if the state of Maryland violates its own law.”
He suggests the only legal option is to pass a redistricting bill and put the restructuring issue before the voters in a referendum in November to “ask the community what do you want to do.”
“Simply abolishing the board illegally doesn’t solve the problem,” Mr. Cabrera says. “The bigger question is, who should control a $1 billion school budget so that it meets the needs of 130,000 students?”
In the end, Mr. Cabrera said, the school board is only one part of providing quality education.
At the heart of the problem is the reluctance of the black community to accept social responsibility to discuss and develop strategies to reform public education in Prince George’s County, he says. Furthermore, black parents are not willing to talk about what it takes to educate their children, whether they live in poor homes or gated communities.
The school system’s problems are indicative of even larger political challenges ahead involving the Prince George’s, as well as Maryland, body politic, in which Mr. Cabrera, a Democrat, contends his party is underhandedly seeking to “deny and dilute the black vote.” Don’t get him started on the state’s lopsided redistricting fight.
Still, all this crabbiness is healthy because it will result in a level playing field and a “real democracy” in which the predominantly black electorate in Prince George’s will be able “to decide who will be its leaders at every level state, county and school board,” he says.
In the meantime, what else to expect from the capital of crabs clawing in a barrel?

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