Angered by Montgomery County school board member Joseph Barse's recent public disclosure of top level decisions, the board is seeking ways to prevent members from leaking information in the future.
As a result, Barse says, he has become the Daniel Ellsberg of the Montgomery County school board.
The outspoken Barse likens his case to that of the celebrated Defense Department official who created a furor when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.
"They (board members) are trying to put the screws to me the way the government tried to put the screws to Ellsberg. Only they'll be less successful," said Barse.
Last month Barse revealed to The Washington Post the school board's secret decision to offer the superintendent's job to Interim Superintendent J. Edward Andrews after spending more than $20,000 and nearly a year interviewing other candidates.
Personnel matters are among several subjects that state and local laws permit the school board to discuss behind closed doors. The board can also meet in executive session for labor negotiations and to discuss legal matters or bids on contracts.
Openly furious with Barse's statements to reporters, board members discovered they could not punish their colleague because no law forbids board members from revealing the content of discussions during closed meetings.
Last week, by a 6-to-1 vote, with Barse opposing, the board asked its lawyer, Charles Reese of Rockville, to find a way to require confidentiality for closed sessions and to punish or remove from the board members who do not comply.
Suspending a board member or excluding a board member from future closed sessions are punishments that have been suggested, but the board probably will not be able to take retroactive action against Barse for leaking the Andrews decision, board members said.
"I decided we needed clarification on this for the future," said board member Elizabeth Spencer, who proposed seeking the attorney's help. "There has to be some way for the board to censure one of its own."
Currently board members may be removed from office by the County Council for several reasons. These include misconduct in office, immorality and incompetence. "Misconduct is probably the closest," said one school official. "But since there isn't any law or rule that says board members can't disclose what went on in executive sessions, there's no misconduct."
Nor does Barse think there should be a law.
"That's called censorship and we have decided as a society that we do not want to go down that road," he said. "The board's assertion of confidentiality is nonsense. If any board member feels an injustice has been done, it is his civic duty to reveal it. That is for the protection of the public. Otherwise, elected officials could close the doors and do what they wanted without public knowledge."
Barse maintains the board "truncated" the superintendent selection process by offering the job to Andrews without interviewing him as they had other candidates.
But Barse's fellow board members feel he acted irresponsibly and that he was clearly in the wrong. Marian Greenblatt, a board conservative like Barse, said his disclosure could have cost the board both Andrews and another finalist also being considered for the top school post.
"He cast the whole process in a bad light," Greenblatt said.
"He violated the confidential nature of executive sessions," said board President Daryl Shaw. "Board members want to make sure there's no recurrence. Otherwise, what's the point of having executive sessions?"
Board members say this is not the first time Barse has parted company with them on controversial subjects. In December, Barse accused Andrews and his staff of politicizing school closings, a position other board members said they did not share. Barse also was the only board member to oppose the $314 million school budget for the next school year.
"At this point he has isolated himself," Greenblatt said.
Barse, however, does not mind.
"There may be some temporary chilly feelings but that's not unusual," he said. "We're human like anyone else. When I took this public office, I knew it would be controversial and I'm not afraid of that."