Friday, February 5, 2016

Public Criticism and Decision-Making

Most people can go through their entire lives without a single decision being criticized in the public eye.  Sure, they may have a skeptical spouse or an incensed teenager, but their decisions remain outside of the realm of open assault by strangers.  Those who enter elected office, serve on government committees, or even serve on nonprofit boards, all should expect, and in many respects welcome, public critique.

I will probably always remember my first vote of public consequence.  It was to elect the chair of the CA Board.  I had been privately lobbied from the moment I had joined the Board by two different coalitions supporting two different candidates.  I knew the vote would be tight and that I would be the deciding factor.  This vote was picayune to the point of irrelevance, but it made me nervous.  Sure enough, after it was over, the losing candidate came up to me with anger in their eyes to say "I know how you voted and I do NOT appreciate it."  Needless to say, I cared less and less about such scrutiny as time went on.

The effect of outside critique on an individual is not particularly interesting.  Some shut down and close their office door.  Some tune it all out and press ahead.  Some break down and go in whatever direction the wind is blowing regardless of whether it is consistent with the long term plan.  In any of those circumstances, the integrity of the office stands firm despite the weakness, or strength, of the individual.

What is interesting, and concerning, is what public critique can do to an organization or government body.  It can result in the construction and reinforcement of walls.  The members trust no one but themselves.  They "read their own press releases" and discount outside commentary as either uninformed or motivated by some out-of-proportion conspiracy to take them out.  The members justify withholding information and orchestrate farcical expressions of public support.  They engage in more closed meetings, faster decision-making, and less explanation for the same.

Why?  Because they know best.  The hardest thing to accept is that they actually have good intentions.  They believe the are on the right side of the issue, but they don't consider how they could ever find out if they weren't.  "If everyone who disagrees with us is a bad guy, then anything we say must be good."

This approach to public criticism is most offensive when you consider the alternative: recognize the institutional flaws, correct course, and open up the debate.  In one word - deescalation.  Stop, breathe, respond.

I'm obviously talking about the Howard County Board of Education and their decision to renew the contract of Howard County's highest paid public employee - the Superintendent.  I have been avoiding this issue for two reasons: 1) Although I don't know her, I have had nothing but pleasant interactions with Dr. Foose, and 2) I have a great deal of respect for just about all of the current members of our Board of Education.

I am writing now because I am deeply disappointed and disgusted by what has become a public embarrassment.  I don't need to talk about mold, transparency, or racist videos to identify troubling aspects of how our school system is being run.  In just the past three months we have seen a HCPSS budget that has no chance of being passed , two out of the three members of the Board of Public Works (one of whom was the Governor) criticized our school system openly in a public forum, and public information act requests are being stonewalled on a near monthly basis.  In this context, it is downright baffling that not only was the Superintendent's contract renewed, but the public was essentially shut out of the process (in some cases literally).

I posted something last night and I believe it is true - It seems like the Howard County Board of Education has mistaken winning a vote for winning the issue.  That's what happens when public critique makes you insular.  You pack a room with supporters so you can hear their applause.  But you do something else too - you let all the outsiders sit together as they recognize they've been wronged.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye 2015

I started 2015 looking for change and I am happy to say I found it.  I have a restless soul by nature and am inclined to take chances on new opportunities.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't, but I can easily say I am in a better place now than I was in December of 2014.

I enjoyed 2015, but I'm happy to see it go.  It was a year filled with emotion - happiness, anger, hope, frustration, love, disgust.  That's not the way I normally like to live my life.  I prefer an even keel, marked goals, and predictability.  Emotions upset all of that.  They cause erratic behavior, destroy relationships, and are ultimately self-serving.  I think that's out of my system, but I can't say there haven't been long-lasting consequences that I ultimately regret.

But I also learned a lot this year.  After spending 18 months focused on the outside (voters, endorsements, fundraising), I spent the last 14 months looking in.  I didn't go to as many events.  I didn't write as much (at least not publicly).  Heck, I even gave up Facebook for 40 days (and probably will do so again).  I can tell you that the inside work is much more exhausting than any amount of time knocking on doors.

I appreciated what my friend Candace posted on Facebook this past week:
1. Decide on what matters the most.
2. Say no to everything else.
3. When something falls in the gray area, re-read #2.
My 2015 was spent thinking about #1.  I haven't been great at #2, but I think that's because I haven't been able to answer #1.  My family, of course, my friends, of course, but then what?

The past few months have helped me rediscover abandoned passions and hobbies.  I've read more books this year than the past two put together (and that is with a toddler on the loose [who is adverse to unripped paper]).  I've restarted a program I created for ex-offenders in Baltimore City that will be going on its fourth session next month.  I've taken leadership positions on nonprofit boards that previously seemed outside of my depth.  I have a lot of pans on the stove.

I've committed myself to make my 2016 a year of building and growth.  No more change.  I want to be a better husband, a better father, a better son, and a better friend.  I want dedicate time and effort to my professional career in a way that I haven't since passing the bar exam nearly 10 years ago.  I'm going to ensure that every hour I spend working with nonprofit boards or in our community has a commensurate positive outcome. And I'm going to "say no to everything else".

Have a great 2016 doing what you love!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Respecting Idealism

Over the weekend I listened to a Politics & Prose podcast that featured Jon Meachum discussing his new biography of George H.W. Bush (high on my Christmas book wish-list).  There were many insights worth sharing, but one of my favorites was a quote from President Bush addressing then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and one of his lieutenants, Representative Vin Weber.  Rep. Weber had asked the President to tell them his greatest fear about them (i.e., the conservative wing of the party).  Bush responded "I’m worried that sometimes your idealism will get in the way of what I think is sound governance." (emphasis added).

In using the word "idealism", President Bush was allowing these partisans their ideological passion without accusation of fault.  Sure, the quote is certainly patronizing, but we can presume the alternative would have been to say nothing or to tell them to "carry on" fighting the "good" fight.

Ever since I heard that, I have been trying to think of political convictions in the context of idealism.  As I've suggested previously, one of the perils of engaging in political debate is that there is rarely a final disposition from which to judge whether you were right or wrong.  Every outcome has a spin and because we have generally maintained partisan balance between the branches of government, each side can normally find room to blame the other.  You may think your party's actions were correct, but what good is that if you will never be able to convince the other side?

Wouldn't things be a little lighter, a little more enjoyable, if instead of seeing each other as right or wrong, informed or uninformed, smart or stupid, we just viewed one another as idealists?  An idealist may say that if only government would get out of the way, we would all be treated fairly and become prosperous.  An idealist may say that if only the government could take control of XX, we would all be better off.  Very rarely, and only along certain main drags of state capitals and Washington, D.C., will you see those engaging in political debate with malicious (or fully funded) purposes.  Most of us engage because there is some ideal world in our heads and we want to advocate on its behalf.

It's been about six months since I said that I didn't have any Republican friends with whom I would be interested in discussing politics.  It was a quick reminder of just how many Republican friends I have, how many of them read this blog, and how sensitive they are to reproach.  I really didn't mean it as an offense to others - it was a self-critique.  And quite frankly, it wasn't even true.  What I am really tired of are political "fights".  I've depoliticized my Facebook and cut back on this blog because I've found that there is far too much flesh and bone in political speech.  Feelings are hurt, regardless of intention.  Beware of attacking someone's idea for you never know how much of themselves they've put into it.  You may end up with blood on your hands.

I love to write and will continue to do it as much as I can.  And when I can figure out a way to respect someone's idealism, while advocating for my own ideal world, I will.  But at the very least, especially for this holiday season with all the family gatherings that may ensue, I thought this may be a good way for all of us to look at each other.  Idealists.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

#GivingTuesday in Howard County

Today is Giving Tuesday.  While I appreciate the sentiment that we shouldn't need a day to give, my experience in nonprofit service tells a very different story.  Philanthropy is down.  Way down.  While smaller nonprofits have been able to tighten belts and (continue to) freeze salaries, larger nonprofits are holding their breath and waiting for things to recover.

Based on my anecdotal experience, corporate giving is what has gone down the most.  With the consolidation of private firms (particularly banks), there just aren't as many "givers".  The sentiment that those who profit from a community should contribute some percentage of that back into the nonprofit sector has lost its compulsion.

There are certainly exceptions.  I don't think I've been on a nonprofit board or attended a nonprofit event without seeing names like Howard Bank, Harkins Builders, or Williamsburg Homes.  There are many others that I am sure I am leaving out, but your work speaks much louder than anything I might write here.

Individual contributions seem to have remained steady, which is odd in the age of the individual.  If we are "bowling alone" and freelancing and decentralizing our life, you would think we would do the same with our giving.  I've previously advocated for planned giving and continue to believe this is an important way to make a significant impact.  Nevertheless, I must admit that with a campaign, a baby, and a new job the support for my fund has slowed.  But even in the haze of "keeping up", I try to always remember that someone else is just trying to get their feet under them.  And so, my wife and I still give.

Here are some nonprofits I would recommend as deserving your attention on this #GivingTuesday (whether you think we need the "holiday" or not):

Living in Recovery - You will recall that a few years back we raised over $5,000 to help establish some of the first "Sober Houses" in Howard County.  That nonprofit has continued to flourish and currently has a generous donor willing to match donations up to $2,000!  If your philanthropic budget is limited, I think this is a great place to start.

Voices for Children - If you've spent any time on this blog, you may know that I've served on the Board of Directors for Voices for Children for over 8 years.  I currently serve as Board Chair, which has renewed my enthusiasm for a quiet nonprofit that does very important work for our county's abused and neglected children.  If you are looking to invest in giving children the comfort and protection they need, please contribute via this link.

Columbia Festival of the Arts - I joined the Board of Trustees for the Festival last winter.  Admittedly, I am not particularly well versed in the arts, but I believe in the mission of this organization.  Without culture, without the arts, Columbia is just a place with a name.  We will always have our collective history, but we'll lack the glue that makes us a community.  The Columbia Festival provides that glue and is undergoing an exciting change that will continue to evolve with our city.  If you see the inherent value in the way a collective experience can help define a place, you can donate here.

Even if my recommendations are not on point for you today, I would encourage you to find an organization that is.  They need you.

Have a great #GivingTuesday donating to what you love!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refuge in Howard

Two days ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued the following statement:
As governor of Maryland, the safety and security of Marylanders remains my first priority. Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety.
There are many things wrong with this statement.  First, the reference to the attacks on Paris suggests that the attackers were Syrian refugees.  That is incorrect. We don't know all the facts yet, but we do know that most of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals.  One of the attackers had a fake Syrian passport, but is of unknown origin.  Hence, this statement begins based on what can best described as an "urban myth".

Second, the Governor presumes some degree of authority over the federal placement of international refugees in Maryland and/or the "security" of Maryland's borders.  Last time I checked, the only distinction between Maryland and Pennsylvania is a difference in road paving materials.  The Governor's authority to limit refugees rests entirely on the cooperation of social services within the state.  Said otherwise, all Governor Hogan can do is refuse to offer assistance to refugees once they arrive, which raises legal issues of an entirely different sort.

Finally, Governor Hogan's statement fails in asking the federal government to prove a negative.  Stating that you wish to foreclose all refugees until the U.S. government can "provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety" is a waste of digital ink.  No one can prove that an entire demographic will pose "no threat to public safety".  In fact, in an irony that was not lost on most, the front page of the Baltimore Sun yesterday included an article about Hogan's rejection of refugees and an article about a white kid from Pennsylvania picking up a gun from his parents' house and closing down an entire university for two weeks.  Please, no more white kids from Pennsylvania until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that white kids from Pennsylvania pose no threat to public safety...and will not shut down our institutions of higher learning.

This is a scary time, folks, and not the way many may have you believe.  People running for President of the United States have suggested that there should be a religious test for those fleeing violence.  Others are suggesting we can, and should, close down certain religious facilities due to over-generalities and prejudices of violence.  We are repeating our most embarrassing and shameful moments without any reasonable explanation for doing so.

Just as Governor Hogan has no legal authority to refuse refugees, Howard County has no prohibition against going over his head.  We can, and should, reach out to federal authorities and nonprofit relief organizations to assist in the placement of refugees here, regardless of their nation of origin.  In order to be accepted as a refugee in the United States, one must go through 18-24 months of screening, multiple interviews, and a background check.  This is not an easy process and, had the Governor done one Google's search worth of research, he would have known that.  The unfortunate thing is that I don't think he cared.  This is political posturing, not policy.

Tell me if you've heard this one before: "Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties, in one of the wealthiest states, in the wealthiest country in the world."  Don't listen to the people who try to put manufactured scarcity or unfounded security concerns before the basic principle that we are the home of the brave.  Bravery is not just something we sing about at sporting events.  It means taking risks in pursuit of our virtues.  Being proud of being extraordinary.  Holding that torch high in the air and saying "This place is safe."

One last thing - After Attacks, France Increases the Commitment to Refugees

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

364 Days

Three hundred and sixty-four days ago, I was sitting in my wife's OB's office when the doctor said "Did I see you on a street corner the other day?"
"Yes.  Yes you did.  I was running for state delegate."
"Oh wow.  That's so cool."
"If you saw me, you're probably in the district.  Did you vote?"
"I did vote."
...
...
"I don't think I voted for you.  Sorry."
"That's ok.  Most people didn't."

Two hours later, I'm standing in the Howard County General Hospital Emergency Room checking my wife in for the birth of our first child.  My mind is racing.  I feel equal parts joy and fear.  I'm running through all of the obstetrical information gained from six years as a medical malpractice attorney while attempting to flush out all of the horrors that may be attached to such information.  My phone rings:

"Hello?"
"Hi, Tom.  It's Dr. *****."
"Is everything ok?  We're at the hospital."
"Yes.  I just wanted to tell you I did vote for you."
"Oh."
"You and your wife have different last names, right?"
"Yes."
"See - I did vote for you.  I just wanted you to know.  I felt so bad for saying I didn't vote for you."
"Well..thank you.  I appreciate the call."

Approximately seven hours after that, I met my daughter.

This is one of the weird, amazing, and lasting memories I gained from running for office.  On the precipice of one of the most important events of my life, someone called me with the (fair) presumption that the election was equally significant.  And at that time, prior to my daughter being born, I likely would have agreed with them.  The loss felt heavy.  Too heavy.  As with most other big disappointments, it also felt permanent.  Most of you know where this story goes.  My daughter lifted me back up.

Even still, in the days, weeks, and months after the election, I felt embarrassed.  I think that is a fair emotion to feel, but looking back it was without merit.  For all past and future candidates, successful or not, the result of the election is the same.  The people that didn't like you still don't like you.  The people that liked you still like you.  Everyone else who never met you and never knew you still won't care one way or the other.  The only exceptions for me personally have been a gentleman who works at the Dorsey's Search Giant who continues to call me "Mr. Politician" (he thinks I won) and an occasional random kind person who says "I voted for you".

The only lasting pain is found in the inability to do the things that need to be done.  The e-mails I still get from people who need help, but aren't getting responses from Annapolis.  It seems likely that three years from now the same issues I spent 18 months talking about will still be left to address.  That may be a politician's dream, but it is a community's tragedy.  That part still hurts.

I walk to work, enjoy what I do there, and have lunch with my family almost every day.  Life is good and getting better.  365 days ago I lost an election.  364 days ago, my life started over as something brand new.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Politics of Scale - A Better Board of Ed

My Council-member, Jon Weinstein, and Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary made a huge splash last week by announcing their efforts to transform the way we elect our Board of Education.  Amanda Yeager and Lisa Philips with the Howard County Times write that under their bill five board members will be elected by councilmanic district and two will be elected at large.  This effort has been spearheaded by Councilman Weinstein pursuant to his campaign promise of increasing accountability for the Board of Education.

This is a great bill and an important change for Howard County.  It seems that every two years I offer up the confession that despite my intense focus on local news and local politics, Board of Education politics escapes me.  Not only while they are deliberating and voting, but, more importantly, when I am deciding who I want to represent me on the Board.  You can confess too.  It's ok.  No one will judge you.  There are often 10+ people running for 3-4 spots.  A thorough study of the candidates will likely offer you little more than platitudes and campaign platforms that sound more like corporate-speech than education policy (ex., capitalize, leverage, synergy, capture, release, promote, empower, maximize).  And without a doubt, during some point in your evaluation of Board candidates someone will tell you it is the "most important vote you make" because our education budget is 60% of the County budget.  "Thanks.  It was a hard choice as it is, but now it is a hard and stressful choice.  I'm now going to go back to figuring out who's going to think outside of the box in a synergistic way that STEAMs the hell out of Howard County."

With so many candidates running (and confusion regarding what they are actually looking to do once elected), name recognition rules and accountability is lost.  If you can get your sign at more gas stations than the next person, you win.

Enter Team Weinstein-Atterbeary.  By grounding five of the seven members in geographic terms, voters benefit from "politics of scale".  The number of candidates will be manageable, more specific issues will be addressed, and, once the election is over, Moms and Dads will have someone to call when they have questions or concerns about their school.  It is that simple.

We should be thankful that Jon and Vanessa were willing to take up this issue.  The Board of Education has recently been a third-rail for Howard County politicos.  While everyone gets together behind ribbon cuttings and anti-bullying campaigns, Board-Council and Board-Executive relations have often been strained.  Why?  Because the Board gets to write a check for the County to cash.  And sometimes, the County needs to make painful decisions in other areas of budget to come up with the funds.  Any push-back in this regard is destined for failure so long as the headline would read "[Insert Elected's Name] Seeks to Cut Education Budget".  They may as well move to Cecil County before the Flier hits your doorstep.

Optimistically, a new method of elected Board members will change that.  If you feel your taxes are too high, you'll have three people to address that with - your Executive, your Council-member, and your Board-member.  And I'm going to guess the first two will send you to the third.

Do I expect this new structure to result in more restrained education spending?  No.  And do I think the current Board is irresponsible with education dollars?  No.  But do I think our current method of electing our representatives is fair?  I don't.

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