Monday, April 30, 2012

Four Percent (Monday LINKS)

Long-time readers know that philanthropy is something I spend some time thinking about.  Not just "gimme the money", but more in terms of self-sustaining revenue (i.e, micro-finance) and widespread community support.  "Charity" is not just intended for the rich. 

Over the weekend, I attended two charity fundraisers, both wine events.  (If Choose Civility ever loses steam "Howard County: Philanthropists with a Wine Problem" may be next in line).  As much fun as both events were, I can't help but feel we are promoting a very inefficient way of funding the nonprofit causes we support.

  •  Nonprofit A needs money. 
  • Nonprofit A spends time, money and resources on creating an event, sinking $10,000 - $20,000 into costs.
  • Nonprofit A calls on its Board, volunteers, and friends to tap into (and exhaust) all available social contacts, friends, family, and strangers to "support Nonprofit A" by attending the event.
  • In order for Nonprofit A to pull in a 60%-70% return on each ticket, they must price the ticket at a level inaccessible to a large portion of the public, foreclosing any solicited contribution.
  • The event is maximized with additional gimmicks and solicitations for donation.
  • No matter how successful the event, the Board and Staff spend the evening head-counting to ease their concern that things "look a little bit light."

 All the while, the specter of coming out with a loss hangs over Nonprofit A's head, threatening the very existence of the organization on an annual basis.  This is the fine line upon which the vast majority of our nonprofit community exists.

That shouldn't be.  I will happily admit that a good amount of my "social life" (to the extent one exists) is found at these events: wine tasting, horse jumping, celebrity bartenders, happy hours, and restaurant nights.  It sounds glamorous, doesn't it?  But at the end of the day, aren't we just flattering ourselves into thinking we are the money balloons keeping this world afloat?

Can we give without the top hats and bow-ties?

Yesterday, while thinking this over, I was prompted to look up "Most Charitable Cities in the United States" and found this list from 2010.  It made me wonder what the percentages of earnings donated are in Columbia, Ellicott City, Laurel, Elkridge, Lisbon, Highland, etc., etc.  We're so accustomed to accolades in this part of the world, I thought it may be an idea to actually earn one.  What if we aspired to 4%?  Then we would really deserve a party.

LINKS

The Maryland General Assembly passed a law last session (really!) that would require all donations over $500 to include the occupation and employer of the donor.  This is to interfere with the practice of having a corporate donation to the max, paired with individual donations from various employees with no apparent affiliation, but at the behest of the corporation.  The size of the donation is not the issue.  The issue is being able to track influence.  So long as we have shadowy LLC's with unknown partners dropping tens of thousands of dollars into local campaigns, and hundreds of thousands into state-wide campaigns, these laws are small steps, but appreciated all the same.

On a related subject, this article from Mother Jones looks into the effect that Super PACs could have on local elections, where $5,000 can be the difference in winning and losing, particularly in "crowded primaries."  Well if that doesn't sound like a spot on description of what we can expect in true-blue Maryland, I don't know what is. 

I love Frank Robinson's statue at Camden Yards.  It is the exact same pose as a signed photograph I have hanging in my basement.

I loved this piece by Jessica Anderson regarding additional funds for the Plan to End Homelessness in Howard County.  I think an untouched aspect of this Plan is the prospect of it saving money 5-10 years after implementation.  That's not the core focus, nor should it be, but I think it is an important selling point.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: This was a no-brainer.  You come out for an event supporting Voices for Children, you're going to be the Blog Post of the Day.  Dennis was kind enough to brave the overcast weather and enjoy some vino under the...See Thru Tent.  Jane and I spent the afternoon serving "Tincho" (an Argentinian cocktail) and enjoying the generous contributions from Heavy Seas Beer, La Palapa, and The Wine Bin.  Overall, a great way to spend the afternoon.

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

Friday, April 27, 2012

CA Board Recap: April 26, 2012 Board of Directors Meeting

Start Time: 7:40 pm
End Time: 10:50 pm (Followed by Closed Meeting)

This meeting was equal parts highs and lows.  While I came in excited and interested about the way Hobbit's Glen would be decided, I left disappointed and discouraged about how we are partnering with one of the strongest leaders in Columbia.  After having a night to sleep on the events of the evening, overall I'm very happy about what we've done on the short term, but very concerned about long term injury.

Hobbit's Glen Clubhouse

We passed $5.8 million "Option 2", which involves reconstruction of the entire clubhouse, an expanded restaurant area that will hold between 150-250 people, and a special bar/lounge specifically dedicated to golfers.  We also approved the "Turn-house", which added another $250,000 to the project.  There was much ado about not having a "low cost option", as was eluded to in the Motion passed by the Board in 2010.  It was suggested that two of the former Planning and Strategy Committee members would have "let the thing die in committee" if they thought a Hobbit's Glen Clubhouse would be voted on without a low option.  That type of thinking is part of what is wrong with the Board.  Minority interests sabotaging majority action.  A lot will be said about "breaking a deal", but I think a much more dangerous trust issue was averted, that being the defeat of an important capital improvement at the hands of three Board members.

A huge "Thank You" to the 9-10 members of the golfing community that came out in support of the new clubhouse.  I have no doubt that you played a significant role in last night's vote.  There are biases and stereotypes surrounding our golfing community that do not attach for swimmers or tennis players.  One of them is that they are a small segment of Columbia.  The other is that they "expect" a private country club.  Meanwhile, last night, we heard about approximately 100+ dedicated women golfers, nearly 100 senior golfers, First Tee, and the central position of Hobbit's Glen in the social lives of innumerable golfers and non-golfers alike.

This was the right decision.  With contribution from the resident restaurateur, the price-tag will end up being well below $6 million, but in the context of what CA already pays for other programs, this is a justifiable expense.  Our golf courses "add to the brand" (as was mentioned by one of the residents last night).  I won't get into the argument as to whether they improve property values, but they certainly give Columbia the opportunity to shine and bring more people to the area.

Minority Business Enterprise Contracting

Last night the Board voted to incorporate an MBE policy into its purchasing guidelines.  The new provision requires 10% of the total value of all procurements will be purchased from minority owned businesses.  It passed 8-2.  I was one of the two against.

This was a difficult vote for me.  When considering policy change, the first question I ask is whether there is something wrong with the status quo and, if so, are we addressing it?  The status quo for CA is that there is already an aspiration to engage MBE's, which has resulted in 5% of all procurements being from minority owned businesses.  The new policy is nothing more than an additional aspiration, which may or may not be met.  I have no reason to believe that anyone at CA is overlooking minority bids or otherwise marginalizing MBE contracts.

I also have a philosophical problem in equating "equal" with "favoritism".  This is not so simple as being a white boy that doesn't like affirmative action.  These policies have a harmful psychological effect on the "favored" and "unfavored" alike.  Those that feel otherwise most commonly have never been the subject of such a policy.  I have good friends from law school who have and I will never forget the types of stories they've told me and the overall effect it has had on their entire career.  And that's all I have to say about that.

I think the Board probably made the right decision last night.  I just couldn't support it.

Assessment Share

As a member of the External Relations Committee, I have participated in a nearly 10 month process of adjusting what is called the "Assessment Share", which most basically describes the manner in which Columbia-wide lien revenues are divided amongst the Villages for operating expenses.  If that sounds simple, I described it wrong.  The ERC is very close to having a new model that more fairly incorporates the expenses of Villages and their "income-generating-ability" to allow for a fair distribution.  It was apparent that some members of the Board were frustrated that the ERC did not complete its assignment within the fiscal year.  We tried.  It's just too big.  There are significant trust issues between CA and the rest of the Villages (which are separately incorporated) and I think Andy Stack, as Chair of the committee, has merited an award for the manner in which he has steered us through those waters. 

The Board voted to extend the ERC as an ad hoc committee to complete the assessment share model by the end of May.

President's Bonus
The discussion of President Phil Nelson's bonus was held in closed session, but the results will be released to the public over the next few weeks.  Because this discussion was in closed session, I can't share the substance of our deliberation or what it is that bothers me so much about last night.  But I will say this...

Although I am young, whether through my profession or my hobby, I have worked with a large swath of leaders, professionals, business-people, and community activists.  I have never met a more temperate, intelligent, compassionate, or forward-thinking leader than Phil Nelson.  Although it was not incorporated into his evaluation, Phil's most impressive work has been in handling the varied and ever-changing demands of our Board, the members of which set deadlines only to booby-trap their completion.  Despite all of this, Phil handles himself with dignity and refuses to allow frustration to cloud his mission.

I just thought you all should know.

Have a great Friday doing what you love!  BIG weekend ahead.  If you don't have plans on Saturday, please come out to the Spring Charity Festival at the Wine Bin from 12 pm - 5 pm.  It will be fun!  Rain or shine!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Big Things Poppin' and Little Things Stoppin' (Thursday LINKS)

Over the past few months, I've heard the phrase "For the first time in twenty plus years..." at least ten times.  Symphony Woods.  Hobbit's Glen.  Connectivity Master Plan.  Aquatics Master Plan.

Columbia is on the precipice of big change.  The "new" and the "big" are finding themselves paired at just about every turn.  That says nothing of what the Columbia Association is doing to address changing demographics, increased population, and an whole-scale re-examining of what its purpose is as an organization.

As with any great ship, it has taken a while for CA to turn to face this new reality.  I would suggest that my first year on the Board has been spent on equal parts Dashboard metrics and Lake dredging as it has been on Symphony Woods and prospective planning.  But that's changing.  The rushing motion of time and consequence of inaction have put CA squarely in a position where it must act, must act now, and, most importantly, can't screw up.

Columbia will change.  Significantly.  The most important question right now is whether CA is an actor or an observer.  The "problem of the Village Centers" will be answered, as will all other concerns about taking an infrastructure for 100,000 people and making it capable of handling twice that amount.  But in order for CA to be able to exist as a stakeholder, and not an observer, it will have to change.  It must become more flexible, more agile, and less mired in deliberation.  If it continues its practices from the last thirty years, it will be overrun, ignored, and eventually marginalized.

If Howard Hughes finds a financially beneficial long-term agreement with Bally's, Lifetime Fitness, or Gold's Gym, the Columbia Association is in serious trouble.  That's not intended to simplify this $60 million organization into a gym membership, but CA holds a privileged position in Columbia, mostly unencumbered by any significant competition.  This allows for programs like the low-income discount and capital improvements that are not predicted to turn a positive return.  I often wonder how much the dynamic would change if we lost that privileged position.

For CA to exist and thrive over the next 30 years, it will need to be "as big" as Howard Hughes in its actions.  I hesitate to say that it needs to "keep pace", but it should also recognize the dynamics of scale.  If Columbia becomes larger while CA remains the same, we have become smaller.

Symphony Woods.  Lakefront.  Splashdown.  Village Center Gyms.  Hobbit's Glen.  Aquatics.  Dog parks.  Connectivity.  Tennis.  Columbia-wide WiFi.  Event Programming.  Web innovation.  Community Activism.

The big and the new.  All available to CA for action.  For now.

LINKS

Speaking of the Board, we should be making a decision about the Hobbit's Glen Clubhouse tonight.  If you are a Columbia resident and support the reconstruction of the Hobbit's Glen Clubhouse to create a new community space near the heart of Columbia, please testify tonight.  If you oppose reconstruction, please also attend.  This is an important decision and I will say that there is no clear majority.  I think the number one objective should be to come to a vote.  Enough time and expense has been spent bringing us here.

Lindsey McPherson takes a look at the hyper-local effects of the Doomsday budget on Howard County schools and the Community College.  I found it interesting that increasing classroom sizes from 19 to 20 was seen as a "big ticket item."  It makes me wonder how much school system ranking criteria, of which class size is included, directs education policy.  I won't posit an opinion as to whether this is a deleterious to educational "quality" as may be suggested, but it seemed like a "bubble" opinion that sounds serious inside the walls of the BoE building, yet appears reasonable to everyone else.


Caps win in one of the most exciting, nerve-racking games I have ever watched.  Apologies to my neighbors.  I yelled.  It was the yell that I had reserved for Lee Evans...about three months late.

A recent study of Baltimore City indicated that low-wage employment has now taken up approximately 30% of the workforce, up from 26 "a generation earlier" (no sure what that means in terms of actual years).

Baltimore County is fighting "sign pollution".  Stay way from our traffic circles, Kamenetz!

Featured Blog Post of the Day: I really enjoyed Matt Wilson's post about getting a haircut at the Wilde Lake barber shop.  This was where my Dad always got his haircut and where my Mom took my brother and I until we were about 12.  I literally cannot watch an episode of the Price is Right without thinking about this place.  As sad as Matt's piece is to read, it very well sums up the Village Center quagmire, with frequent references to the "dead Giant" that works on so many levels.  There are still places in those Centers that people should want to go (i.e., get a haircut, Splashdown).  But maybe that's just not how we live anymore.  There are so many options for buying anything you want, whether through your iPad or over a counter, that the base level presumption of "Well, they're going to have to buy it somewhere", possibly underlying the sustainability of a Village Center, is gone.  We'll still have successful Village Centers, but there will no longer be marginal ones.  Especially not alongside dead Giants.

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Specialist of Sessions (Wednesday LINKS)

Latest word out of Annapolis is that we will have not one but TWO Special Sessions over the next calendar year: one in May to pass increased revenue, the other in August to consider expansion of gambling in Maryland.

If you're against higher taxes and expanded gambling like this guy, you're out of luck.  The presumption with having two sessions dedicated to the topics of revenue and gambling is that something will be passed.  Sure, the heroic actions of some may stop or slow this train, but lawmakers seem to be indicating that grinding the political process to a halt is a way to get what you want.

But Tom, you said that the "Doomsday Budget" was bad legislation?  Don't you want a Special Session?

I do.  But the parameters of the debate have been set around increased taxes.  I assure you that we will all be told that there are equal parts cuts and revenue increases, but anyone who has so much as attempted to evaluate government "cuts" will acknowledge that there is a significant amount of smoke and mirrors related to "projected spending", "budgeted spending", and "actual spending."  You may even recall hearing not more than six months ago that Maryland had $1 billion in unspent funds (i.e., surplus) from 2011

The same ambiguity does not exist for increased taxes.  If they say you are going to pay 1% more, you will have 1% less of your income in 2012.  Even more concerning is that these taxes will most likely be retroactive for the entire calendar year, meaning you're not withholding enough.

And gambling?  I recently heard a lobbyist speak about the 2012 fiasco.  He said "Either do gambling, or don't do gambling, but if you're going to do it, do it right."  His point was that Maryland has so sincerely and near irrevocably screwed the pooch on casinos that we are actually losing money.  The Washington Post projects that Maryland tax-payers are paying $10,000 per slot machine annually in an effort to "protect the integrity of gaming."  Slow clap for Maryland law-makers!  And I have not even mentioned the morality of a tax on those that are "bad at math", which will certainly undercut any efforts by Howard County or any other jurisdiction to curb homelessness.

But we need more of that good stuff.  It's like Pet Sematary of bad ideas over there.

If you're not mad, you're not paying attention.  Here in Howard County, we have some very senior, very powerful legislators.  As much as I like them personally, I don't find them blameless.  Where was the leadership here?  How did things get this way?  What are you doing to make sure it never happens again? 

LINKS

The Orioles began their home-stand with a W.  I was at the game which brings my attendance record to 3-1.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that the collection of DNA from suspects of violent crime and burglaries constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure.  That seems just about right.  It should be noted that this effectively reversed a rape conviction, which is a sad footnote.  The crime fighting abilities of the state will always be countered by the liberties of the individual.  To the extent this measure had been upheld, it would be a dangerous high water mark for future intrusions into the lives of the innocent and guilty alike.

Zillow predicts an "L" shaped recovery of the housing market.  Um, an "L"?  If you have an "L" shaped recovery in the emergency room, you are dead.

In 2007, Baltimore County lost $21 million that effectively "went up in smoke" after their investment was downgraded to junk status "less than a month" after purchasing, according to documents released by the County, which is considering a lawsuit against Merrill Lynch.  I bet the following words were uttered at least once: "I'm sorry, what?"  (Followed by words that don't meet the editorial standards of this blog)

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Julia has some great reflections on her time as a Village Board member as she steps down from her seat (temporarily) and attends to family matters.  It reminded me that the rewards of Village Board service are not so easily described in an answer to the question "What do Village Boards do?"  I spent twenty minutes last Saturday discussing the applicability of RAC and County guidelines to a backyard apiary and could not think of much else I would have rather been doing.  It wasn't because of the subject matter.  I just really like the people and the opportunity to problem solve with folks I like working with.  That is the fun part.  The motto for Board service should be "We do stuff...together."  In a world where we spend so much time alone with our screens, Village Boards provide authenticity and interpersonal cooperation (and strife) in a way that cannot be replicated.  So laugh and discount its value.  But when you need a stop sign, we're the one's that will figure out the way to get it done.  And we'll have a good time doing it.

That's all for today.  A few community notes:

TONIGHT is The Path Forward event regarding Cycling Innovations across the United States.  I have seen Jennifer Toole speak regarding CA's own connectivity Master Plan and highly recommend this event...especially if you felt left out after missing the Leinberger talk.

The Blackbird Poetry Festival begins tomorrow!  I saw poet Martin Espada speak last year and it was probably a 2011 community highlight for me.  Please don't miss out on this year's Festival. 

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Oversold (Tuesday LINKS)

I may have been premature in expressing my support for an increase in the fire tax.  Regretfully, I jumped the gun based on incomplete data and a misunderstanding of the numbers I was looking at.  That's not to say that this proposal does not have merit.  I am simply criticizing my own failure in skepticism and recommending a further review of the facts.

There is an a lot of important data in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports for Howard County, which look past the budgeted amounts for County expenditures and get right to the heart of "what does it cost?"

For instance, in 2009, the Fire Tax brought in $65.8 million.  Public safety expenses were $52 million, but there was a transfer out of $9.5 million, leaving the total Fire and Rescue budget at negative $6.6 million after drawing down $2.8 million from the reserve balance.

In 2010, the Fire Tax brought in $68.8 million.  Public safety expenses, although budgeted at $72 million, were only $56.2 million.  There was a transfer out of $2.4 million, leaving a surplus of $10.3 million that was put in the reserve fund.

In 2011, Fire Tax revenues were $66.4 million (further indication of the volatility of this revenue stream).  Public safety expenses were $60.2 million.  There was a transfer out of $2.9 million and yet another surplus of $3.4 million.

Between 2009 and 2011, the Reserve Fund Balance has increased from $8 million to $22.2 million.

In light of all this, the proposed increase may be premature.  What is certain is that the volatility of tax revenue needs to be stabilized, which should be accomplished with the imposition of a homestead tax credit.  If I can get in the head of County leaders, I think that was the original goal here.  Once that was determined, the next concern was that the tax credit would effectively "slow down" fire tax revenue at a time when the market is already low and stagnant.  Hence the increase in the base level tax. 

I'm not sure what mechanisms or laws need to be implemented, but I think the real solution here is the stabilization of revenue.  Based on what I've seen, I'm not sure that the tax needs to be increased, at least not now.  The Reserve Fund is at nearly 30% of total expenditures, which should protect against any short term fluctuations, and the increase in tax in the West would be expected to put revenues in excess of expenses, assuming there has been no dramatic increase in expenses since 2011.

But I learned my lesson yesterday.  I'm not jumping to any conclusions.  I do know that skepticism brings you more information than acceptance. 

LINKS

Jessica Anderson has a good piece on Bridge Columbia, its proponents, and the concerns raised by some about its overall utility.  I'm excited about Bridge Columbia because my friends are excited about it.  That's what makes this project dangerous.  It is a capital project based on aspiration, ideals, and popular support.  As far as I know, there was never an urban planner that came to the Executive and said, "your costs and transit burdens would be lessened X amount if you build this bridge", which, quite frankly, is the reason most other bridges, roads, and pathways are built.  That's not a knock on my Bridge peeps.  I love my Bridge peeps.  But I think we should be careful and make sure this is a good use of tax-payer money, not just in ideals, but also in practical ways that can be measured with a dollar sign.

The Political Left yesterday morning: "There is no media bias."  The Political Left yesterday afternoon: "Yes, there is a media bias!  It's against Obama!"

Long term tax discounts for development projects in Baltimore are very controversial amongst the Baltimore City politerati.  I think we all would do ourselves well to follow these stories, as I think we can expect similar tax deals to be sought, and granted, in Columbia and the surrounding areas as we become more "urban."

The Port of Baltimore had the fastest growing cargo volume in the United States last year, growing at 15%.  This is expected to further accelerate with the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014.

While Lee Evans might have dropped that pass, the Ravens are about to own Boston in a much more concrete way.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Well & Wise further develops the idea that bullies are not third parties that we need to seek out and destroy.  This is an important bit of dialogue that we need to have if we are going to have any success in addressing the bullying problem.  I appreciate the link and want to keep the blog synergy going.

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Where There's Smoke (Monday LINKS)

County Executive Ken Ulman issued his Proposed FY 2013 Operating Budget (PDF) on Friday.  I have not had enough time to develop an opinion worth sharing, but my preliminary thoughts are that it is a remarkably "tight" Budget that continues to fund important priorities.  A lot of this is at the expense of "General Government", which is reduced 28% and over $26 million.  My reservation on saying much else is  based on my complete ignorance of what constitutes "General Government", but I hope to remedy that soon.

Most prominent in the new budget is a proposed increase of the (now) county-wide fire tax rate from $.1355 per $100 assessed to $.176 per $100 assessed.  I don't normally trust myself with math in the morning, but based on my foggy-headed review, a $300,000 home would have paid $406.50 under the old tax and will pay $528.00 under the proposed increase.  Extrapolate from that what you will.

When the Exec first proposed legislation making a county-wide tax, I...hmm, how do I put this.  Well, I told you this was going to happen.  This is step two of the Fire-Tax-Two-Step.  It is "what's in the box."

But, to the frustration of many of my friends, I am going to yet again disagree with the process and endorse the product.  I think an increase in the county-wide fire tax is necessary.  Here's why:

Unlike general spending funds from property and income taxes, the fire tax is a dedicated specialty income stream.  Fire and Rescue expenditures are bound by the Fire and Rescue tax.  However, for the last five years, as population and coverage areas have increased, the F&R revenue has decreased due to declining property values.  Unlike the Howard County Property Tax, fluctuations in the F&R tax were not controlled by a Homestead Credit, which would have slowed income peaks off of a bubble, but also cushioned a fall due to collapse.

Stated most simply, our Fire and Rescue has been asked to do more with less.  Between 2008 and 2011, the Howard County fire department has reduced expenditures from $68 million to $62 million.  Any more cuts would seem to be hitting bone.  There is now a new fire station in Glenwood to staff and additional units are necessary to relieve stations that have been spread thin throughout regions that are expected to grow.

This is a preliminary opinion.  The increased fire tax is the fire department's product to sell.  But what is most important in setting the parameters of the debate is recognizing that this is not something that "cutting Healthy Howard" would solve.  This is a self-contained revenue-expenditure system that can be viewed in very simple terms: Do you have enough money to do your job?  If not, I think the citizens of Howard County would be willing to support this increase.

LINKS

Amongst the $899 million Operating expenses proposed in Executive Ulman's Budget is $366,500 to fund the Plan to End Homelessness.  This is a very big step in the right direction.  These funds will go toward preventing homelessness before it starts and avenues of assistance to help our citizens get out of the woods and back on their feet.  I strongly believe this is a responsible use of tax-payer dollars to reduce money-pit social services that provide maintenance instead of repair.

Cynthia Coyle won re-election to the Columbia Association Board in Harper's Choice by a vote of 198 to 171 over her challenger Robert Fontaine.

The stories out of Anne Arundel County are just getting weirder.  After resigning from his post with the Attorney General's office so that he may sue County Executive Leopold in relation to a purported dossier that was kept by AA Co Police, "civil rights leader" Carl Snowden was charged in Baltimore City District Court with marijuana possession.  Looks like everyone is out to get him.

Reading this article about cyber-bullying, I couldn't help but think that the criminalization of bullying is the wrong way to approach this problem.  It just continues the same "otherness" that tends to run the conversation on bullying.  The conversation needs to turn from focusing on victims to focusing on the bullies.  We need an open conversation that starts with the presumption that all of our kids are the bully-ers and not the bully-ed.  How do we intervene?  How do we stop the bullies we love?

Featured Blog Post of the Day: As someone who has disagreed with the tactics of the HCEA in this year's Board of Education race, I found last week's episode of And Then There's That to be particularly educational.  First, Paul Lemle could probably sell a ketchup Popsicle to a lady in white gloves.  Second, Paul is refreshingly up front about his motivations and thoughts on the current Board.  As an example, he supported Allen Dyer and wanted to endorse him.  Things didn't cut that way, and the HCEA chose not to endorse any incumbents under the banner of "dysfunction."  That merits an analysis all by itself, but I appreciate the insight into this body that has almost become personified by its president.  I also agree with WB's analysis that Paul will be someone we can expect to see in Howard County politics for some time.  I would like that.

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

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Ransom Budget (Friday LINKS)

Although the State of Maryland seems to have become comfortable with the term "Doomsday Budget", I think we need to make sure we educate ourselves about what exactly is at stake.  Those that crafted this Budget were not government reformers.  They did not take a measured look at government finances and say "Worst case scenario, these are the things we can afford to cut."  Rather, they thought "What can we do to coerce lawmakers to pass additional revenue?  What can we hold for ransom?"

How about...
A 12-13% increase in in-state tuition?
State-wide Per-pupil spending cut from $6,761 to $6,650?
8% cuts to operating budgets for foster care and residential treatment programs for the disabled?
$20 Million cut in grants to local law enforcement?

There's also the very likely threat that a cut to local aid will send many counties into a tail-spin, in which their bond rating is downgraded, it costs more to borrow, operating expenses stay the same, and they are forced to borrow at a higher rate, dooming local budgets for the next decade.  Most interesting is that this tail-spin is very likely to occur in some of the more conservative jurisdictions that do not have the necessary reserves to off-set a cut in State aid.

I will acknowledge up front that I am not an expert in what I like to call "government math", in which  a "cut" is really just a failure to increase spending.  However, to the extent that these are the priorities on the chopping block, I don't think any Marylander should be satisfied.

That doesn't mean cuts are bad.  In fact, had a more benevolent hand held the scalpel, the "Doomsday Budget" could have been one of the best things ever to happen to this State.  But it was set up to punish.  You, or someone very close to you, will be hurt by these cuts in a very concrete way.

And please, don't tell me we can't "afford" foster care.  Don't tell me we can't "afford" to maintain law enforcement and higher education funding.  Saying as much promotes cutting for the sake of cutting.  Our inclination is to applaud cuts in a State that raises taxes on a semi-annual basis, but these are not the cuts you're looking for.  If the alternative is a hike in taxes, which it most assuredly is, maybe we are better off with the Doomsday Budget, but lets not applaud its merits.  It is a bad, clumsy, injurious piece of legislation that will hurt those who can't help themselves.

LINKS

Howard County detectives had a big day yesterday with the arrest of an Elkridge man for the 1991 murder of his then wife, who was reported to have disappeared.  Although the details of what led them to a backyard shed are unclear, the remains of the victim were found buried in cement underneath the structure.

The Howard County School Board has finalized its contract with Renee Foos, which will be signed next Thursday.  Interestingly enough, the last time Ms. Foos found herself in the newspaper, it was over her $214,000 salary as deputy superintendent in Baltimore County.  The details of Ms. Foos's contract with Howard County will be made available at the Board's April 24 26 meeting.  Notably, the Board voted in December to approve a salary range of $275,000.

Former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon was roasted for charity last night.  I was very disappointed in what Ms. Dixon was accused to have done, but I think this is pretty neat.  She took on public humiliation (however good natured) for a good cause.

A winter survey of the Chesapeake crab population found the highest totals since 1993!  Get over here you with your big mean claws...I want to introduce you to my mallet.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Oftentimes the best thing for a community is for a newcomer to share their observations.  I found a lot to like about Matt's "to do" list.  It was like learning about Howard County (and the Mid-Atlantic region) all over again.

That's all for today.  Have a fantastic Friday doing what you love, it's impossible not to! 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

New Columbia Association Logo (Thursday LINKS)

Today is the roll out day:



I like it.


The new logo incorporates CA's past, while introducing a "kick" of modernity.  I think we can expect some people to hate it for the simple fact that it is "change".  Sure, they will deny that as the reason, and probably say things like "What does it mean?" or "I don't like the way it makes me feel", but behind those soft objections normally lies the core complaint:

You didn't ask me first.

I think that is a legitimate concern here.  CA decided to move forward without soliciting proposals from the community.  While Columbia residents were a high priority throughout the process, they were not a decision-maker here.  That was a risk and one I think the CA Staff overcame with a successful product.

The fact of the matter is that a crowd-sourced logo could have been plain awful, surpassed in offensiveness only by its permanence.  As with many other decisions by "Columbia Residents", it would have been driven by the invested few to the ignorance of the divested many.  We often come together with a false sense of public sentiment in these decisions, which can be more oppressive than anything Staff-driven, regardless of "public" participation.

Instead, we have a product of well-qualified professionals, using the tools available to them to gauge resident interests, and I think the final logo fits the bill.

And best of all, they didn't even ask me first.

LINKS

Janene Holzburg has a neat article about a local road-side BBQ truck turned award winner.  I do love me some road-side cuisine.

An Israeli Defense contractor, currently making products for the armed services of over 50 countries, will be setting up shop in Maple Lawn.  The facility is projected to grow to 25,000 feet and start out by creating 100 new jobs.  Kudos to whomever pulled this one together.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC, has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People.  Jane obtained her Masters from UMBC back in 2007 and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Hrabowski speak.  He is a truly impressive individual and we are fortunate to have him in the state university system.

Senate President Mike Miller is now denying that the expanded gambling bill derailed the State Budget last week, blatantly contradicting statements made shortly after the end of Session.  When you're in a hole, Mike, stop digging.


Baltimore City has a new vegetable garden in Druid Heights thanks to the work of take-out owner Abdu Muhammed and the Power in Dirt campaign.  It certainly seems like the civic engagement is there in Baltimore City.  You just have to wonder if the government is doing enough to enable its citizens.

City and State lawmakers are once again fighting the bottle-tax battle, this time with teachers, students, and parents coming out strongly in favor of the measure, which has been successfully opposed by the liquor lobby on at least two previous occasions.  The article seems to suggest that Baltimore City funding is a figment on top of a pipe dream: "Rawlings-Blake has proposed combining the proceeds of the bottle tax — an estimated $10 million a year — with 10 percent of the revenue from the planned slots casino and $12 million in other school system savings to float $300 million in bonds."  And then I found $5 (hundred million) dollars.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Village Green/Town Squared takes a look at bullying in the blog commenter context in a piece entitled "Where the Killers Come From."  I hesitate to string teen suicide with a snarky commenter, but I understand where Julia is coming from.  You all would probably be surprised to hear about how much I think about comment moderation.  It is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition.  The other day I saw a commenter say that it was "unfortunate" that someone else's comment had "received publicity" for their "ignorance."  I thought to myself "Are they saying I should take this comment down?  Am I doing something wrong by doing nothing?"  I think we need to use discretion when deciding when to weigh in against the Anonymi.  "Someone" is always going to be wrong on the internet.  But when you come in aggressively, expect aggression to come back ten-fold.  Anonymity emboldens bad ideas by their ease of abandonment.

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Socializing Alone (Wednesday LINKS)

Matt, over at Lost in Columbia, wrote about the younger generation's attraction to more urban communities and how Columbia could be a similar draw if it met some glaring needs, including the elusive "night life."

Barbara Kellner made a very interesting observation in response:

When the 30-something crowd moved to Columbia in the late '60s and through the 70s there was a lot less here in the way of nightlife, entertainment, and activities than there is now. Young and not so young people then didn't have less of a desire for activity. The answer then was, if you want it, build it. And so out of grassroots efforts grew sports leagues, community theater and orchestras, women's clubs, study groups, all sorts of religious congregations and organizations, coop nursery schools, and on and on. Going to meetings was part of social life, but so was going out to the functions held by these many organizations.

That makes a lot of sense to me.  I've often wondered about the merit of starting a book club or a dining club, not to add another meeting to my schedule, but to serve as that kind of social catalyst that the previous generation continues to rely on, whether it be a golf club, church group, or philanthropic organization.

The unfortunate side note is that we wouldn't be the first to be attempting such an effort amongst the "25-45" group.

We lament the lack of a night life, but that's nothing new.  And Columbia is most likely closer to the norm of your average suburban town/community than it is an outlier.  That means the majority of our peers, even those who may aspire to one day own a condo in a city high-rise, are living in conditions very similar to those we currently enjoy.

We've got kids, so did "they."
We've got jobs, so did "they."

But for "them", complaints about "nothing to do" weren't shared on Facebook, they were talked over at someone's house or a nearby drinking hole.  Am I romanticizing?  Sure.  But there is a dangerous trend in Columbia where all the things we "need" are conveniently outside of our jurisdiction:  grocery stores, a night life, mass tran.

Listen to Barbara.  "The answer then was, if you want it, build it."

What are we doing to build our social spaces?

LINKS

The Orioles won the first two games against the Chicago White Sox, a team fresh off a thrashing of the Detroit Tigers.

Kevin Rector writes that the Troy Park tennis complex proposed for Elkridge may have breathed its last gasp.  After being unable to find private investors, the County has stated that it will not be funding the $44 million project, allowing plans to move forward for the Troy Hill Regional Park, planned to open in the spring of 2014.

Lindsey McPherson presents a very interesting profile of Delegate Frank Turner in this week's Political Notebook, in which Turner recounts hiding from reporters in the capitol during the final hours of General Assembly session.  Del. Turner sat as chair of the subcommittee that examined a new proposal to expand gambling in Maryland and noted early on that the proposal would require "major changes." We all know how the story went from there.  Lindsey was able to get some great quotes from State Senator Ed Kasemeyer to counter some of the criticisms put forth by Turner.  Regardless on where you fall on who was to blame for what, it is impossible to read Lindsey's piece without becoming seriously concerned about what kind of product our legislators will be putting forth before the July deadline.  Doomsday may seem "kinda nice."

Republicans don't see the need for a Special Session and see 2012 as "in the books."  Buried in the text of the piece are some jarring quotes from a Moody's representative suggesting that they have their eye on Annapolis in light of their belief that under the current State budget "local governments could have a harder time balancing their own budgets." 

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Well & Wise posts about the health benefits of dog ownership.  I presume that they do not incorporate "death by running dog down staircase."

That's all for today.  Before I cut out, I want to give a hearty congratulations to my father, Skip Coale, and all the accountants out there for another successful tax season.  Enjoy April 18th.

For the rest of us, have a great day doing what you love!



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cuts (Tuesday LINKS)

There is a saying in the personal finance world that you should "Keep the latte.  Cut the cable."  The idea is that while making small cuts in your budget can have value, the real savers are large items that will require true sacrifice or reevaluation of what you can afford.

We should receive a budget from the County Executive by Friday this afternoon.  I would not be surprised to see a Doomsday-esque picture of County finances, wherein the State's current funding scheme is presumed, with room to edit should Annapolis go back into Special Session before the July deadline.  What will be most interesting is to see what lattes are cut and who loses cable.

To Ken Ulman's credit, he has already asked his department heads to submit budgets presuming 12% cuts across the board (I believe 12% is the right number, but Google is acting up).  Asking his staff to take their own pound of flesh early on will prevent indiscriminate cuts from fatally impeding County services.

As we all know, Public Education makes up approximately 60% of County Expenditures.  After that, public safety takes up another 15%.  Maintenance, staffing, and upkeep of public facilities takes out another 12%.  General operating costs of the government, including legislative and judicial branches, costs another 6%, while Debt Maintenance and Reserve funds cost about 7%.  This leaves very little for lattes.

The greatest HoCo Policy wonk in the world would be hard pressed to show where cuts should be made to prevent the need for additional revenue.  Property tax and state funding have decreased while the Howard County population has continued to increase.  I don't mean to be dismissive here and would welcome concrete numbers suggesting where the fat can be cut.  But please don't come back to me with Healthy Howard or the defunding of Howard County's non-profit community.

Death by a thousand paper-cuts may sound aggressive and a proper representative of austerity, but I also think such cuts are irresponsible.  For a good portion of the non-profit community, a cut in funding is a final judgment on their existence.  These organizations are often a supplement to government services and their collapse would increase County expenditures in other areas (i.e., social services, County aid, public safety).

But in terms of cable -- Do we want to increase fire response times?  Close one of our libraries?  Prolong license and permit waiting periods?  Maybe just make Centennial Lake open on weekends?  These are the rather unfortunate questions that the Executive and Council are tasked with answering...and I wouldn't know where to start.

LINKS

The Flier has a nice write up of the Silas Craft Program at Howard County Community College, which focuses on students who have struggled in school, but shown potential to excel.

County prosecutors will not re-try Wael Ali for the murder of his twin brother after the first attempt ended in a mistrial.  Extending the unusual family dynamic in this case, family and friends are recounted to have hugged the prosecutors after the decision was announced.

The Baltimore Grand Prix is cursed.  Recent reports are that the leader of the new racing group will be leaving in response to disputes with local businesses funding the race.  As noted in the piece, "The Labor Day weekend event is less than five months away, and the group has yet to launch a marketing campaign or sell tickets."  They have also delayed their interference with my daily commute, which is just fine by me.

The Anne Arundel County Council passed a 4-3 "no confidence" vote in Police Chief James Teare in connection with the indictment of County Executive Leopold.  This drama has officially reached "five ring circus" level.  If I were a resident of Anne Arundel, I would probably request that my Council keep its head in the business of the people and allow prosecutors handle the case against Leopold.  This reeks of political piling on.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: HowChow writes that the new Wegman's will have an upstairs liquor store, making it the premiere one-stop shop for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Super Bowl Sunday.  (Boarman's Market falling into second place as the only other grocery store with booze on site [that I can think of]).

Finally, a big congrats to our friend TJ Mayotte for completing the Boston Marathon under the extreme conditions of near 90 degree temps.  Anyone who has ever run 26.2 (or even 2.2) can tell you that heat is a tremendous factor.  In fact, one of the top finishers from last year stepped out mid-race due to cramps.  Not TJ.  He may have deliriously stumbled through the last two miles, but he finished.  (Yet to be seen whether a cooked brain has any effect on his writing...or whether he has a spirit journey to recount in his next column).

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

Monday, April 16, 2012

You Say He's Just a Friend

Coming from that border-land between genius and hilarious, Ken Ulman's next fundraiser will feature none other than DJ Biz Markie of "Just a Friend" fame:

I don't normally post about political fundraisers, but when you invite the Biz, you're going to get a prop on these pages.  I'll leave the analysis to the rest of you, but could not end this post without including this:

Sinners and RINOs (Monday LINKS)

As seems to be the norm on Monday mornings, I want to relate two pieces that I read over the weekend and how they were synthesized together in my head.

The first is a book review of Edward O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth."  This is one of those books that I want to read, but allow myself the concession that I may not make it past the 200th page.  In sum, Wilson argues that we have not only evolved to meet selfish interests of self preservation and propagation, but also "to be tribal, to join groups 'and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.'"  Most interesting to me was the following passage from the review:

The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual, but largely in opposition to each other,” he writes. “Individual selection . . . shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish. . . . Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

Heady stuff!

I then also read Chris Mooney's piece about how Republicans and Democrats think differently.  There was an assumption early on in the piece that caused a scrunched nose and almost a turn of the page ("Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views..."), but I pressed on.  According to Mooney, scientific research is indicating that liberals seek change which conservatives wish to maintain and enforce historical norms, in support of which the author cites William Buckley, Jr.'s comment that conservatives stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'”

There is a dangerous eugenics quality to Mooney's piece, but I think it can be accepted for its philosophical arguments, especially the expressed need for "cognitive closure" on the right, citing a study that revealed "in the global-warming debate, tea party followers not only strongly deny the science but also tend to say that they 'do not need any more information' about the issue."

Considering myself an open-minded person, I read the piece as a slam on Republicans, but I wonder if the red team would see it as such.  There is virtue in defending societal norms against attack and questioning the "new."

In terms of how the two pieces intertwine, I couldn't help but think of "RINO's".  Isn't that the most perfect description of insularity and "group selection" in its most extreme?  A political group may only achieve its objectives through inclusion and marketing, yet this political group has found merit in excluding members that do not conform to group identity, regardless of its injury to the entire purpose of group existence.  But on the counter-point, if conservatives are to open themselves to outside ideas, isn't that similarly eviscerating?  Stand athwart history yelling...'slow down, please!'"  And if you can't accept that, doesn't the Mooney piece suggest that you may be progressive in method, while conservative in ideas?

Anyhow, that's what was going through my exhausted mind yesterday as I recovered from a glorious 10K through the streets of Columbia.

LINKS

I don't think any of us should envy the jobs of our Executive and County Council as they prepare to evaluate a Budget in the midst of uncertainty about State funding, teacher pension costs, and future revenue.  I was quickly corrected as to my post from last Thursday when I said that Howard County would be "just fine" with the Doomsday Budget.  Evidently, that is not the case.  Under the terms of the current Budget, Howard County would be looking at layoff of County workers, which can be assumed to reduce County services.  While I appreciate the comments of County leaders in the piece, I wish we would be a little more careful about saying "education is a top priority" with the implicit suggestion that a cut to education funding is inherently bad.  I think the top priority should be responsible and highly scrutinized expenditure of County dollars.  If education is getting flabby, it remains a top priority...on a treadmill.

Maryland citizens are expectantly ticked off after the General Assembly failed at performing its most important task down the stretch.  That's not the story.  The story is whether they can or will do anything about it.  I would not be surprised to see strong challengers appear in Dem primaries across the State over the next two years.  It is time to stop celebrating the prolonged incumbencies of Annapolis fixtures and start recreating representative government in Maryland.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: WB has some great political tid-bits picked up at political fundraisers and events across the County.  I found his note about Ken's thoughts on 2014 to be interesting...not that Ken is running or anything.  (Also nice to see the Executive still thinks so highly of hyper-local news).

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

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bully-Side

One of my favorite authors is Stephen King.  Laugh and tease all you want, but I think he tells a story better than any writer I've come across.  Despite writing the most extreme, unimaginably weird circumstances, he can do it in a way that almost makes it seem realistic.

Fellow King fans know that there are certain themes that repeat in his novels, one of which is the passive acceptance of violence by the community, most prominently featured in the tome "IT".  As scary as a child-killer clown may be, the haunting passivity of the small town of Derry ends up being the lasting impression of the book.

Unfortunately, Howard County news boils down to one story this weekend: the suicide of 15-year-old Grace McComas, our attempts to honor her...and find a way to "fix this."  Grace was a victim of cyber-bullying.  Grace, who heart-breakingly wrote in her journal that "her hope for the new year was to 'find happiness and forgive those who had hurt her.'"

I would strongly encourage all of you to read "Goofy" by local author Rafael Alvarez.  Sometimes I feel that bullying is enabled by the "otherness" that we allow ourselves when we talk about bullies.  Mr. Alvarez owns his bully-side and expresses the most true punishment for engaging in such emotional violence -- lasting regret.

There will be bullies with lasting regret at Glenelg High School, more deep and punitive than we can imagine.  But the bullies that our schools, institutions, and celebrities address will be "others."  Some nameless, faceless villain that should be washed out.  A trial that has been conducted without conviction since we were born.

We all have our bully-side.  Even your kids.  You may be sitting in a room with a bully right now.  They could be eating cereal, watching TV, or reading a book.  The most dangerous fiction is that bullies are innately evil "things" wearing evil clothes with evil hair-cuts.  That's wrong.  Bullies buy Mother's Day gifts, volunteer at soup kitchens, and smile on their way to school.  We love our bullies and ignore their bully-side.  The choice is to allow them their lasting regret later, or somehow communicate it to them now.

Read Grace's story to your kids.  Think about your bully-side.  What would you say to yourself ten, twenty, thirty years ago? 

"You don't need to tell me if you're being mean to other kids at school and I don't want to know.  I do want you to know that if you are, you are killing someone else's child, and it will live with you for the rest of your life."

Friday, April 13, 2012

CA Board Recap: April 12, 2012 Board of Directors Meeting

Start Time: 7:30 pm
End Time: 10:35 pm (Followed by Closed Session)

This was a good meeting during which a lot was reviewed and accomplished.  Shari Zaret, Vice Chair, did a superb job keeping us on task and moving the Agenda along to meet time restrictions. 

Hobbit's Glen
We were presented with the final proposed plans for Hobbit's Glen last night.  This proposal consisted of two options: Renovation and New Clubhouse.  Surprisingly, the latter was only about $150,000 more than renovation, and seemed to be a Board favorite.

Under both plans, there would be a bifurcation of the clubhouse between spaces dedicated to golfers and those dedicated to our "restaurateur" (CoHo was not named during the nearly two hours of presentation and deliberation).  Locker rooms for golfers would also be introduced for both plans.  With room partitions and separate entrances, the new Hobbit's Glen would also provide meeting/event space, which is dearly needed in Columbia.

All total, both plans come in around $5.9 million.  There were additional proposals under the New Clubhouse option that would include a "Turn-House" between holes 9 and 10, which would offer snacks, beverages, and an outdoor lounging area.  We also were presented with a plan to reconfigure holes 1, 9, and 10 to improve the flow of the course.

These are all big plans, but I am confident that the Board is ready to move forward.  By my observation, there are two Board members that are very unlikely to vote for any improvement to Hobbit's Glen.  Before we getting into what has become an inevitable stage in big projects undertaken by the Board, I want to assure all of you that these improvements are not being done at "the expense" of any other amenity (i.e., pools).  I think there are certain segments of the community that under-play the significance of having well-maintained community golf courses as CA amenities, which has as much to do with stereotypes about "who plays golf" than it does about actual numbers in the CA Budget.

CA Agendas and Board Operations

By the paired suggestions of Staff and Board Members, the Board Operations Committee recommended a set of guidelines to enable more efficient and streamlined meetings.  These include Staff-originated Agendas, which is something I have been advocating for since about August.  Out of four proposals, two passed.  CA's oft-ridiculed "three-reading rule" almost made it to the chopping block, but received a last minute reprieve due to the fact that the to-be-edited policy was not attached to our materials.  For the uninitiated, the Board cannot pass anything until there have been three readings (i.e., three meetings in which the committee considering the item has discussed it).  In application, this puts a three month lag time on any item for which the Board has not suspended the rules.  The policy is mostly observed in the breach, wherein the Board spends 5-10 minutes discussing how we go about voting to suspend the rules, suspending the rules, and bringing the item to the full Board.

I probably should have recommended that you skip this part.

Aquatics Master Plan

We reviewed the policy guidelines that were approved by the Board last month.  Oakland Mills, seemingly at the recommendation of their Columbia Council member, recommended allowing Village Boards to have veto power on any decision by the Board to convert an outdoor pool to an indoor pool.  The sentiment of the Board was that this would set a very dangerous precedent and misrepresents the purpose of an Aquatics Master Plan and the relationship between CA and the Villages.  As I've said many times, this Board is extremely sensitive to public commentary, almost to a fault.  If Columbia needs an additional indoor pool, which I believe it does, we can't have an objecting Village prevent the Board from doing what is best for Columbia.

New Logo

When we arrived at the Board meeting yesterday, there were gift bags on every seat with instructions not to open until April 19.  I even had the added admonition "Not to blog about this" prior to April 19 (because I am 12).  Some Board members expressed their concern that the Board had not had the opportunity to "sign off on" the logo prior to its launch and that they would be blamed for any egregiously awful (ex. "purple dinosaur") logo for which they had no input.

During this part of the meeting, I could sense Staff's shoulders stiffen around the room as hundreds of thousands of dollars were put at risk over a Board sentiment that was never put in the form of Board action.  Giving the Board the final say on what would seem to be an operational issue was treacherous at best, and financially irresponsible at worst.

After some of the objecting Board members peaked in their bags and gave tacit approval, the objectors winnowed to one.  The Board moved on and the villagers cheered.

That was basically it for Thursday's meeting.  During our closed session we reviewed minutes of closed meetings, choosing to release some and keep others closed.  Overall, a good meeting.

Have a great Friday doing what you love!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Suburbia: The People Weed? (Thursday LINKS)

Where one lives would appear to have been one of the last freedoms mostly unhindered by government control.  As a Country, we romanticize the idea of buying a plot of land, building a house, and passing that land down to the next generation.  But that opportunity may soon be a thing of the past.

Baltimore's Urbanite Magazine has a fascinating piece by McCay Jenkins looking at the downsides of suburban living on our environment and State budgets, entitled "The Era of Suburban Sprawl Has to End.  So, Now What?"  Jenkins notes that State and local governments across the Country are implementing policies to curtail this outward expansion and encourage population density where there is already housing capacity.  The right and opportunity to live wherever one wants may always exist, but you may have to fund your own road to get there, dispose of your own trash, and find yourself otherwise "off the grid."

This is all the more interesting in the context of another piece I read (hat tip: Bill Santos) about Generation Y's migration from the suburbs to the City.  Anyone who heard Chris Leinberger speak will hear a lot of the same themes and concepts echoed in Nathan Norris's article.

I think there is value that will always be preserved in Howard County.  It is too perfectly located to ever be a ghost town that people talk about when they reference the failed experiment of suburbia.  But the new importance of cities and dense populations leads to two questions: Was the New Downtown Legislation just in time?  Was it too late?

What some of us prefer in terms of density and population growth is becoming more irrelevant by the day.  Gas prices fluctuate, but now that it seems unlikely Newt Gingrich will be winning the Presidency, our last great hope of seeing $2 gas is gone.  Joking aside, this may be the new normal.  Mass transit will become correspondingly inevitable, as will "local living", where one works, plays, and lives within a five mile radius.

In fact, the Jenkins piece would suggest we're already living anachronistically:

Marylanders spent more than 700 million hours commuting in 2009. The state's average commute time is now nearly thirty-two minutes, longer than both New York and New Jersey and one of the highest numbers in the country. If current trends continue, by 2035 those "miles traveled" will grow from 56 billion to 84 billion per year, and the state will need nearly 15,000 new miles of road, at a cost of $110 billion.

In Howard County, thirty-two minutes would seem just about average, if not a slight bit lower than what most of us spend commuting, yet this is "one of the highest numbers in the country."  The world is contracting, with or without us.  It will be interesting to see how our leaders respond.

LINKS

I thought it was Christmas in April when I saw and unexpected episode of And Then There's That pop up on my iPhone.  It is another great one, with the General Manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion.  I particularly like the picture paired with this episode, which shows locked up stores behind Paul.  Don't expect this link to go on the HoCo Tourism website.

Despite the Doomsday title, I've heard from some that Howard County may not be all that worse off in a budget that is projected to cut $9.6 million from HoCo coffers.  Those keeping up with the math may recall that Howard County was projected to take on a $12 million share of teacher pensions, most likely paired with inevitable cuts, if the State had been able to get the less Armageddonish Budget passed, so $9.6 million without teacher's pensions is just fine by us.  Call your legislator and tell them "Stay Home!"

Transparency Trans-shmeracy.  O'Malley says he won't call a Special Session until Senate and House leaders have a deal.  Why not just turn your pen over to the lobbyists.  It would save everyone a lot of time.

After snow and hail were reported in the region yesterday, "How bout this weather?" has officially become an uncomfortable subject of small talk, and should be avoided at all costs.  Less controversial introductions may be "Do you support Obama?" and "Stem cell research is awesome, isn't it?"

On a personal note, I attended the unveiling of the William H. Johnston U.S. Postage Stamp yesterday at Morgan State University.  My wife works at the James E. Lewis Art Museum and has been working on this unveiling and the paired exhibit all month.  The stamp has a hidden meaning behind it that I think is very cool.  Johnson's art was out of the mainstream.  As a post-impressionist African American in the early twentieth century, he was looked down upon by the "art elite" and scholars of his day.  He painted a simple vase of flowers to prove that he could paint in the traditional style as well as, or better, than his contemporaries, but chose not to.  That, my friends, is pretty bad ass.  (If you're interested in going to the opening exhibition this Saturday, drop me a line and I can see about getting you VIP tickets.  I have an "in.")

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Since I could not attend the HoCo Bloggers party, the next best thing is 53 Beers's run down of who was there and what was discussed...ok so maybe he limits "what was discussed" to his blog, but it is still nice to know that it was well attended.

Have a fantastic (not just great) Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Do We Want Out of Service (Wednesday LINKS)

As may be obvious, Al's comment yesterday has me thinking a lot about the future of Columbia's leadership.  Particularly the line:

"For every X units of effort I put into a service project, I expect to see at least X units of positive return."

Al seems to represent the base expectation many of us have from time we take away from our family, work, or leisure activities to devote to volunteer service.  Most who serve on any non-profit Board would probably scoff at the idea and say "There is no product you walk away from the table with", but I think Al's comment is a little different and relates to general fulfillment.  Does the time I put into this activity equate to a comparable level of fulfillment?  OR does my involvement create an inverse level of frustration, anger, and blood pressure medicine?

We all love our community, but the question is what moves us from a state of inertia to a state of involvement.  Can service as a leader of Columbia produce "X"?

I went to bed concerned.  You all have read many pages of hand wringing about whether I am doing more harm than good in posting the highs and lows of CA Board service.  It seems that the lows have staying power, while the highs are either dismissed or forgotten.  I am proud to be a CA Board member and have enjoyed the past year.  I can't say that I've received X for every hour of service I've put in, but it gets close.  Whether it is the expansion of the Dorsey's Search Meeting Room, increased awareness of CA business, or protecting the integrity of the Symphony Woods Master Plan, I have a number of "X's" that I am very proud of helping to produce.

My frustration is that we are "so close."  So close to getting the Board out of the operations of CA Staff.  So close to turning the Board's focus to long term strategic planning that will make CA an example for future Community Associations across the Country.  So close to earning a seat at the table for stakeholder meetings regarding the future of Columbia.  On some of these points, we may already be there.  CA is a very strong organization that is belittled due to the notorious missteps of its Board, but have no doubt that the organization itself is sound.

My service has allowed me the opportunity to dig in and see what I can do.  It concerns me to see friends like Al have that opportunity foreclosed.  I am excited to work with Regina Clay, the new representative from Wilde Lake, as she sees all the opportunity that is rooted in imperfection.  I hope all of you will consider the vacancies on your Village Boards as similar opportunities to bring your perspective for change to the table.

There are plenty of X's here.  We aren't yet at the equal sign, but I don't want to give the impression that we aren't close.

LINKS

It now appears that the collapse of the House-Senate deal that stymied the General Assembly in the final hours was the result of greed.  Local delegations saw some unfinished french fries on the plate and asked "Are you going to eat that?"

Those same leaders are now calling for a Special Session, but the Guv has been noncommittal, citing the failure to pass a budget an agreement on additional revenue as "the low point in my experience here."  A Democratic Governor being unable to get a budget legisltation passed by the Democratic Assembly seems to show a failure in leadership.  This deadline was not unknown to the Governor and there was no reason to leave it to the last night of the Session.  Whatever interests blew the whole thing up on Monday could have been incorporated long before.  The blame seems to be falling squarely on Mike Miller for his persistence in seeking expanded gambling legislation, but that would seem to be in the absence of a Democratic opponent of similar stature telling him to "shut up and get the thing done."  I've recently been told that Senate President Miller "bullies" O'Malley around.  Nothing that happened Monday proved that assessment to be incorrect.

Embodying the concerns I have over classifying some violent crimes as "hate crimes", Baltimore City Police Chief Bealefeld has announced that the brutal beating and stripping of a white male by a group of black males is not a "hate crime."  I'm not saying it should be, but the comparative analyses that will result from this announcement is unfortunate and unnecessary.  If you beat someone unconscious, take their money, and strip them naked in the street, it is a hate crime, regardless of anyone's race, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Frank Hecker looks to promote free informal education amongst interested readers.  He has some things he can teach and hopes you have some things you can teach him.

Tonight is the HoCo Blogs Party at Second Chance Saloon.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to make it, but I hope all those that do have a great time.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Village Board Service: A Tradition in Peril

Al in Owen Brown posted a representative description of what I hear from dozens of erstwhile Columbia leaders that have decided to dedicate their efforts to activities other than Village Board service.  Although it was in the comments, I wanted to share Al's comment here for additional discussion:

I would like to comment on this idea of serving on Village boards. I apologize in advance if it is a rambling, hopefully not too negative post. I am 40 years old, I have two children aged 5 and 8. I have served on the OBCA Board in the past, getting as high as Vice Chairman. I have also served on various committees, like Lake Elkhorn Cleanup, Election committee, and CA's Financial advisory Committee. All in the past. When I think about what I am doing now (TSES PTA) it is easy to say that is all for my kids. While I will admit that is a big driver, it is not the whole story. When I first started on the OBCA board, I was overwhelmed with the amount of material needed to participate / even converse in the job. Board procedures, by-laws, CA procedures, CA by-laws were all dry reads, but do-able (trying to remember the difference between Owen Brown and the others was usually futile for me). I was very fortunate to serve with folks like Andy Stack and Neil Dorsey who are veritable encyclopedias of Columbia anything. To this day I am still in awe of Andy's ability to pull the correct document out of his magic briefcase. After a year or so I felt I was able to contribute. After two more years I quit, defeated and looking for a new place to serve. How did I get to this point?

Ahh now here is the rub. I was ready to contribute, I felt I had good ideas to contribute, and was willing to do the work necessary to move those ideas into practice. Not just have the ideas, but actually to generate content, go to the store and buy supplies, hang out at location X and talk to the people, organize the reports. Now I will be honest here, these ideas Changed the way we did business. Changed the mediums in which we communicated. Changed the folks we may have been talking to. I felt there was a whole portion of the Columbia population that did not “get” the newsletter and could be engaged in a new way. I also felt that just because it was done that way for the last 25 years, didn’t mean that it was the best way for today. I am trained as an engineer, and we try to solve problems, make things more efficient.

Unfortunately, I met with a fair bit of resistance from certain elements on the OBCA board and in the community. “Change” is not a concept that goes over easily in Columbia. Andy, Neil and others were very supportive of trying new things. Others were not. And when I say not supportive, I really mean aggressively negative. I would come home from meeting so mad that I thought I would quit the very next day. Each of these times, my wife (who for the record has also served on the board, and participated in various committees and had even been brave enough to try Chairmanship at one point) would talk me out of it and encourage finding another way to find buy-in. We are not talking radical stuff here: Comment cards in the lobby to get feedback on how we were doing, polling/surveying our residents to find out how they actually felt about issues, improving our communications with electronic newsletters, facebook etc. What I came to understand about working on the board was that there was not a desire to have buy-in, there was a requirement to agree with the “most aggressive” board member on their opinion or be faced with impossibly long, circular arguments and name calling until you were worn down to the point of agreeing just to go home. Forget getting any other business done until you had capitulated. Wow, in reading this back I see that the wounds have not healed and I am not ready to return to the board.

I would say that I am greedy. For every X units of effort I put into a service project, I expect to see at least X units of positive return. During my time on the board I felt I was lucky to get X/5 units of positive return. Why waste my time? It is precious. I have to explain to my kids why I have to go to another meeting. Why I wasn’t home to play a game? How I was really working to make their lives/neighborhood/environment better? When this got impossible to do, it was time for me to leave.

The Village boards and CA need to find a way to make X units of effort equal X units of positive return, or folks like myself, and not to speak for my wife but maybe a little, will find other places to perform our service to the community. One of the most important reasons why this blog is my first stop is that Tom still finds it possible, and lets us all know about it. Thank you for your service!

The aggressive rejection of Change is present in both stated and unstated forms, often boxing out the younger generation or those that are otherwise new to Columbia.  The answer would seem to be persistence. 

Protecting Process (Tuesday LINKS)

Whether it be in response to critiques of the fire tax, Superintendent Search, or HCEA Endorsement process, I've heard an eerily consistent response: questioning process is the retreat of those who can't dispute the result.  That's a fancy way of saying "The ends justify the means."

For a while I didn't understand why that response bothered me so much.  Then I realized that my entire profession is built around process.  The ends are brief and unpredictable.  The means fill our workday.  I am a protector and enforcer of process...in its most mundane and pain-staking forms.

In light of this, I thought I may share some observations about process that may not be considered when basking in the light of the wonderful results:

1.  Protect the process, protect the result -- Your typical civil litigation has three components: discovery (investigation), strategy, and protecting appellate issues.  Those three often overlap, but the last is often most important.  If there is a bad process (i.e., mistaken application of law to fact, discovery violation), the result is vulnerable, even if that result is the "right" result.  In some circumstances, especially in the criminal context, the process overrides the result, setting the guilty free.  This leads me to my second point...

2.  Process is lasting, results are fleeting -- Whatever ends you reach, the means are the only thing you leave behind.  While this is obvious in the legal context, the consequences of the political context are much more concerning.  Lawyers and non-lawyers are familiar with the idea of "precedent" and its binding force on the future, regardless of whether it makes sense.  The only way to escape precedent is to present such a unique set of facts that the rules previously found applicable no longer fit.  The presumption is that precedent rules.  Fudging process does not just reach an end that we all can be satisfied with.  It also sets precedent, which is an ends of itself.

3.  Process is an end product -- At some point in time, the process itself was a topic of deliberation.  I would proffer that whenever process is questioned, there be renewed deliberation about whether an exception or shortcut is appropriate.  Most concerning of all is when process is curtailed and there is no discussion.  It leaves no road-map for later deliberators to know why the process was changed or whether there was a particular exception found applicable.  Above all things, the process must be preserved for future comers.

Just to be clear, I'm not necessarily saying that process was curtailed or avoided in any of the above circumstances.  I do know that the process was questioned, which in and of itself merits response, because all jargon aside, process in the political context is made to protect those without power.  It is the lasting counter-weight to those on the dais.  The more irrelevant, ignored, or overlooked the process is considered, the more important it can become.

LINKS

Lawmakers in Annapolis failed to pass new taxes and, as a result, the so-called "Doomsday Budget" with "hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts" will go into effect this July.  House and Senate leaders have asked the Governor to call a special session to allow additional discussion of tax increases to mitigate such cuts.  Now I am scared.  Unlike Regular Session, there is no ban on fund-raising during a Special Session.  With expanded gambling and a sales tax on the table, I am very concerned that this Special Session could be another "if you're not at the table, you're on the menu" edition of Maryland Politics.

A lot of sausage was made yesterday, and I'm sure we'll all found out more about that today, but one bit that did not make it through the grinder was Baltimore County's local bill to add elected members to their school board.  This is an item that seemed to have popular support, but was opposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.  Makes you wonder if Howard County's reverse bill would have ever made it to a vote.

The General Assembly also passed a measure limiting new septic systems in rural Maryland, which was advocated for by Governor O'Malley.  Proponents of the bill note that Senate changes essentially put the power in the hands of the County governments with little power at the State level to overturn it.  This one will be something to watch in application.

After some chatter over at WB's place about confidence level in the Board of Education amongst teachers, Sara Toth has a piece noting that confidence has dropped from 77% to 60%.  I would be interested to know how a majority vote showing confidence in the Board resulted in the slate of non-incumbents endorsed by the HCEA.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: TJ expresses significant concern over the candidacy of Ann DeLacy and what can be expected if she is elected to the Board.  It seems odd that the HCEA has rejected the slate of incumbents under the banner of "dysfunctional" while endorsing someone who is acknowledged to be confrontational, aggressive, and sometimes controversial (i.e., "throwing stones").  If the endorsement is based entirely on her past experience with the union, that is fine, but you can expect to be called out on the inconsistent messaging.

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