Monday, April 10, 2017

Elevate Maryland - Episode One: A Short Talk With An Old Friend

I love podcasts.  In fact, I love podcasts so much that I will do things I don't want to do just for the opportunity to listen to a podcast.  When I walk to work, drive my car, exercise, do yard-work, or vacuum, I listen to podcasts.

So, obviously, when the opportunity arose to do a podcast with my friend Candace Dodson Reed, I excitedly said yes.   When the extremely talented Ilana Bittner of HoCoMoJo agreed to produce, I knew we could do something special. Our first episode hit the interwebs on Friday, and I'm really pleased with how it came out.  Admittedly, the door bell at Joe's Deli is a bit annoying, but as one friend suggested it made the podcast "more real".  (I may be trying to make the next podcast "less real" on that front if at all possible.)

For our first go, we wanted to make a big splash with a well-known newsmaker.  I feel like we really lucked out by being able to have former County Executive Ken Ulman on as our first guest.  We asked about what he's been up to since 2014, particularly his work as CEO of Margrave Strategies.  I hear the phrase "dream job" more and more recently, but I can tell with Ken that it is actually true.  While County Executive, you always had the feeling that Ken had a vision for what he wanted Howard County to be and this vision was shown in the actions, initiatives, and policies that he put forward.  Ken wanted Howard County to be more green, more cutting edge, and an exemplar for other communities to follow.  That brought him plenty of criticism from those who thought Howard County was perfectly fine just the way it was.  But for those of my generation and anyone looking to raise a family in Howard County, that vision seems to have paid off.

Now Ken gets to market that place-making vision to those looking to be more green, more cutting edge, and exemplars in their own way.  He, along with his team at Margrave, works with college towns to utilize their foundational strengths to build amazing places to live.  These institutions of higher education realize that in order to compete for the best talent, both in the student body and academia, they need great towns.  Ken has found a very powerful niche that works well for his talents.

What I enjoyed most about this first podcast was the "rapid fire" portion at the end.  When I began the first question with "I'd like to ask some questions of you as a person...", Ken's eyes got big like I was about to ask him "boxers or briefs".  As I finished by asking him about books, movies, and music he would recommend, I could tell that he enjoyed the opportunity to step away from policy and talk on human terms.  From talking to many of you, I know that the book, TV show, and music he recommended were all downloaded, ordered, or viewed within the weekend.

For the next show, we would like to have someone on from the Republican side of things.  We understand and appreciate that some in the GOP may be hesitant to come on a show with two Democrats, but I would respond that we will have a failing show if we don't respect our guests.  We do not intend to offer a liberal rallying point with this podcast.  Rather, we want to offer up local content in an interesting way.  We want those who make public decisions to have a forum to express why they did what they did, why they think the way they do, and maybe what they'll be watching on Sunday night with their spouse.  I think we did that well with the first show and can't wait to see what comes next.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Safe for Six Year Olds

Two years ago next week, I walked into a family law court hearing for the first time in my life.  I had received an urgent message from Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Services indicating that a client needed representation for an emergency hearing on her petition to terminate family rights.  She did not speak English and did not have anyone available to translate.

The case was docketed for Howard County Circuit Court and I had room on my plate, so I took the case.  I did not speak Spanish, so my first conversation with the client was at the FIRN office in Columbia.  Through an interpreter, she explained that her six-year old daughter had been sexually abused by the client's ex-boyfriend, who was the girl's father.  The father had a drinking problem, which brought on these episodes of abuse.  While the couple was not together, they lived in the same apartment along with the client's mother.  She was in the process of finding a new place to live and/or getting her ex to move out.  Due to her unfamiliarity with the legal process, and discomfort in engaging the authorities, eviction was not an option.

When I asked her whether she had called the police regarding the abuse, the client responded that she was afraid to do so due to her immigration status.  She had overstayed her visa after fleeing violence in Guatemala.  Many of her family members, including her father, had been killed in her home country and it was not safe for her to return.  She had been told that refugee status was not available.

The client had called a social worker about the abuse, who had involved the police.  When the police arrived at her house, her ex jumped out of the back window of the apartment and ran.  Due to her concern about deportation, she refused to cooperate with the investigation and it was closed.  There was a period of time in which the ex was no longer living in the apartment, but after about two weeks he showed up again.  The client worked about 12-14 hours a day as a house-cleaner and asked her mother to watch her daughter while she was gone.  The ex would be around the house during those periods and she was concerned that the abuse would continue outside of the purview of her mom.  Every day she would leave home for work, she knew that she was leaving her daughter vulnerable to a predator.

I am happy to say that we were successful with both the termination of parental rights and a protective order requiring the father to stay away from the little girl both at home and at school.  Through the course of the proceedings, we learned that he would sometimes show up at her school asking to take his daughter out of class.  Thanks to perceptive and invested educators, those efforts were normally blocked.

Almost every time I met with my client, she cried.  Tears of frustration, guilt, fear, and sorrow.  She lived as a part of an underclass for which many government services we take for granted, like the protection of police, were not available.  Where many of us see "protect and serve", she would see a trip back to near certain death and destitution.  It is almost inconceivable for any of us to think of a circumstance where we are forced to live with someone who is actively abusing our child, yet that is not unique for the immigrant underclass.

Council Bill 9-2017 operates to disconnect the administration of civil immigration laws from the protections offered by local law enforcement.  It will have a practical and meaningful impact on the lives of people like my former client.  If I could have assured this woman that engaging the police would not implicate deportation, not only would her child be protected, but all of our children would be less vulnerable due to criminal prosecution of a suspected offender.  And this extends to all aspects of civil society.  Imagine being in a hit-and-run car accident where the only witness is an undocumented immigrant.  Do you want them to be discouraged from completing a witness statement?  Do you want them to be afraid of interacting with police?

I am empathetic to those who share different views on this legislation.  There is a firm construct in all of our minds that laws are there to be followed and immigration law is no different.  However, we forget that immigration law is civil law - the same as traffic laws and other offenses that result in a fine.  In fact, deportation is not intended to be a punishment; it is just the manner in which the law is applied and open to revision.

We can, and should, have a vigorous discussion about what laws like CB 9-2017 mean for our community, but we need to begin with the premise that children should be safe, regardless of their parentage.  If CB 9-2017 makes them more safe, then any alternative needs to carry that floor.  There are experiences that are completely foreign to us, such as this.  That does not diminish their legitimacy or their need to be addressed.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Memoriam - Rhoda Toback

I learned this morning that Rhoda Toback passed away over the weekend.  While I knew she had some health problems, this came as a shock to me.  And it would.  Rhoda always conveyed energy and vitality.  She was a genuine and loving person.

I came to know Rhoda during the effort to have the Inner Arbor plan passed through the CA Board.  She loved the plan immediately and was a steadfast advocate for passage.  Rhoda attended every meeting and spoke forcefully in favor of the plan.  I will always remember how my early impression of Rhoda as a kind but meek woman was dashed as she responded to an Inner Arbor critic with sharp wit and devastating certitude.  I knew then we would be friends.

During my campaign for delegate, she constantly sent me encouraging notes and emails.  After the loss, she pulled me aside to say how it was much more important for me to be there for my daughter and that I would find other ways to serve.  It was that balance between steadfast support and consoling mentorship that made Rhoda such a great person to be around.

Rhoda never met Harper, but she would always tell me how much she enjoyed seeing her pictures on Facebook.  As a Dad, I get a little self-conscious about posting too many pictures, but she would assure me that they were enjoyed by more than just family.

Rhoda was a dedicated supporter of the arts and watershed management, two things that have been weighing heavy on my mind in 2016.  She even wrote me one email in the form of a poem.  Admittedly, I thought it was somewhat eccentric at the time, but I will probably remember Rhoda for the rest of my life because of that eccentricity.

She loved this blog and commented often - always when the posts were the most optimistic and positive.

Rhoda Toback was a great woman and was a quintessential Columbian.  She will be missed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ellicott City - August 15, 2016

The greatest challenge coming out of the second week of clean-up is connecting business owners to volunteers.  As I indicated last week, the original notion was that businesses would have to recruit their own volunteers.  I was then told this was incorrect and that the County would be coordinating this in order to track volunteer hours.  Yesterday, I was told that this position had been reversed due to liability concerns and it was back to the "wild west" of volunteer recruitment.  My wife Nicole went down this weekend to help Rumor Mill and remarked to me that a neighboring business did not have any volunteers.  She noted how sad it must be to see a dozen volunteers next-door and not have any of your own to help.

So let's try to fix that.  The Ellicott City Partnership has the same liability concerns as the County in this regard, which limits the organization's ability to play match-maker.  There are numerous electronic forums (i.e., Facebook, Reddit, Craigslist) that could facilitate this process, but we should consider that many, if not all, of those businesses that could recruit volunteers had Facebook pages to begin with.  Those that did not...did not.  Please leave your suggestions in the comments (either here or the Facebook page).

Friday was a day of big announcements.  The County Executive announced that former County Executive Jim Robey will lead a "flood recovery committee", which will be made up of residents, business-owners, and representatives from local nonprofits and from the faith community. The members have not yet been announced and the specific tasks of this committee, other than "recovery", are not yet known.

The County Executive also entered an Executive Order creating a "Recovery Fund Committee" (referred to as the "EC Strong Fund Committee") that will create a uniform means of applying for relief funds and making recommendations to the United Way and Ellicott City Partnership on how those funds should be distributed.  News reports after Friday's press conference suggested the committee would be making distributions.  They will not.  The County Executive's Order states that the committee will be making recommendations, which will go to the organizations making disbursements.  The primary purpose of this is to ensure that grants were not being paid for services already offered by the government.  A secondary purpose is to create uniformity in application.  I think this committee serves both purposes well and look forward to seeing it progress.

There has also been some confusion over whether there is a collective "EC Strong Fund".  There is not.  The United Way has an "ECStrong Fund", but the ECP is maintaining a Flood Relief Fund under the "Ellicott City Partnership".  We have already received a few checks made out to the "EC Strong Fund", which we can only hope will either be honored or rewritten.  If you would like to support the relief effort, please continue to send contributions to the Ellicott City Partnership at

Last week, the Ellicott City Partnership continued to issue short term relief by way of $100 check cards and, starting today, will begin making distributions of the $500 Emergency Relief Grants.  We are reviewing applications on a rolling basis and hope to have the second batch reviewed and processed by the end of this week.

The Ellicott City Partnership also offered relief by way of an arrangement with ServPro Ellicott City to help get professional crews into these businesses for clean-up and mold remediation.  The ECP will pay 50% of all contracts not covered by insurance and 100% of all deductibles for those who had insurance.  As may be expected, this caused some frustration among those who had insurance who believed they were being discounted for "doing the right thing".  Speaking for myself, and not for the ECP, I am very sympathetic to that position and know we will do more to make it up to those people.  But for now, this fund can only be used for "uninsured losses not otherwise covered by government funds or services".  It is the best way to serve the most amount of people and address the most profound needs.

Week 2 seems to be the week of rumors, which is unfortunate.  Some have suggested that the Ellicott City Partnership is only assisting merchants and is not helping residents.  That is incorrect and belied by two weeks of coordinating supplies and check cards for those affected on the West End.  The ECP has accepted Emergency Relief Grant requests from residents and will continue to direct resources to all those affected in Historic Ellicott City.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday helping Ellicott City.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ellicott City - August 10, 2016

A week and a half never went so fast.

First, I've received a number of questions about volunteering.  From my perspective, the best way to volunteer is to link up with a restaurant, merchant, or resident to help clean-out their store this Saturday (presuming they will be allowed access).  You can also volunteer through Howard County, which has been sending groups of volunteers on "missions" around Main Street.  I recommend the former only because I know how much it has meant to those affected by the flood.  If you do not have a personal relationship with a store owner or resident, there may be opportunities to link up this weekend (stay tuned).  Also, in preparation for that opportunity, please be prepared to throw away whatever clothes you wear on Main Street and bring boots.

Second, what has the Ellicott City Partnership been doing?  A lot.  We continue to distribute $100 check cards and have rolled out a $500 Emergency Relief Grant program, which will begin issuing checks as soon as tomorrow.  Individuals and businesses in need of assistance may download the one-page application through this link and submit it back to the ECP by August 22.  The Partnership is in discussions to create a public/private panel of representatives from government and nonprofit agencies, which will review grants for larger sums.  We hope to see that group established by next week.  The thought behind it is that privately raised dollars should not be going towards needs otherwise serviced through government support.  While the public support has been tremendous, it is also finite.  We need to be responsible, while also nimble in our distribution of funds.  On that count, I can't say how proud I am to be a part of the ECP.

Third, please continue to donate and attend the many fundraisers dedicated to the relief effort.

Fourth, this is really exciting:

This Saturday, 9:00 am to 4 pm, the Ellicott City Market will be back in action.  It will be relocated to Mt. Ida (next to the Courthouse) and will not only include the normal slate of awesome vendors, but also Main Street merchants and restaurants affected by the flood.  There will be music, food, and the most amazing, resilient, and hard-working people you could ever meet.  It's gonna be a party, y'all.

Have a great Wednesday loving Ellicott City.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ellicott City - August 4, 2016

Obviously, the primary concern today, as it was yesterday, is getting access to the properties along Main Street.  Yesterday afternoon, Council-member Jon Weinstein posted this aerial photograph indicating what properties could be accessed for clean-up and repair:

Click to Enlarge
Per Jon's post, those interested in accessing these properties should call 410-313-2900 for more information.

As for the remaining properties, I expect that we will hear more information today regarding when business owners can access their stores and for how long.  Many business and property owners are concerned about mold and sustained water damage to otherwise salvageable materials.  I also understand that the County's primary focus is making sure we do not compound this tragedy with unnecessary deaths or injuries.  I wish I knew more on this subject, but that's all I have for now.

What is the Ellicott City Partnership doing?  Yesterday, Kelly Secret (an all around amazing person) was handing out Visa gift cards to residents and business owners for clean-up supplies and other necessities.  The ECP also continued to coordinate supply distribution with Courtney Watson (also amazing).  We have also arranged a resident/merchant/property owner ONLY meeting for Saturday.  Due to the nature of this meeting, I am not comfortable posting the details here, but please feel free to email me for details.  In the coming weeks, we intend to hold resource workshops to help business owners with the practical issues they may face after an event like this (i.e., insurance coverage, corporate filings, tax issues, etc.).  Nevertheless, please be advised that the BEST way to navigate these hurdles is by contacting the HCEDA.  As always, stay tuned.

Ellicott City resident Alex Belush (corrected) has created the "Keep Ellicott City Working" page for Main Street employees who need to find work.  If you find work through that page, make sure to come back once we rebuild.

Floria Volynskaya accomplished what I could not, which is a comprehensive list of GoFundMe pages.  You may find that list through this link.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove over to the Columbia Alehouse to thank them for raising money for the Ellicott City Partnership.  I had to park next to Potbelly (sorry Potbelly) and walk.  It was packed.  Thank you Justin Dvorkin and Flying Dog for being such great friends to Ellicott City.

And on that note, many people have asked me where they should contribute money if they want to help.  We have a number of great nonprofits that are focused on doing important work in Ellicott City.  My focus is on the Ellicott City Partnership.  We are the only organization that has Main Street business owners and residents on our board.  These are our friends, neighbors, and family members.  The ECP has created a separate fund for all money raised in response to Saturday's flood, which will be 100% dedicated to Main Street residents, merchants, and business owners.  You can contribute through this link.

Have a great Thursday helping Ellicott City.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ellicott City - August 3, 2016

First things first, the topic of insurance has been raised repeatedly over the last three days.  Those outside of town say "I hope they have it" those on Main Street are wondering "Do I have enough?"  Due to safety concerns, business owners and residents have been limited in their ability to access their property, which has ultimately prevented claims adjusters from accessing the property and business owners from receiving payment on their policies.  Of even greater concern is the fact that there are certain remediation efforts that are necessary to prevent a total loss, which are also impossible due to limited access.  I know the County is working as expediently as possible to get this resolved, but for those who are frustrated you should know you are not alone.

Second, for those who thought you had flood insurance, but have since been told otherwise, please see this note from the Howard County Disaster Assistance Page:
The Maryland Insurance Administration will have representatives available to assist Marylanders filing insurance claims as a result of the flooding in Howard County. Consumers can contact the Maryland Insurance Administration at 410-468-2340 or 1-800-492-6116 if they need assistance with property and casualty claims related to the storm.
I will also be looking to pull together a list of insurance coverage attorneys for those who are unable to find relief through the MIA.  If you are denied, make sure to get it in writing.

Third, the Ellicott City Partnership is continuing to fire on all cylinders.  Business owners and residents began picking up clean-up supplies yesterday and even more have been contributed.   Fundraising continues and we will begin looking into additional ways to get those resources out to the community ASAP.  The Needs Assessment online form went up yesterday and we've begun compiling the results.  Business owners should also consult with the Howard County Economic Development Authority, which is performing a needs assessment of its own.

Fourth, the Howard County Council held an emergency session this morning at 8:00 am to provide for the consideration of emergency legislation extending the County Executive's emergency powers past the expiration date of August 6, 2016.  There will be a special public hearing on the emergency legislation this Friday at 8:00 am, which will be followed immediately by a vote.  You can sign up to testify via this link.

Fifth, many of you have asked me questions about GoFundMe pages and how to determine if they are "legitimate".  As a preliminary matter, we should all understand that these are not tax deductible contributions and are intended for private use.  GoFundMe is a great mechanism for helping business owners stuck in between disaster and insurance coverage.  I strongly encourage everyone to support these business owners in their individual efforts (or those of their friends) to get back on their feet.  The best way to determine if it is "legitimate" is to evaluate the relationship between the person who set up the GoFundMe page and the designated recipient.  Did the designated recipient "like" or "share" the page?  Does the description suggest some level of intimacy that may be different from a person off the street?  If you are really concerned, try contacting the business owner directly and asking them if the page is going to benefit them.  BUT if it is a general page intended to help all of Ellicott City and you do not see a nonprofit associated with that page, send your money elsewhere.

Finally, enough time has passed since Saturday that we're now going to hear less about how to help and more about "what went wrong".  Among those opinions is the thought that we should not rebuild.  If you hold that opinion, I would respectfully suggest that you keep it to yourself for at least the next month.  However well intended, it will be not be well received.  And if you're talking about that instead of talking about how to help, your opinion likely doesn't matter much to begin with.