Thursday, May 21, 2015

I Bet You Think This Bill Is About You

A bizarre narrative has developed on the right suggesting that Council-member Calvin Ball's bill promoting nutritional standards on Howard County property has somehow been designed to make County Executive Allan Kittleman look bad.  You've seen it in comments on this blog, testimony before the Council, and now letters to the editor.

When this same Council voted to expand non-smoking zones in Howard County, include sexual identity as a protected class, pass growth tier legislation limiting septic tanks, or any of the other bills that earned the mantle "progressive Howard County", it wasn't about Allan Kittleman.  Why is it now?

I don't see any greater purpose or grand conspiracy in this complaint.  If anything, Republicans are making Calvin Ball the presumptive Democratic nominee of 2018 without him having to lift a finger.  But I do think Republicans are showing delicate sensitivity to perceived slights.  Let's loosen up a little bit.  While Allan Kittleman was voted into office with the will of the voters at his back, so too were four Democratic council-members with interests of their own to support.  It is wrong-headed, and naive, to suppose that the Council should be precluded from using the democratic process to meet their objectives, just as it would be equally naive to presume the County Executive will not do the same.  Did anyone say the County Executive's actions revoking the "Sugary Drinks Ban" or removing paid parking from Ellicott City were slights against the Council?  No.  These actions were "what Allan was elected to do" to be judged on their merits alone and not whatever political gamesmanship may be inferred from the same.

This is still "progressive Howard County" with a Republican County Executive.  In fact, Allan Kittleman was elected, in part, because of progressive positions he took against the tide of his party.  These Council-members will, and should, continue to enter legislation representative of what their constituents wish to see in their government.  And when they do, it will have very little to do with Allan Kittleman.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere

I watched most of the public testimony regarding CB17-2015, the Nutritional Standards bill (at least until 10:00 pm).  Less than 12 hours later, the "who had more" debate has already begun, but this is really besides the point.  Public testimony serves two purposes - 1) Educate the Council on facts not previously considered, and 2) Persuade them to believe your position represents the public will.  Conceding my bias as a supporter of the Nutritional Standards bill, I think both sides did a strong job on number 1, but that PATH and the Horizon Foundation took home number 2.

As I've stated previously, there is plenty of room for debate on this bill.  You can believe the underlying purpose of the bill (i.e., the 21st Century diet causes preventable diseases), while being uncomfortable with the proposed remedy.  In fact, I think that is a fair position to hold on any number of public concerns, from speed cameras to bike helmet laws.  But what bothers me is when the debate becomes insincere.  When there is feigned confusion over definitions, slippery slope hypotheticals, or ad hominid attacks.

Lest there be any confusion as to whether something less restrictive than a "ban" would meet the County Executive's concerns subsequent to his repeal of the "Sugary Drinks" Executive Order, it is apparent that not only does the County Executive oppose this bill, but his office manufactured many of the witnesses who testified against the bill last night.  From the Howard County Republican Club newsletter:
The county executive's office will have fiscal impact numbers on the county and other data; they are also working on getting a member of the chamber to testify and have the vending machine lobbying group to testify. 
In that context, the fiscal note on this bill should certainly be viewed with skepticism.

Interestingly enough, one of the numbers cited by Councilman Greg Fox from the fiscal impact statement was that the requirement to provide water at County events would cost the County $1 million a year.  The water provision ended up being a surprising focus of bill opponents throughout the night.  There was even testimony that "free water" would draw people from outside the County to Howard County events.

Now I don't mean to alarm anyone, and I hope people in Baltimore and Anne Arundel will stay in their seats, but...there's free water at Centennial Lake right now!  I had free water at the George Howard Building on Thursday!  In fact, you can fairly assume that there is free water at every single building owned by the County, which makes it truly puzzling that any requirement to make water available (even if you presume, as bill opponents do, that the water must be subsidized by the County) would have any fiscal impact at all.  By the language of this bill, "the water fountain is down the hall to your right" would meet the requirements of water being "free upon request" to County guests.

As I've said before, I believe this bill is an innovative way to use the County's position as a market participant to make good policy.  I can even see circumstances where Libertarian Republicans would argue that this is precisely how the government can and should influence public behavior as opposed to making rules that expand outside public buildings and events.  Making a big deal out of free water speaks more to the merit of the opposition than the merit of the bill.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love.

ADDENDUM:  My friend Ian Kennedy offered some additional insight on the blog's Facebook page:
Also worth noting that the actual estimate of cost for providing water at all county special events is actually $388,000, not including "labor, transportation, cooling, or trash removal costs". This number was misrepresented last night. (If I had to guess I'd say they arrived at the number by multiplying the number of people who attend county events by $1, a rough estimate for the cost of a bottle of water.)  
So they assumed, as did those in opposition, that the bill requires the county to hand out bottles of Deer Park upon request, which as you note is an inaccurate reading of the bill. It also hints at an irresponsible mindset: that the County would assume providing water meant providing it in the most costly and wasteful way. Howard County Government already owns and uses a "water buffalo" for distributing drinking water in certain situations, and it is odd that it wouldn't already use this water buffalo at events like Wine in the Woods and the 4th of July when proper hydration for attendees is a legitimate health and safety concern.  
The full fiscal note for the bill is "conservatively" estimated at $628,000, including the Department of Corrections' "grave" concerns, which amount to $20,000 in expenses.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Public Action for Public Health

Whether or not it is accepted by the public in general, most of those in the health industry would agree that our Country faces an obesity epidemic that is increasing incidences of preventable diseases, shortening the lives of our children, and increasing public health costs.  Similar to many other societal ills, the popular cognizance of this issue has been condensed to a morality play: If you are overweight, you lack the moral constitution to be thin.  If you are thin, you are a fundamentally superior individual.

I have to acknowledge that as someone who has lost a fair amount of weight myself and run in a few endurance events, I bought into a lot of that.  Not openly, but quietly and within my own thoughts.  But as with any other easy idea, it did not stand up to additional research.  Watch this trailer about a recent documentary called "Fed Up":

Now also watch this short clip about how our body digests sugar:

If you can't watch, here's a summary - a calorie is not a calorie.  Different foods are digested different ways by our bodies, meaning that two people who eat the same amount of food, but of two different types, will have vastly different outcomes in terms of how their body accepts those foods, regardless of whether they exercise or not.

Now we should put this in the context of capitalism.  Food companies want us to buy more of their food in greater quantities.  Full stop.  One way they can do that is by putting more sugar into their foods, regardless of whether sugar is integral to the taste they are trying to create.  Sugar tricks our bodies into thinking we are still hungry when we are not and makes our periods of satisfaction after eating shorter, prompting us to eat more often.  Once upon a time, we received most of our sugar from fruit, but this sugar was paired with fiber, which helped us digest the sugar and prevent the harmful consequences described in the videos above.  Now that sugar is served without the fiber that made it useful, we are getting fat, developing diabetes, and living shorter lives.

We ultimately pay for each other's choices in public health costs.  And in far less abstract terms, we certainly pay for the health costs of our public employees.  Officials at every level of government have advocated for addressing this public health concern based on public health imperatives, but also the most base concern of "this is costing us money".  At just about every turn, the food industry has turned up the "nanny state" dog whistle, which casts any effort at promoting healthy choices as "telling you what you can eat."

Understanding that our reptile brain is on the side of sugar (i.e., it wants it and will make us [temporarily] feel good for eating it), it makes sense to prompt our cognitive brain to make better choices.  And I will certainly concede that the manner in which we do that is up for debate, prone to overreach, and paternalistic.  We can agree there.  But only if we also agree that there are more silent forces exerting powerful pressure on our choices with a profit motive.  They tap into our subconscious with notions of nostalgia or wholesome fun.  They put influence on our government to sell inside our schools, libraries, and public buildings.  These aren't villains.  They are private actors operating within the space we allow for the "free market".  The only difference is that their influence does not stop with purchase.  It has a legacy that follows through to the doctor's office, pharmacy counter, and hospital bed.

So should our government act on this issue?  It is a matter for public debate.  The louder we are in discussing it, the more likely someone who sees a "calorie as a calorie" may be educated on the difference.  And this is one issue where knowing really is half the battle.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

About a Veto

Speaking with a friend yesterday, we turned to the subject of the Executive Veto under our County Charter (as friends are wont to do).  We presumed that Howard County has a pocket veto and that a bill not signed by the Executive 10 days from submission was effectively vetoed and returned to the Council.  That was incorrect.  Section 209(g) of the Charter states as follows:
Executive veto. Upon the passage of any legislation by the Council, with the exception of such measures as may in this Charter be made expressly exempt from the executive veto, the same shall be presented within three calendar days to the County Executive for his or her approval or disapproval, and within ten calendar days after such presentation the County Executive shall return any such legislation to the Council with his or her approval endorsed thereon or with a statement in writing of his or her reasons for not approving the same. Upon approval by the County Executive, any such legislation shall stand enacted. Any such legislation presented to the County Executive and returned with his or her veto may be reconsidered by the Council. The County Executive's objections shall be entered upon the Journal of the Council, and not later than at its next legislative session, the Council may reconsider the enactment thereof; and if two-thirds of the members of the Council vote in the affirmative, the legislation shall stand enacted. Whenever the County Executive shall fail to return any such legislation within ten days after the date of its presentation to him or her, the Administrator of the Council shall forthwith record the fact of such failure in the Journal and such legislative act shall thereupon stand enacted. The County Executive may strike out or reduce any item in a supplementary appropriation bill and the procedure in such a case shall be the same as in the case of the veto of a bill by the County Executive.
So there you have it.  Here in Howard County, we have "Pocket Passage", seemingly making the Executive's involvement in the legislative process that of a goalie.  Good bills can be signed or let by into enactment.  Bad bills should be stopped with a veto.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Time to Start Paying Attention

2015 Howard County politics is finally getting interesting.  Similar to a George R.R. Martin novel, a series of plots with various characters have met their inevitable crossroads without any clear indication as to how things will pan out.

First, the Howard County gun ban passed the Council with a 4-1 vote.  Notably, it passed without an exception for those with concealed carry permits, as publicly requested by the County Executive at the Oakland Mills Town Hall:
Kittleman said he wants to see an exception for concealed-carry permit holders added to the bill.
Considering that those with concealed weapons were the de facto target of the bill (open carry is not legal in Maryland), this was not a likely exception to be made.

This is the first "veto-relevant" bill to be passed by the Council to the County Executive and its final disposition will define the early relationship between our cross-partisan branches of government.  Notably, should the County Executive veto the bill, he does so with the knowledge that he will likely be overridden.  This is not "Growth Tiers 2012".  Does the County Executive hold out for a concealed carry exception or does he sign a bill that he doesn't agree with in concession to the 4-1 majority?

The Council has shown its own bit of gusto by pushing back on the County Executive's first action in office of reversing the previous Executive Order that reduced the amount of sugary beverages sold on County property.  Council Bill 17-2015 would require the County to provide healthier alternatives along with the sugary drinks and high calorie snacks that were reintroduced to County vending machines with the ban reversal.  This bill has already received support from The Baltimore Sun, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Maryland Chapter, and MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society.  We've yet to see what the Council will do with this bill, but I think there is a high likelihood it passes.  Will the County Executive accept this as a compromise that allows "choices" or will it be against his philosophy of  not having "government choose winners and losers"?

Finally, a funny thing happening on the way to the Planning Board.  As covered more than adequately by Bill and Julia, the County Executive's most recent pick for Planning Board appears both premature (Josh Tzuker is eligible to serve a second term and has done nothing wrong to merit early removal) and...well...odd.  I don't know Susan Garber and have nothing negative to say about her, but she has had plenty to say about members of the County Council (i.e., those people who affirm the County Executive's nominee).  Allowing Ms. Garber to speak for herself, she has called the County Council "accolade-obsessed", accused Jon Weinstein of trading favors for campaign contributions, and described Howard County educators as being "greedy" and "manipulative" in seeking higher pay during last year's contract negotiation.  So I guess the Council is just supposed to let bygones be bygones?

As I said, if you weren't paying attention before, there is plenty to dig into now.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hearing the Unheard

On Saturday night, a stadium full of people were held captive in Baltimore City at Camden Yards as protesters and rioters (distinguishable in name and purpose), demonstrated and acted out (respectively) in protest of the unjustified killing of Freddie Gray.  No longer was the suburban middle class insulated from urban concerns.  They were in the middle of it.  And as symbolic as a petition of grievances being nailed to the Warehouse, they were made to listen.

As may be expected, those in position of privilege and comfort dismissed these protests as being "ruined" by the rioters or otherwise having their message lost to violence.  They posit that once the rule of nonviolence is broken, the message is disqualified from consideration.  No matter how small the ratio of rioters to peaceful protesters may have been, they feel entitled to cover their ears and complain about an extra long commute out of Baltimore after seeing their favorite team.  They display an inability to carry two ideas in their head simultaneously - that rioting is bad, but so too is tortuous murder under the authority of law.

I've said it before and I say it here, I do not blame the police for the state of things.  The police have been burdened with a criminal code that has seeped into so many aspects of life for the modern day poor American.  Without resources for an attorney or the wherewithal to fight, legal citations exist as devastating taxes on those who are least able to pay.  99% of all police are good people who want to help their community, but we should not be surprised that the pressure of enforcing illogical and unreasonable laws breaks through in occasions of violence.

On Sunday morning, I laughed out loud when I saw one of my fellow (white) alumni from a private high school post on Facebook that it was wrong that Freddie Gray died, but he should not have run from the police.  Proportionality notwithstanding, the lack of introspection into how much different Freddie Gray's life was from our own was baffling.  Privilege can be unpacked with a series of "why's":

Why would I not have run?  Because I respect authority figures.
Why do I respect authority figures?  Because I have had positive experiences with them.
Why have I had positive experiences with them?  Because I grew up with supportive parents, went to good schools, had everything I ever needed, and, oh yeah, I'm a white suburbanite.

Yet again, we come back to the presumption that poor people have some default in character that merit their station.  It is a particularly comfortable thought if you are not poor, gaining additional comfort and self-congratulation as you move further from that mark.

And your interest in defining thousands of peaceful protesters by the dozens of rioters who won the news-day is likely correlated to your belief that poor people are bad people.  You may not acknowledge it, but you give hints of this belief by advocating for welfare drug testing and the like.  We have airport security because we have reason to believe people may want to blow up a plane.  We have welfare drug testing because we have reason to believe people on welfare use drugs.

And lest we spend too much time condemning the rioters, we should remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who prized nonviolence above all else:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

Have compassion.  Stop taking the first opportunity to condemn your neighbor.  Don't eat the media kibble.  We can have peace and justice for Freddie Gray.  You should want both.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Columbia Village Elections, 2015

The Columbia Village Elections of 2013 were painful.  I saw so many good people lose races they cared deeply about due to bad process, misinformation, and entrenched interests.  Thankfully, as I predicted soon thereafter, despite winning seats those entrenched interests were not particularly sophisticated when it came to governance.  If you could tell me one iota of harm (or good) that has resulted from the 2013 elections, it would be news to me.

But that should not take away from the importance of these elections.  I would say the reason the Columbia Association has kept steady over the past two years is in great part due to leaders from places like Dorsey's Search, River Hill, Owen Brown, and Kings Contrivance.  Without those leaders, and the delicate majority they were able to muster on important votes, we would have a much different $63 million non-profit-community-organization-and-homeowners-association on our hands.

You should vote this Saturday.  Not just out of civic obligation.  You should vote because five minutes of your Saturday is the least you can give in appreciation to those who will be spending hours, and sometimes days, away from their families doing Columbia's work.  I've never found guilt or obligation a good motivator, but if you're otherwise inclined to say "don't care" and go about your day, I think you should do so knowing that someone else is carrying your share and your failure to vote is disrespectful.

Here are my endorsements for contested Village Elections:

Dan Woodruff - Dorsey's Search, CA Rep/Columbia Council

I really cannot recommend Dan enough.  He is one of the smartest community volunteers I've met and knows CA's books backwards and forwards.  Dan is even-headed while also maintaining a passion for all things Howard County.  It will be my honor to vote for him tomorrow.

Ed Coleman - Long Reach, CA Rep/Columbia Council

Ed Coleman was a better CA Board Member than I ever was.  If elections were job interviews, he would have won in 2013.  Ed considers process and outcomes in ways that very few can.  He brought pragmatism and common sense to complex issues.  If you live in Long Reach, vote for Ed.

No Endorsement - Hickory Ridge Village Board

There is a contested election here, but I don't know enough about the people running to make a competent endorsement.  I hope someone will provide one in the comments.

Shari Zaret, Jenna Salmon - Kings Contrivance Village Board

I served with Shari on the CA Board and found her to be a tremendous leader, an empathetic thinker, and a dedicated public servant.  I have only recently met Jenna Salmon through my work on the Columbia Festival of Arts Board, but am so excited to see her name on the ballot.  She is an enthusiastic, friendly, and passionate leader.  I look forward to seeing Jenna do many things in this community for years to come.

Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, Marcia White, Frederick B. Eiland, and Bill Woodcock - Oakland Mills Village Board

I've stated my reasons for supporting these folks before.  There's a lot of passion in Oakland Mills.  Let's hope that passion can be put in a constructive direction.

I'm saddened to see so many vacancies on our local boards.  If you are curious as to whether there is a vacancy where you live, check this run-down in the Flier.  I'll tell you this much - in 3 and a half years, we're going to have some heated primaries in Columbia for some important seats.  If you're willing to sit on the sidelines now, when the unglamorous work needs to get done, don't expect too many people to stand up for you when you're going for something bigger.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love!  Don't forget that the Ellicott City Spring Festival is this weekend!  I'll be selling popcorn at the Wine Bin from 2:30 pm to 4:00 pm, which benefits Voices for Children.