Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Memoriam: Jerry Richman

I learned of the passing of a good man yesterday.  Taking a hiatus from Facebook, I've been a bit out of the loop on many things, including births, engagements, and, sadly, deaths.  Last night I learned that Jerry Richman had died.

I've spent 30 minutes looking for a picture of Jerry on Google, but have come up empty.  What I was able to find were numerous articles and public records memorializing the important role he held in his community.  Jerry was an attorney.  He took difficult cases and won a lot of them.

I remember him as "Mr. Richman".  He was one of two people in this County who still called me "Tommy".

"Tommy - how are you?  And how's your father?  Great great, everything sounds great."

I've known Mr. Richman since I was little.  As I grew up, I looked up to him as a respected attorney in his community.  In 2007, I was confronted with a difficult career decision - did I stay in private practice or did I become a government attorney for the DoD?  What were the career pitfalls that I may not be seeing?

I called Mr. Richman and he talked to me for an hour.  He had worked for the Department of Justice and emphasized that I could always come back into private practice, but that being a government attorney was best when you're young and don't have many financial obligations.  I took the job with the DoD and while it didn't work out, I learned important skills and now have a security clearance practice because of it.  Being a government attorney was the right thing for me at the right time.  Thanks to Mr. Richman.

He was a warm, friendly, kind man.  I am sure that those on the other side of the courtroom may not have seen him that way, but that's in the nature of the profession.  I will miss having him call me "Tommy"; a humbling reminder that many people in this County have known me my entire life.  And I will certainly miss Jerry Richman.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Howard County Contracts, Favoritism, and Blowback

Amanda Yeager with the Howard County Times wrote about the Transition Team Report submitted to County Executive Kittleman last week, which may be found online here.  At one point I thought I knew most of the people on the Transition Team, but considering the article cites 133 members, I was likely mistaken on that count.  Either way, I know most of the Transition Team leadership and appreciate the comments included in the Times piece.

While I have not yet had an opportunity to fully review and digest the entire report, one recommendation stuck out at me and has me concerned:
The present way in which County funds are spent on contracts within the Office of Purchasing should be re-evaluated. Currently, there is a 10% set aside requirement for the Equal Business Opportunity Program (for women, minority and disabled-owned businesses). It is recommended that this percentage be increased to 25% over three years, and that veteran-owned businesses be added. It is further recommended that the percentage of contracts that go to County businesses be increased. Currently, only 119 of 649 contracts go to Howard County based businesses.
I have no doubt that this recommendation was well thought-through and will be refined in application (should the County Executive accept it), but wanted to raise an issue of caution.  Government contracting, at all levels, is a difficult business.  It is very competitive and often cut-throat.  Even more concerning is the overlap between instances of government corruption and the distribution of municipal contracts.  You rarely see one without the other.

But even putting all that aside, little of which is implicated by the recommendation, we need to remember that our county contractors work across the state in other jurisdictions that likely prize their home-base contractors over those from other counties.  We can expect any favoritism for local contractors to be reciprocated in neighboring counties, most of which have a higher volume of work than Howard County.  If Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Montgomery, or Prince George's started putting up barriers to entry or preference for local contractors in excess of what may already be in existence, local contractors will suffer.

I admittedly make this comment from a position of ignorance.  I don't know what favoritism is being dished out in those counties.  But I do know that the Columbia Association considered a similar policy three years ago and we were advised by local contractors that the long-term outcome would not be favorable for them.

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Long Letters to the Future

I recently participated in a brain-storming session for the Howard County Library Choose Civility Symposium.  I don't want to give up any spoilers, but can say that I am more excited about this year's subject than any of its predecessors.  It is the right subject at the right time for the right community.

Anyhow, in the course of our discussion it was mentioned that we are the first generation to live so much of our lives online.  Overlooking convenience, engagement, and the other benefits of living in an online world - we're leaving a wealth of "us" for our great-great-great...grandchildren to read; so much so that it can be argued that they will know us in ways completely unavailable to us for our ancestors.

Obviously, as a blog writer, I find this to be a point of particular interest.  And yes, I am bestowing upon my descendants a sophistication of understanding that may be "optimistic", but I think that so far, I've done a pretty decent job of leaving those bits of myself online that I can be proud of.  I was not always right (who is?).  I've sometimes been stubborn (who wants to read ambivalence?).  I've let emotion overtake reason (the essence of humanity).

And for the most part, I've done this completely ignorant of the persistence of my words.  I just didn't think about it.

I'm writing about this subject now because I wonder how many of you think about the letters you're writing to the future.  Have you thought of your great-great-grandchild spending hours scanning your words for their homework assignment?  Word-searching your digital entries for how you felt about current events as they were happening?  Were you hateful?  Wrathful?  Selfish?  Were you loving?  Compassionate?  Brave?

We're going to be wrong on so many things.  Future relatives will be disappointed in us just as we may be ashamed of our ancestors on certain points.  But unlike those who came before us, we have ample opportunity to explain our reasons for doing what we do, believing what we believe, and treating each other the way we do.

This consideration can be paralyzing and I recommend against finding such gravity in it.  Live loud and enjoy this great tool that is the Internet.  But consider whether your digital persona is who you really are.  My daughter, and her friends, will be reading about you.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sixth Blogoversary

HoCo Rising is six years old today.  Not to be trite, but that feels like way too short of a time and such a long time simultaneously.  There were times when my personality and the blog were indistinguishable.  There were others, particularly this past year, when the blog was little more than a scarecrow.  

This year was remarkable in that I considered ending the blog, repeatedly, and for good cause.  There are many personal reasons to write a blog and there are many personal reasons not to write one.  The latter category kept stacking up while the former stayed the same.  And you know this because the vast majority of you do not write a blog and have any number of reasons for making that decision.  This year, I thought a little bit more like you.

I will say that the last month has been particularly fun.  I remembered why the blog kept a hyper-local focus and that its greatest utility was in writing about things no one else was discussing.  You don't need me to talk about foreign policy or the US Congress.  You are more interested in the machinations of the County Council and Executive, how state policy affects local affairs, and the small things that make Howard County an interesting place to live.  When I tapped back into that, I tapped back into my inspiration.  It was invigorating and, from my perspective, constructive to the civic dialogue.  

It is easy to be humble about readership with a blog like this, but I never for a minute have thought that what I write "doesn't matter".  It's read by people who do this work, care about this work, and are affected by this work.  This consideration weighs on both sides of the scales when evaluating the merit of continuing to write.  Why step out onto that field, for free, and put personal and professional relationships at risk?  Just to say "hey, let's talk about this"?  It is irrational.

The contra is that but for this blog I would be living a much different life.  Much much different.  I would have different (and fewer) friends.  My interests would likely be more focused on national than local politics.  And I would not have had the same civic and professional opportunities that I've been able to enjoy over the past six years.  I say that completely discounting whatever influence my writing may have had on decisions made by our leaders during that time.  

That's why March 18th is a big date for me.  I am appreciative of every bit this little space has done for me and often feel like I owe "it" something for all of that.  But that's ridiculous.  It is a blank space - a receiver.  I get back what I put in.

As I start out into my seventh year, I can say there are significant life changes that have already happened, and those still to happen, that will affect what you see here.  And frankly, I think I'm almost done.

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Local News Coverage: There But Thinner

When I started writing this blog, there were two, and sometimes three, reporters covering local events.  The Baltimore Sun would send a reporter, the Flier would send a reporter, and Patch would have their "jack-of-all-trades" editor-reporter-delivery-person.  It was common to have the opportunity to see one event through the perspective of 4-5 people, particularly if a blogger attended as well.  Vain politicos could review each account to see if their pithy quote made the coverage.  A disinterested article could be differentiated from the reporter who knew how this event fit in context.  It was a multicolored tapestry that gave local news-watchers the impression that they were keeping up with things.

Over the past six years, I've seen five different people in the role of "local political reporter", some for as short as one month (we barely knew you, Jessica Anderson).  I've made a habit of taking each one of them out for a beer when they start their watch.  One of them even sought me out for a meeting shortly after starting in Howard (thank you, Blair).  I always say we are blessed with great reporters in Howard County.  They are certainly young, but they "get it".  They are less enamored with "Columbia/Howard County" then some of the old salts who have covered this place, and while that's probably a good thing, every lost bit of glimmer is lost context.

You see, Howard County loves itself.  The reason we have such a successful blog culture, and readers who make it worthwhile, is because those who live in Howard County are self-fascinated.  I mean that in the least derogatory way possible, but can tell you from experience that there is no truer description of our consumption of local news.  We still have a Howard section in the newspaper, our free weekly paper is one of the best in the Country, and there is a political notebook article written every week about what can normally be summarized as "the actions of six people".  That's not by accident.  It's because this media is consumed.

Unfortunately, demand does not correlate to value when it comes to local journalism.  The Flier and The Sun are getting smaller and their reporters are getting paid the same.  While we may lament the low pay of teachers and other public service employees, I would include local journalists in that number.  This makes it all unsustainable.  Local coverage is not on a good path.  It is not inconceivable to see a future five years from now where coverage of local events is cherry-picked based on salient controversy with one reporter covering numerous jurisdictions.  The coverage will still be there, but it will become thinner.  The article will become indistinguishable from the press release.  Context will be in the eyes of the beholder.  Public trust in our electeds will fill the void previously filled with investigation, accountability, and scrutiny.

I attended the "goodbye" party for Luke Lavoie on Friday.  He has always been one of my favorite reporters.  Wicked smart.  It may as well have been a retirement party; an odd thing to have before you're 30.

Have a great Monday doing what you love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Allan Kittleman's First 100 Days

Amanda Yeager with the Howard County Times has a great piece about Allan Kittleman's first 100 days in office.  One of the things she asked when interviewing me was whether it was "fair" to expect much of anything in the first 100 days of an administration.  I thought that was a very important question, not only as it relates to Allan, but in terms of any evaluation of how the County may be different under a new administration.

The piece in the Times captures a fundamental turning point that all politicians face - the transition from candidate that won everyone's approval to leader who needs to make difficult decisions.  Name the most loved politician you can think of and I will be able to describe a point in time when most people, not just their detractors, thought they were messing up.  And in this respect, County Executive Kittleman is experiencing such pressure for the first time.  While we all may be appreciative, or disappointed, in votes he made as a Senator, they were votes among many.  Blame or accolade spread across an entire body.  Votes towards a losing cause can be celebrated above all because those votes have imaginative consequences.  "If only..."  Meanwhile, the decisions of an executive have concrete outcomes.  If it is the wrong decision, the outcome hangs firmly around the neck of the person making the call.  You are accountable for your record.

In a similar respect, the County Executive is experiencing personalized criticism for the first time.  Sure, critique has come his way for various votes in his past, but they were premised more on the underlying issue than the performance of his job as Council-person or Senator.  Now, we're talking about how he, personally, is handling the County.  And if forces outside of his control cause anything less than smooth sailing, that's just too bad.

Over the next 100 days, I expect we're going to have one very important question answered - Does this County run through the County Executive or the Council?  And I'll add that the answer to that question may have little to do with whether Allan Kittleman is reelected in 2018.  It is wonky, hyper-local, and relevant only to those with regular skin in the game.  But it will define this Administration and the County for the next four years.

Over the next 100 days, we will see the first bits of conflict reach resolution with the Council (re: ban on guns on County property, Human Rights Commission "reform").  We will also see the FY16 Operating and Capital budgets issued, which will require scrutiny and response from the Council.  Executive Kittleman doesn't need to "go to war" with the Council to show he's in charge, but he'll need to show that he's steering the ship.  That is a heavy task when considering the 4-1 Democratic majority and institutional unity on the Council-side.

Needless to say, it has been a fascinating first three months.  We still don't know much of anything about how things have changed since December.  I don't think we'll be able to say the same three months from now.

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Howard County FY2016 Spending Affordability

If the title of this blog post somehow attracted your cursor - Congratulations!  You are a hyper-local policy wonk!  Please contact your County Council-person for a personalized copy of the Howard County Charter.

Anyhow, a very important document was published by the Howard County Budget Office last week called the "Spending Affordability Advisory Committee Report - FY2016".  The SAAC is charged with evaluating short and long term revenues and expenditures to provide recommendations on how the County should manage spending and raise revenue.  This is not an audit as much as a high level policy document drafted by citizen leaders to provide recommendations to the County Executive.

It is important to note at the front end that the turnover of the SAAC between executives was probably on the magnitude of 40% - remarkably low in light of the change in party affiliation.  I applaud the County Executive for seeing the benefit of having continuity in membership so as to make the recommendations the focus over the constitution of the recommending body.  Had the County Executive swapped out significant members of the committee, we would be left to wonder whether any recommended course correction was due to the ideology of the membership over the facts on the ground.  I also have the highest respect for each and every member of the committee whom I know and trust their recommendations.

With that as a foundation, it is important to recognize that this is a fundamentally pessimistic report that may be summarized with the following paragraph from the report:
This slowdown in revenue growth is partially attributable to one-time factors such as the impact on income tax reconciliation figures of the significant drop in capital gains between 2012 and 2013 because consumers realized capital gains in advance in anticipation of a “fiscal cliff”, but also is attributable to a slowdown in personal income. Personal income in the County grew by only 1.5% in 2013. And, while property taxes continue to show signs of recovery, the overall General Fund revenues are anticipated to realize only moderate growth in the near future. Reductions in the State aid based on the Governor’s proposed budget and the unknowns surrounding Federal government spending levels that impact Federal grants and/or employment of County residents working directly or indirectly for Federal agencies pose additional constraints on revenues.
And while "moderate growth" in common usage is not a concerning descriptor, the recommendations that follow regarding what should be considered show the severity of our current situation.  No bell was left unrung.

  • Authorize up to $90 million in bonds
  • Create an Ambulance Fee
  • Special Event Charges for police at "for-profit" events (read "Merriweather")
  • Increase Transfer Tax
  • Maintain Storm Water Remediation Fee (i.e., Rain Tax)
  • Increase property tax (1 cent for every $100 in value)
  • Limit education funding to Maintenance of Effort
  • Place hold on Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) payments
  • Reopen collective bargaining with Police and Fire to delay 4% pay increase
  • Shift new county employees from defined pensions to 401K retirement accounts
  • Limit use of unspent fund balances (recommends spreading unspent balances over numerous years instead of budgeting it for the year that follows)
  • Privatize fleet operations
The Committee also identified a number of future challenges, including the Wynne Case, that should be considered when evaluating future expenses.

Let me repeat that these are recommendations to the County Executive and not policy prescriptions set out by the same.  Any one of these recommendations would likely set off a political firestorm in isolation, but taken collectively they look like a minefield.

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