Incumbents won't get preference in Utah school board race
State school board incumbents hoping for another term will not automatically appear on the ballot for their seats in November.
A committee assigned to help narrow the field of candidates for the school board voted Tuesday against automatically forwarding incumbents' names to the governor for ballot consideration. They also considered whether to vote by secret ballot for finalists, ultimately deciding to cast paper ballots but promising to reveal results, including who voted for whom, immediately after the votes.
This year, in what could be a record, 59 candidates have filed to run for nine open state school board seats.
For years, the process by which state school board members are elected has drawn criticism for taking too much choice out of voters' hands: The governor appoints a committee every two years; the committee chooses at least three candidates for each seat; then those names are forwarded to the governor, who chooses two candidates for each seat to appear on the ballot.
In the past, controversy has erupted about whether to give preference to incumbents and how to vote for candidates.
In 2008, three incumbents, including the state school board chairman, didn't make it on the ballot because of how the committee voted. And during the last election cycle two years ago, the group voted by secret ballot, refusing to reveal who had voted for whom until a week after the vote in response to an open records request.
That year, the committee ousted an incumbent, Denis Morrill, who went on to sue the governor, the committee and others, saying the process was illegal and unconstitutional. A state court judge ruled the committee had violated the state's open meetings law but said the process itself was not unconstitutional.
This year, committee member JoDee Sundberg, an Alpine District school board member, suggested the committee automatically forward incumbents' names to the governor for consideration, saying it should be up to voters to decide their fate. Eight incumbents have filed to run for the open seats, and two of those incumbents are pitted against one another in one district because of redistricting changes.
"I believe that the incumbents should be voted out only by those that elected them," Sundberg said. She also proposed the committee choose more than three candidates for each seat in hopes that those candidates could go through a nonpartisan, public primary to give voters more of a say over who appears on the ballot.
But the committee voted down both of those ideas, and several members said it's the group's job to choose three candidates to forward to the governor, and incumbents should not be given preference.
"[Incumbency] does not make them, in my opinion, the most qualified person for the position," said committee member Christina Oliver, Utah Transit Authority's department manager for transit oriented development.
Fellow committee member Terry Bagley, co-chairman of the Utah Technology Council's public policy committee, suggested the group vote by secret ballot to prevent people from voting in blocs. They agreed to vote by paper ballot, rather than aloud, but said they would release the results of the vote immediately afterward and reveal who voted for whom. Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act requires public bodies to keep records of members' votes, and that those records be made public.
A handful of Utahns attended Tuesday's meeting, including Kim Murphy Horiuchi, a Canyons School District board member who has filed to run for the state school board in District 10. She said after the meeting she was considering withdrawing her candidacy, saying the process "disturbed" her.
"It's clear to me that the process is rigged and the majority of the committee obviously doesn't care about the public or the electorate having a right to choose their school board representatives as they do any other candidate running for office," Horiuchi said.
Committee chairman Thomas Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association and chairman of the Utah College of Applied Technology Board, called the allegations "baffling."
"I think we spent a good share of our time in our meeting today trying to make sure we were absolutely fair in what we've been charged do by the governor," Bingham said.
The committee plans to meet April 16 and 17 to interview candidates and vote on which three to forward to the governor for each seat.
State school board candidates
O To see a list of Utahns who have filed to run for state school board go to http://tinyurl.com/6sd4ybb.