Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Two more decry Weast meeting

Leventhal raises specter of ethics inquiry over schools superintendent’s involvement in County Council race

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Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is making strategic, and perhaps ethical, errors by meddling in the special District 4 County Council race, the president of the county civic federation and a councilman said this week.

‘‘If it is true, it’s inappropriate,” Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said Monday, commenting on The Gazette’s report that Weast invited union leaders to his home to talk about the budget and urged them to back school board president Nancy Navarro in her bid to succeed the late Marilyn J. Praisner on the council.

Leventhal said county leaders have discussed having an ethics review of the matter, but that he would not want that to happen before the election when ‘‘the voters of District 4 have got to make their choice on the merits of the candidates.”

‘‘An appointed official not just being involved, but for an appointed official to be acting like a political boss ... I think that’s a big problem,” said Wayne M. Goldstein, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. ‘‘Even party bosses don’t generally choose a candidate among all others.”

Navarro, a Democrat, is one of four Democrats and four Republicans running for the District 4 seat left vacant by Praisner’s death Feb. 1.

Last week, Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher, said Weast overstepped his bounds as a policy maker by trying to influence the April 15 primary and May 13 general election for a council member to represent the northern and eastern section of the county.

Weast called union leaders to his North Potomac home on Friday, Feb. 29, and Sunday, March 2, according to people who attended the meetings.

Leaders of the teachers, principals and school staff unions, which have all endorsed Navarro, were at both meetings, they said.

Union leaders declined to call what Weast said as pressure to endorse Navarro.

Through his chief of staff Brian Edwards, Weast declined to comment on ‘‘rumors.” Edwards said Tuesday that Weast will continue to talk with union leaders and others to get what schools need for their programs.

Merle Cuttita, president of Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents schools’ non-teaching staff, said Weast told union leaders that Navarro would make a ‘‘good candidate” for the council.

Weast did not recommend any other candidate during what she said was a half-hour discussion, Cuttita said.

Asked if Weast or anyone at the meeting tied support for Navarro to assurances that teacher and school staff contracts would not be cut, Cuttita said: ‘‘No.”

‘‘It’s all in how they interpreted what they heard,” Cuttita said. ‘‘What I heard was we have to take a look at all the candidates.”

Elrich said school union leaders ‘‘know if they make him [Weast] unhappy there will be consequences. If that meeting happened, it destroys the bargaining process.”

Said Leventhal: ‘‘It’s not good judgment for the superintendent to get deeply immersed in pushing winners and losers.”

Navarro has said she knew nothing about the Friday meeting, but that she and Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who was named chairwoman of the council’s education committee late last month, did meet with Weast and union leaders on Sunday at the superintendent’s home to talk about the school system’s budget dilemma.

At no point did the group talk about an endorsement for the County Council’s District 4 seat, Navarro said.

Ervin has not returned calls, this week and last, for comment.

Goldstein said the consequences of leaders using such meetings to wield political influence are serious.

‘‘Even if it’s in his [Weast’s] home rather than government offices, that’s the appearance of a conflict of interest and it will not cause the public [including union members] to feel confident about this part of county government,” Goldstein said.

And if the decision came after the weekend meetings and before the unions interviewed all the candidates, that harms confidence in the process and wastes candidate’s time, he said.

Union leaders said it is common for Weast to meet with them when the council is making its annual budget decisions and Edwards said Weast would continue to do so through May when the council decides how much of the school system’s proposed $2.11 billion operating budget they will fund.

Weast did not return calls asking whether that plan would change.

Staff Writer Marcus Moore contributed to this article.