Governance ideal has flaws

It sounds great in principle.

Thomas Jefferson almost certainly would have heartily endorsed a system of governance that relies on citizen commissions. There’s something dizzyingly democratic (note the small “d”) about placing citizens in the trenches of civil society. Sounds better than leaving governance in the hand of politicians and bureaucrats.

But then you read Danny Robbins’ story on the front of today’s newspaper and are reminded the ideal has flaws. One of our citizens boards decided it was just fine to certify a doctor who had been accused in another state of hiring a hit man to knock off a patient. Citizens elsewhere have taken less kindly to the good doctor’s bedside manner.

And the medical board may be a best case scenario. It’s packed with doctors, who ought to be pretty sophisticated decision makers. Most citizens boards are made up of people with far less formal training. Many members are part-timers who have full and distracting lives. Many are political cronies who demonstrated competence when their campaign checks didn’t bounce.

And there are many, many of these appointed boards and commissions, which do everything from investigating the mysterious deaths of children to licensing doctors, dentists, crematoriums, barbers and cosmetologists.

Neill Herring, a longtime legislative activist, has a sobering view of these boards. “The role of boards is far more symbolic than anyone cares to admit or acknowledge,” he said. “They are buffers between the actual exercisers of political power, who are, on the one hand, the governor among the elected, and the bureaucrats among the permanently — more or less — appointed, while on the other hand we find the easily distracted and gulled general public.”

Steven Clay Anthony, a political science instructor at Georgia State University and former top aide to legendary House Speaker Tom Murphy, believes that citizen boards have been big in Georgia for decades under both Democrats and Republicans.

“Generally, in states that have limited government with part-time legislative bodies, etc. – which certainly describes Georgia at the state level – you can’t get done everything you want to get done through the official elected body and its support staff,” Anthony said. “So, you create boards and commissions to carry out some of these duties.”

But this arrangement has its inherent problems, he argues. “You have time constraints, limited budgets that have to be approved separately to fund all this,” he said. “Because of the overall political culture, you can get a piecemeal effort that gets some of the work done, but usually not anywhere near all of it.”

When subjected to the scrutiny of one of our talented investigative reporters, the work of these boards can come across as questionable at best. In addition to Danny’s piece today, our reporters have found much wanting in the system. The poster child is the state ethics commission, covered end to end by Aaron Gould Sheinin. The commission has just started creeping from catatonia to slow motion in its work of resolving a massive backlog of cases.

And a casual perusal of our newspaper over the past year suggests that such failings might be pretty common.

  • Janel Davis and Chris Joyner found that the Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission has approved well-known diploma mills without thinking much about the quality of education they offered.
  • Georgia's statewide Child Fatality Review Panel is supposed to examine the death of every child in the state. But Alan Judd's reporting found that the process had become an empty exercise.
  • Alan also found that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole secretly forgave sex offenders and allowed violent ex-cons to regain their rights to own firearms without informing victims and prosecutors.

These boards operate with a level of secrecy that makes it hard for the public – and, often, journalists – to take the measure of their work. Obviously, a lot of this work must be done in private, but it seems commonplace for these boards to embrace secrecy even when the need for privacy is debatable.

Barry CranfiIl knows the shortcomings firsthand. He was appointed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue to preside over the state’s Board of Nursing. He eventually concluded that the board’s work was so inadequate that it was placing patients in danger. “There was an absolutely abysmal lack of resources,” Cranfill told me. Among the duties of the board and staff is resolving complaints against the state’s 160,000 nurses. “We were behind three to four years,” he said. “We had impaired nurses out there with patients because we were so far behind.”

He said the board had an annual budget of about $2 million. By comparison, North Carolina has about the same number of nurses, but its licensing board has a much larger staff and a budget of about $7 million a year. In North Carolina, complaints against nurses are resolved in about 45 days rather than the years it takes in Georgia.

The problem in Georgia is compounded in Cranfill’s view because the licensing boards are constricted by a long-held practice that diverts much of the money raised from fees to the state treasury. Cranfill contends that the boards are supposed to receive all the money collected from the professional fees. For example, nurses pay about $4 million a year in licensing fees – about twice what the board is allocated by the state.

“The state is using those licensing fees as a slush fund,” he contends. Professionals – nurses, doctors, dentists – are in effect paying an additional tax to the state when they believe they are paying a fee intended to safeguard the integrity of their professions.

When he raised hell about all this last year, he wasn’t reappointed to the board.

None of this should suggest that all boards are bad. Cathy Cox, the former secretary of state, stresses that many do good work. “I was sometimes disappointed by boards who acted like little fiefdoms – free to do whatever they wanted to do,” she wrote me in an email. “That often took the form of passing anti-competitive, onerous regulations designed simply to make it harder for others to get into their line of work.”

She notes that, even though these boards fall under the purview of the secretary of state, her office had no legal authority to review, revise or revoke any of their rules or regulations.

“That’s the heart of the problem with many of these appointed boards: they are accountable to no one. Not even the governor who appoints them has any authority, in most cases, to do anything about the work product – or lack thereof – of these boards.”