When Bob Maloney started attending school board meetings in early 2017, he had a bone to pick. Under a storm of financial headaches, the Indian River School District was pleading for public support while righting its own ship. So, as a resident and taxpayer, Maloney went to see what exactly was going on.
He started attending monthly board meetings and listening carefully to all the business. When it came time for public comments, he usually had questions (or a scolding) for the board. When he realized how many decisions are made beforehand at committee meetings, he attended those, too.
Maloney became a fixture at school board meetings, and it was rare not to hear him speak on whatever business had occurred that night. He would wish the board members a happy holiday in winter, and he’d commend them when they conducted business more transparently.
“My first impression? Honestly, he was a bit of a pain, but if you listen to people and what they say, there’s an element of truth in it, and some of the things he said were valid,” said IRSD School Board Member Donald Hattier. “Bob presented them in [such] a generally friendly, upbeat, open manner that you had to listen to the guy.”
Across town, resident Dan Kramer had been holding Sussex County Council’s feet to the fire for more than a decade. He’d been a watchdog, responding to their discussions (and known for his trademark rebukes). He’s filed multiple complaints with the Attorney General’s Office when he perceived the Sussex County Council to be violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
These folks — and others in the community — show up and respond to anything that is discussed: transportation, housing, finances and more.
Honestly, that’s what journalists try to do for their community — keep an extra eye on the people who have been selected to keep our democracy functioning. Sometimes it’s just enough to have a new face show up and ask what’s going on. As council members grow accustomed to their jobs, it’s easy to throw out a quick “yes” or “no” and “this is the way it’s always been done,” with little explanation. Every question is a learning opportunity for the boards and for their constituents. It allows our leaders to clarify — or amend — their actions.
We need more thorns in our sides, those pains-in-the-neck, who will give of their time and not be afraid to ask even simple questions.
Eventually, they may join the very group that they watched for so long, as in the case of Greg Welch, who now serves on the Frankford Town Council, after years of demanding better governance. Or they may just attend occasionally for their own curiosity, like Bill and Susan Kirsch, who would joke “It’s date night” in the audience at Selbyville Town Council meetings.
Or they might remain in the audience, like Kramer — always watching, always serving as an extra set of eyes for the rest of the public. And that’s because they care enough to show up, pay attention and question anything that seems off.
“He grew to earn our respect,” IRSD Board President Rodney Layfield said of Maloney. “In turn, I think we gained his, because he was a strong supporter of our most recent referendum in the community. … It was a good growing relationship.”
Similarly, several retiring county council members once gifted Kramer a small turkey figurine as a good-natured jab to his frequently calling them a “bunch of dang turkeys.”
Daniel Kramer of Greenwood passed away in September at age 74. Robert Maloney Jr. of Millsboro passed away in October at age 66. Both men left families and an empty seat in those public halls.
“He was always a good critic … and it may sound strange, but more people like him in the community are needed,” Hattier said of the school board’s watchdog.
So, I hope to see more people filling the seats that Bob Maloney and Dan Kramer left each month, listening to the ideas and helping face our challenges — and just speaking up.
I’ll see you at the next board meeting.