Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Game of Chicken (Tuesday LINKS)

I attended a party this weekend at which one of the party-goers brought a tray of Chick-fil-a nuggets and wore a Chick-fil-a t-shirt (the latter being something that I had never seen before Saturday).  It was clear that the individual was trying to send a message and I don't think it was "I'm not a very good baker".

I've steered clear of the Chick-fil-a debate, mostly because I think it is a lot of smoke with little fire.  There will be plenty of folks attending the Huckabee sponsored Chick-fil-a Appreciation Day on August 1.  There will also be plenty of other folks...hmm...attending for other reasons

For those who have avoided the debate/Facebook screed, this relates to Chick-fil-a donating $2 million in profits to groups opposing same-sex marriage and President Dan Cathy saying "guilty as charged" in an interview with Baptist Press regarding those donations.  Cathy went on to say that he was supportive of the "Biblical definition of the family".  One could argue that a more appropriate question for a fast food tycoon would relate to the Biblical definition of dietary restrictions, but that is neither here nor there.

I'm fine with a boycott and think people should be able to "vote with their dollars" when it comes to causes they support or do not support.  If you don't like Walmart's practice of building products overseas, buy local.  If you are offended by stores that say "Happy Holidays" instead of specifically sponsoring your religion and forsaking all others, I'm sure you can find another place to buy your stocking stuffers.

However, I have a significant problem with the Mayors of San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., and Chicago telling the company that they are no longer welcome inside City limits.  Notably, most of these cities do not have Chick-Fil-A restaurants to begin with, the franchise only recently emerging out from its Southern roots, but the precedent is concerning.  Imagine if it was reversed.  Consider a circumstance in which Oreo packages are pulled from the shelves of grocery stores at the order of the local council due to their rainbow ad.  Even worse, think of the spoils at play if our political views define our ability to do business.  Is it all that far removed to describe a circumstance in which a Governor looks at the donor rolls from the previous election and defines what businesses are "acceptable" within the State's borders on that basis?  Sure, that is a stretch, but once you start defining the terms of conducting business on political views, the question is not whether you draw the line at certain speech, but rather "what speech is allowed".

Thankfully, this is mostly posturing.  Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has acknowledged that he can't stop a Chick-fil-a store from opening in Boston.  But this posturing gives me the creeps.  "I can't arrest you without probable cause, but I can have a police car drive by your house every ten minutes."

I don't agree with the way Chick-fil-a spends its lobbying dollars.  As a result, I have chosen not to eat at Chick-fil-a.  But I don't want my government getting involved.  I certainly don't want them telling me what I can think.

LINKS


O's pull in a nice win over the Yankees 5-4.  Looked like Jim Johnson was going to blow yet another save, but he ended up closing the door with the winning run on second base.

If you wanted a liquor store at Wegman's and didn't testify, it seems as if your absence played a large role in the application being denied at last night's Liquor Board hearing.  Making the motion to deny the license, Board member Anne Santos said "I'm not hearing the community come out and tell me there's a need for this."  It also appears that the Board fairly applied the law that states liquor stores may not be used "in conjunction with" chain stores or grocery stores.  It may be an antiquated law and you may not agree with it, but it is what is on the books.

Attorney General Doug Gansler may get another shot at preserving Maryland's law allowing DNA collection for those arrested of certain felonies.  Even better for the budding gubernatorial candidate, he will get the chance to argue in front of the Supreme Court at a time when has otherwise been a low profile front-runner, ceding the stage to Ulman, Franchot, and Brown.

Western Maryland's wind turbines may set the terms for wind farms on the East Coast.  So far, its not looking too hot.  A "habitat conservation plan" drafted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service has dictated that the turbines will be required to slow down during certain times "to reduce the number of endangered bats that might be killed by the long, spinning blades."  I wonder if they've tried "meandering blades".

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Yet another local contributor may have been cut by The Patch, reinvigorating a sometimes tepid blogger pool.  HoCo Loco has rebooted her blog with some great pictures from around town.  I would warn against the presumption that "no one reads this stuff".  It is not "how many" but "who" that matters.

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

Monday, July 30, 2012

Special Session Governance (Monday LINKS)

As someone who likes my law written down, I looked up the authority to convene a special session this morning.  Here's what Article II of our state Constitution says:

"The Governor shall convene the Legislature, or the Senate alone, on extraordinary occasions; and whenever from the presence of an enemy, or from any other cause, the Seat of Government shall become an unsafe place for the meeting of the Legislature, he may direct their sessions to be held at some other convenient place." 

Obviously, the pivotal word is "extraordinary".  Defenders of the Governor will say, "That's just another word for 'special'."  Opponents will say "Language is all about context and the final clause seems to presume some danger to the survival of the State."

Len Lazarick wrote a great op/ed last week of all the reasons not to hold a special... ahem...extraordinary session of the legislature, most prominent among them the fact that the votes aren't there to get anything done.

My objection is slightly more removed -- it is an affront to Maryland voters.  You see, we hear on a semi-regularly basis "This is the consequence of one-party rule."  In reality, Maryland is a fairly well-run State.  The roads are well maintained (most of the time), the schools are good (so long as you are tucked in a suburb), and most of our local governments have strong bond ratings with good prospects for fiscal sustainability.

But amongst what may be considered good governance, we have developed small cancers.  Special sessions.  When gambling first came to the State, opponents raised the normal moral arguments of "poor tax" and "casino slums", but they also raised a much more practical argument -- once you let casinos in, their lobby will have enough money to run the State.  Psshaw.  That'll never happen.

Governor O'Malley seems to be signaling that it did.

There is absolutely no urgency to adding a new casino to National Harbor or adding table games to existing casinos.   Our budget is passed.  There have been no unexpected revenue shortfalls.  In fact, the General Assembly, by my count, has already rejected expanded gambling three times - once in regular session, once when convening its first special session, then again by the Gambling Law and Regulation subcommittee.  But the General Assembly is under siege.

Maryland is under transformation.  Government is poised to shrink.  Manufacturing jobs are leaving.  In the midst of all of this, the most prominent concern to our Governor is whether gambling interests are satiated.  That is a profound statement about where our State is headed by the man steering the ship.

I hope that the Howard Delegation will vote against every bill proposed during this special session and, in doing so, decline to endorse this manner of governance.  I hope that all of you will let them know how you feel.  I hope it is not too late to keep one hand on the wheel.

LINKS

Here is an interesting op/ed co-authored by a lifetime NRA member and former Republican lobbyist about the suppression of studies that address gun violence and how the absence of information about this subject puts policy adrift.

I also took distinct pleasure in reading this editorial about how conservatives misread Milton Friedman.  (Should I disable comments for the day?)

My final pull from the WaPo: Drew Westen looks at how and why President Obama would lose the 2012 election.  Fair warning -- this is a polemic piece from the left, but the underlying arguments have merit with both sides.

Very scary piece in The Sun about instances of colorectal cancer increasing in patients under 50.

The Zenith upscale $2,500/month apartments in downtown Baltimore have been without water or air conditioning since Wednesday.

Great op/ed from County Executive Ken Ulman in this Sunday's Sun about Columbia and what Whole Foods portends for the future of our new city.  You have to think that the success and "green shoots" of New Columbia will be a big plank of any Gubernatorial run for our native son, which is good news for anyone that thought Ken's eyes would be elsewhere over the next two years.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: TJ will no longer be writing for the Patch (I never know whether or not I am being a fogey when I use "The" in relation to websites, i.e., "The Facebook", "The Twitter" are both wrong).  He takes a look at the Patch concept and the future of local journalism.  I will miss his column, and the weekly compulsion that made sure we had TJ's writing to read, but many of us figured it was only a matter of time. 

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

Friday, July 27, 2012

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

Start Time: 7:37 pm
End Time: 10:57 pm

It was a late meeting, but necessarily so.  We had a lot of topics to discuss and although we do not have final votes to stand on, I believe the time was well spent.  The Board Operations Committee may need to look at this meeting as an example of biting off more than we can chew.  There are certain hot button issues (like the HOA bill) that we should allocate 10-15 extra minutes, regardless of the manner in which the information is going to be presented.  We also had the unanticipated topic of Symphony Woods, which I will discuss below.

Overall, the Board had a good night.  There were a few members who seemed unwilling or unable to accept the outcome of some straw votes, but that is a matter of maturity and professionalism left to the discipline of the individual. 

Symphony Woods

Although we didn't see it coming, the recommendations of the Planning Board put Symphony Woods back int he spotlight for the first meeting after their decision.  Cy Paumier spoke during Resident Speak-out regarding his concern that CA was not "selling the Plan", suggesting that the Planning Board's recommendation for meandering paths, completely contradictory to the intended structure of Cy's Plan, would be unworkable and result in a bad design.

As may be anticipated, this brought us back into the "tree discussion" (i.e., the number of trees being removed by our plan), where the words strong, majestic, and canopy are tossed around like playing cards.  Obviously, I was disappointed to note this development, but saw it coming a mile away.

From my understanding, Cy wants CA to hold a community meeting unveiling the plans for Symphony Woods and earning some endorsement.  My experience has been that proponents rarely testify and that those against a given proposition are much more motivated.  I had expected the Planning Board to incorporate this base truth into their final decision and maybe they did.  We have yet to see what kind of mandate will be attached to "meandering paths". 

I appreciate Cy's point, but this is a matter of strategy for Staff to determine.  The Board should not be involved in cultivating buy-in for this Plan. 

HOA Legislation

As you may be aware, about a year ago the Board considered requesting legislation that would designate CA as a distinct community service organization, by which we would not longer be subject to the legion of regulations and restrictions that are placed on home-owners associations as a category.  I've read the proposed bill and it makes sense to me.  There are a number of residents that have expressed legitimate concerns about CA exempting itself from transparency laws.  That makes sense to me too.  I honestly believe that with a diligent process and an open-mind, we can craft legislation that brings both sides together and actually shows our critics that we want transparency and are willing to codify it into State law.  One such critic spoke last night.  I asked him if he would be satisfied with this bill if we incorporated all of the transparency provisions that are seen to be excluded and added legislation to codify those transparency by-laws that we currently follow, but are not required by State law.  He said he probably would.  That, my friends, is progress.

Anyhow, last night's focus was setting up the process by which this legislation can be brought to the public, explained, and then amended as necessary.  I was impressed by the manner in which most Board members were able to focus on the process itself and not get into the merits of the bill.  (Most).  The Board seemed to settled on a three month process, but I worry that may not be enough time.  Nonetheless, I will accept my position as the minority if that is what the Board chooses to do.  Overall, I think this is the right approach and am proud of our organization for continuing its efforts to compromise with our most stringent critics.  That is rare.

SIC Data Points

This one is my baby.  I am currently serving as the Chair of the Strategic Implementation Committee, which most likely causes some Board members concern in light of my repeated admonition that we are to provide oversight, not micro-management.  However, during a Board retreat last Spring, the Board came to the conclusion that we were not data-focused enough, and would often leap to resolutions without knowing the problem. 

In order to address this, I recommended to Staff that we design a process by which Board members can tell Staff what information they will need to make educated decisions about matters of oversight that come before the Board so that Staff may then direct its data presentation to meet those queries.  In sum, make the Board proactive as opposed to reactive in data gathering.

I was legitimately concerned that this would turn into a free-for-all open air audit of the organization (as I'm sure some skeptical Staff members were as well), but I think the Board showed significant discipline and some appreciation for the opportunity to have these questions answered at the front end.  I was very happy with how this went and proud of the preliminary outcome.

Sister Cities: Cergy-Pontoise

This is a matter that has legitimately kept me up at night: Whether the Board should fund 1-4 representatives (Board, Staff, Residents) to attend a Sister Cities program in Cergy-Pontoise, France.  Our financial obligation would be small (airfare of approximately $1,500 for full fare), but I am most concerned about appearances.  Does this expenditure improve the Columbia Association for the residents?  The Board seemed very focused on providing reasons why we should send representatives, but never really gave much attention to why we shouldn't.  If we do, we can and should expect residents to bring Cergy-Pontoise, France up as a slight whenever they ask for any financial assistance from the organization. 

"My son has to get changed in a dark, smelly pool locker-room, yet the Board is sending itself to France."
"My daughter gets paid minimum wage to work the snack bar, yet Board members are flying to Europe for free."

The Board has an obligation to consider how it appears to the public, particularly when it is effectively rewarding itself an opportunity to fly to France.

Despite my concerns, I believe that unless we are going to disengage from the Sister Cities program, we have an obligation to participate and should have at least one representative there.  My compromise was to support partially funding the airfare for up to four representatives to attend, only one of which will be a Board member.  I must say that my support is very tentative and hearing two Board members complain about "partially funding" (i.e., Half) the airfare bothered me a great deal, particularly since one of the complaining Board members was the "flyer-apparent" for the future trip.  It was noted that this is not a "perk" and that we may not find four people who want to pay half the load for flying to a "suburb of Paris".  Really?  $600-$700 to fly to France, after which lodging and food are mostly provided for by the Sister Cities program?  Respectfully -- allow me to find a silk handkerchief to wipe away your tears.  I want the attendees to have some skin in the game to gauge motivation.  This is a very small expense, but that is not dispositive to me.  What matters most is how this will look once it is executed.

I made a compromise at the straw vote stage, but would be interested in hearing your thoughts.  After hearing the coarse attitude of some Board members about the "burden" of paying half, I am back on the fence and may favor not sending any Board members at all.  I would be 100% behind an effort to make this an opportunity for our Sister City Advisory Committee and residents at large.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love.  Happy Olympics Day.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Want of Change (Thursday LINKS)

I had a whole post written in my head about the dangers of running government "like a business", but felt compelled to pivot onto a more pressing matter that has the entire Howard County community swooning.

Whole Foods.

Pardon my familiarity but -- I'm psyched.  Without getting too hippie-dippy on you, the entire "whole foods" movement is something I have been interested in from way back, and having a Whole Foods store right down the street is pretty exciting.  Now that we have a Trader Joe's, Harris Teeter, Wegman's, and now a Whole Foods, I think we have exhausted the super-market market.

I'm looking for the parable that explains "First come the yuppie grocery stores, then come the..."

Second tier music venues?
Night clubs?
Independent book stores?
Museums?

Like it or not, we've become a community of "what's next".  Wegman's pretzels had barely cooled out of the oven before we were clamoring for Whole Foods.  Have no doubt that there will be opposition, but this group gets weaker with every iteration.  There is an inevitability about it all that has reshaped the paradigm.

One thing to keep in mind throughout all this is that Howard Hughes is the farmer and we are the crops.  I'm happy to be a crop, but lets not pretend that Whole Foods is dropping in to give cave-aged blue cheese and dried salami away (Wegman's amazing two months of free giveaways notwithstanding).  This is business with a profit-motive.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the euphoria of having a new place to spend our money seems a bit...odd.  You may also consider that as this kind of development continues, some of us may be priced out of certain vendors.  If you've spent any time in Greenwich, Connecticut or Georgetown, you know exactly how that feels.  "I hope that hot chocolate was good, honey.  Now let's go find a place where one of us can have lunch and the other can eat the pickle."  These new vendors are not just here for "what's here".  They are interested in "what's next" as well.  Think about our new neighbors in their $2,500 a month condominiums.

A rising tide lifts all ships.  This is an time for all of us to enjoy, celebrate, and be grateful that we were here when it started.  But we should also celebrate who we are now and make sure that is preserved.  The enthusiasm for the new will always outstrip the old.  But do what you can to appreciate what's here.  The Columbia Association was one of the first of its kind and, regardless of whatever your thoughts may be of the Board, it is a successful community focused organization.  Old Ellicott City is unique and may never be replicated by anything Columbia has to offer.  Keep First Friday's on your calendar.  Western Howard County provides landscapes, activities, and people that are our history and future.  Don't leave them behind.

So let's be excited about Whole Foods.  But let's also be excited about whatever it was that enticed Whole Foods to come here.  Not just what we're going to be.  What we are now.

LINKS

Can you believe that someone kidnapped Cal Ripken, Jr.'s mom?!?!  Can you believe that?!?!  I can't really think of a worse crime that you could commit against the State of Maryland.  I am not joking.

A second special session on expanded gambling appears likely.  The more attention you pay to this issue, the more disgusting it gets.  I don't even have to insert my opposition to expanded gambling here.  The revenue shortfall has been addressed.  There is no pressing emergency.  Yet we're holding a session in which fund-raising rules are not applicable to pass a special project for the President of the Senate.  I'll be watching how the Howard Delegation votes.  Regardless of their thoughts on gambling, do they endorse this type of governance?

Gov. O'Malley has established a work group to examine Maryland's power grid and ways to improve its resilliency.  I wish I could attribute the source, but I recall that one commentator has suggested we pair the new Inter-county Broadband Network with underground power lines.  Should that ever come to pass, it would be yet another boost for our County Executive on the state-wide scene.

Speaking of boosts, Howard County was named the 9th "Leading Creative Class County".  Hwhaaaaat?  I have no reason to doubt the methodology, but as someone who grew up here, I was surprised.  I guess it all comes down to the definition of the "creative class".  You and I may be a part of it without even knowing!

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Goes to TJ for having the most non sequitur topic of the day in a field of Whole Food posts -- The Manhattan.  Then again, having once posted about pizza and oysters, I have no room to talk.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love.  I'm expecting a lively (and late) CA Board of Directors meeting tonight.  Wish me luck.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kamenastrophe (Wednesday LINKS)

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had an editorial in the Baltimore Sun this past weekend explaining his decision to reduce the projected rate of return on employee pension investments from 7.88% to 7.5% at a cost to the County (in additional investment) of $15 million.  Here are some highlights:

On addressing future pension costs: Baltimore County has lengthened the vesting period, extended the retirement age (including for police and fire personnel), increased employee contributions to both pension and health care, and reduced cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. And so far we've been able to ensure no employee furloughs or firings, while still granting step pay increases.

On why he thought the editorial was necessary:  Last week, Baltimore County reduced the assumed investment earnings rate of return of the County Employee Retirement System, from 7 7/8 percent to 7 1/4 percent. As The Sun reported, "The move was seen as a significant change for a system that wasn't in crisis."

On the effect of the change in projections: Baltimore County must now pay an additional $15 million annually to the pension system, but we do so now to ensure that taxpayers won't be saddled with an unfunded liability down the road. Although this will indeed put a strain on the county budget, it is absolutely the right thing to do for our employees and our taxpayers. As part of the county's ongoing review of its operations, we will find efficiencies to fund the additional costs.

Now, if you look at "Howard County's Retirement Plan -- Financial Statements and Auditor's Report 2011 & 2010" (PDF) you will see that the actuarial assumption of projected return underlying our funding scheme is 8% (page 11).  It was also interesting to me to note that in 2009, the Retirement Plan was 96.3% funded with $8.4 million in obligations left unfunded.  In 2011, the Retirement Plan remained 96.3% funded, but the unfunded obligations practically doubled to $16.4 million.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that three of the largest pension funds for U.S. employees drastically underperformed last year, putting up a rate of return between 1 and 1.8% as opposed to the 8% target.

To be completely clear, my interpretation of numbers should be view skeptically.  Moreover, in my experience writing about Howard County and the work done by Ray Wacks & Co., they always have a plan, and I presume there is one here.  However, I do believe that we should view what Baltimore County is doing with an eye towards our own practices and at least be aware of the potential risks we are accepting.  We also should hear what the rate of return was on these retirement accounts for 2012.

Your perspective on this breaks down into two phrases: "Looming Storm" or "Chicken Little".  There is no question that we all are rightfully concerned about pension costs over the long term, but we also have our own conclusions about how that problem should be addressed.  Renegotiation.  Full-payment.  Or, for those most coarse, the display of an empty chest with the bottom saying "Void".  County Executive Kamenetz has worked both sides.  He renegotiated the obligations and restocked the shelves.  If he was right, and we are wrong, our options will be significantly narrowed.

LINKS

Speaking of treading outside of my depth, check out this long-form piece about Paul Krugman and Estonia's austerity practices.  While I am not a proponent of austerity, I go out of my way to find articles that contrast with my views, and this one can certainly go in that category.  To summarize, Krugman cherry-picked some data for a chart to show how Estonia was going about the financial crisis all wrong, when a more long-term view would show that they may have actually done it right.  Include a potentially drunken Twitter rant by a high ranking Estonian official, and you have yourself a very nice story.

We all may be willing to acknowledge that there has been some growth in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession.  What no one seems all that interested in is where that growth is going.  The New York Times takes a look in its Economix blog and the results are not all that surprising. -- "In the simplest terms, the relatively meager gains the American economy has produced in recent years have largely flowed to a small segment of the most affluent households, leaving middle-class and poor households with slow-growing living standards."

GGP has provided more detailed plans for its "lifestyle center" to be put in the place of LL Bean with 75,000 square feet of new retail space and 25,000 square feet of "open air plaza".  Residents expressed concerns about parking, but as noted by the GGP representative, it is impossible (and impractical) to plan for Black Friday.  While "The U" between Cheesecake Factory and Sears is always a difficult proposition for parking, an open walkway through the Mall may ease that congestion by inviting parking on the other side of the complex.  We shall see.  Either way, I think this will be a really fantastic project and look forward to seeing it come to fruition...after another 14 steps or so.

Howard County Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley worries about ballot fatigue as the Council considers a laundry list of Charter Amendments, including questions relating to term limits, ballot referenda, and contingency funds.  Some of the members of the Charter Review Commission had raised this concern at our meetings, but more in terms of what the Council would pass, not what the voters would want to read through.  Put in that perspective, all of our proposed amendments have merit, but maybe the technical corrections can (sadly) go.

Lindsey McPherson looks into the newly reached agreement to develop the Greenstone Ventures project at Gateway that maintains the "green-ness" of the project while adjusting to meet access limits set by the highway administration.  Nice problem-solving here. 

Featured Blog Post of the Day:  You need to see the series of photographs WB took of County Executive Ulman during Marc Norman's testimony at Monday's Public Forum.  Feel free to read the post as well.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No Post Tuesday

I have a very early obligation in DC this morning, so I will not be able to take care of my daily shouts and whispers.  I do have something interesting on deck for later today or tomorrow if I get a chance. 

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Five Thousand Dollars (No LINKS)

Jane and I saw the new Batman movie over the weekend.  Don't worry, there won't be any spoilers here.  Like most dyed-in-the-wool comic book fans, I had been anticipating this film since the last one.  Batman has always been my favorite super-hero and the Christopher Nolan trilogy brought just the right amount of realism to make you think that "something" like Batman is possible.  He also made you believe the villains were real enough to make Batman necessary.

I loved the movie.  I loved the subtle political themes (no, I don't think the main villain's name [Bain] had anything to do with the 2012 election).  I loved the story arch.  It was probably my favorite Batman movie yet.

When I was little, this was my idea of how people brought good into the world.  The American mythology of hyper-individualism is manifest in comic books.  One person with supernatural abilities saves the world.  Another person with supernatural abilities tries to destroy it.  You and I are in the middle.  But when you're little, you don't think about the supernatural part.  You just want to be the person in the cape (which is why it is a crime that we have "adultified" so many of our comic book heroes, but in light of how much I liked last night's movie, I can't preach too much on that point).  You want to wear the cape because that is the only way you can save the world.  Otherwise, you're just ordinary.

As I've become older, I've seen that super-heroic acts of goodwill are only possible through collective action.  When you spend any time really thinking about it, reaching our $5,000 mark, 200% of the original goal, is extra-ordinary.  Seventy-five people, from all walks of life and different levels of income, donated money that otherwise could have bought them a nice dinner out with their loved ones, a new book, a gift, or even a payment on their car.  I cherished and appreciated each one of those donations (all notified via e-mail) because I knew that money could otherwise have gone somewhere that brought you more immediate gratification than seeing your name pixelated on this page or on the Crowdrise site.  We heard that $2,500 is "not that much" and we will probably also hear that $5,100 is "not that much", but the amount is really secondary.  There is something truly heroic about what we've done together.

I never had to tell you a sob story about who were were going to help.
I never had to guilt anyone into donating money.
You never heard from anyone who will receive these funds.

But yet, you donated.  To strangers.

As a society, we need to come to terms with the fact that we are the custodians of our community.  I often lament how we have been encouraged to abdicate financial support for nonprofits to government.  And maybe its the right move.  On average, Americans donate about 3.4% of their income to charity, and that term spans all sectors of non-profits from educational institutions (where some later benefit for Junior may accrue) to homeless shelters to religious organizations.  The "why" is always different, but the need remains.  And unfortunately, it's not enough.

Our nonprofit community needs sponsors.  They need regular dependable income.  And they need it now more than ever.  It is through this venue that we don the cape.  We become heroes.  There is no exaggeration in that statement.  Contributions to Living in Recovery will undoubtedly save lives.  An organization that barely existed a year ago now has funds to open a third house and is considering the need of going from all-volunteer to paid staff.  That's due, in great part, to what you have done.

More importantly, I hope it is what you continue to do.  Philanthropy is a habit, not an act.  Just as our collective action provides the hero in this narrative, the villain also exists.  Collective inaction.  Indifference.  Apathy.  It's much more terrifying than a bad man in a mask.  The idea that we have this capacity within us to do so much good, but we choose not to.  Bruce Wayne sitting on his billions.  Clark Kent quietly heating his coffee cup at his desk.

Tell me you didn't feel like a homeless-ending-hero-person when you clicked that "Donate" button.  You felt it all day.  Super-charged.  Excited.  Alive.  Isn't that what it would be like to be a superhero? 

We're not done.  Over the next few weeks, we will be having a Happy Hour to celebrate.  I've already spoken to Matt Milani at The Rumor Mill and he is excited to host.  But this is not just a time to breathe easy now that "it's done".  It is also time to think of what's next.  School supplies for our youth? (PDF)  A new fund at the Columbia Foundation?  Sustained effort on those projects you've held in your heart?  Where are you, personally, going to rededicate your efforts now that this one is done?

How much of those comic books do you want to be fake?

Final Thank You's:
Guy and Pam Guzzone
Vaillancourt Family (Again!  Thank you)
Elizabeth Janney
Kevin Wilson
Jim McCafferty
Mike Morucci
Rob and Mindy Glantz
Sam O'Neil

Have a great Monday doing what you love.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Whacha Say? (Friday LINKS)

Because most of my family knows that I am a news/politics junkie (in the most affectionate use of the word), they will often ask me what I think about prominent news events or controversial subjects.  This is all the more fun when I know what the "correct answer" to their question may be, but for the most part I enjoy discussing these issues with those who are trying to get me to talk about something I'm interested in.

But there are two exceptions:
1) Nationwide coverage of criminal trials;
2) Political pie throwing.

The first is pretty clear and I think I've discussed it here before.  The worst time to be a lawyer is when there is a big trial on TV, that is unless you are one of the goofballs that gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say "I don't think the jury liked that" or some other completely speculative statement that has no foundation in anyone's conceivable experience (juries are mostly unpredictable).  It is also hard because the person asking you about the trial has probably spent more time paying attention than you have, which means it is inevitable that if you try to answer their question, you will be wrong.

"I think that bloody paper bag will come into evidence."
"Really?  Because the judge said there was no way he was going to allow that bloody bag into evidence."

The second are malapropisms, speech faux paus, and internet static.

"How about Mitt Romney putting that dog on the roof?  Geez!"
"Did you see that Obama doesn't cover his heart when he says the pledge of allegiance?  Weird!"
 "Mitt Romney likes to fire people?  No one likes to fire people!"
"Obama said small business owners didn't build their own businesses?  I sure would like to know who did!"

I actually get a little angry and fall over into preach mode.  "You do understand that this is the kind of irrelevant clap trap that voters are fed to keep them from paying attention to the real issues, right?"  (I really am a bore when it comes to politics).  Rather than spend any significant time on the fact that the frequency of severe storms is increasing, there is a drought over half of the United States, and the persistence of a workforce with antiquated skills paired low demand will most likely keep unemployment over 7% for the next decade without drastic investment by either the public or private sector, we hear the same 3 second sound bite over and over and over with commentary from anyone who has a pulse and a red or blue silk tie.

And even more worrisome is that these quotes will almost assuredly dictate the votes of 20% of the populace without any follow-up on their part.  Never mind the fact Mitt Romney may have hired more people than he fired (alleged by not confirmed).  Don't worry about researching President Obama's track record on supporting small businesses and increasing start-up loans.  Please, do absolutely no research of your own, but feel free to complain that the media is biased or you aren't getting the information you need to make a decision.  Ignore the existence of the Internet.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Meanwhile, I do have a problem with what one elected official "said" over the past month, which has received very little attention by those who create internet memes.  Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann sent a letter to the State Department accusing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of being linked to the Muslim Brotherhood due to the employment of Huma Abedin, whose family was connected to the group.  Notably, as a staff member, Ms. Abedin would be required to go through the strictest level of security clearance evaluation before her first day on the job.  Her family relations would have been scrutinized.  Her travel would be scrutinized.  More importantly, she would have been asked to account for these connections.  A professional security clearance evaluator would review this file and determine whether it was "clearly consistent with the government interest" to allow Ms. Abedin to have this job.  This is a personally embarrassing and uncomfortable process that will only be endured by the most committed applicants.  Despite all of this, Ms. Abedin's security clearance was approved.

When one of our citizens is accused of being a traitor, that is much bigger than some gaffe at a podium.  If you want to be outraged, make it worthwhile.

LINKS

The Planning Board has approved Phase 1 of CA's final development plan for Symphony Woods with the added recommendation that it use "meandering pathways" to "save as many trees as possible".  I guess that on the whole this is a good thing...unless you sit on the CA Board.  We will be compelled to litigate, yet again, the subject of trees, despite at least three votes declining an "alternative plan" drafted by one of the Board members.

Meanwhile, CA President Phil Nelson has submitted a letter to the editor offering to replant new trees with plaques dedicating them to the 100 "Columbia Pioneer" families that helped start Columbia.  I love the idea.

Janene Holzburg has a great article about the sale of the Wayside Inn, which has operated as a bed and breakfast for the past three years.  This is an odd property.  It is a gorgeous historic house that Jane and I would give an arm to own...but it faces a sound wall...that doesn't quite block out all the sound from Route 29. 

Looks like that storm was as bad as it sounded.  Baltimore City had some flooding and BWI flights have been delayed.  In other news, pheromone collars do wonders for dogs who get the shakes when thunder roars. 

An outbreak of whooping cough in the United States is projected to be the worst in a half century and may be related to under-vaccination. 

Comptroller Peter Franchot has an op/ed in the paper repeating his argument against increased gambling in Maryland paired with tax breaks for casino owners.  He presents a rather dire fiscal picture of our State that is normally reserved for Republican war drummers:

Despite the steady diet of higher taxes, and despite legalizing slots four years ago, we are still carrying a structural budget deficit of $548 million. We are responsible for about $35 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care obligations, and we are on track to near, if not exceed, the state's debt ceiling in 2017.

Wait, so we have a State debt ceiling debate to look forward to in 2017?

Featured Blog Post of the Day: I didn't link to this yesterday due to the surplus of great posts, but I do love WB's "Around Town" posts and this one was no exception.  These types of posts enrich our enjoyment of what's all around us.  Someone will read this and have a great Tuesday down the line because they found out that Pure Wine has $10 soft tacos and is a great place to meet people.  That's neat stuff.

So yesterday was kind of a big day for the fund-raising project.  Many of you took my invitation to join the ranks of donors at the $10 level and for that I am very appreciative.  We also received a large donation that put us a mere $190 away from the 200% goal.  That's exciting.

Thank You's:
AnneRie
Steve Bikel
Terri Westerlund (Terri and her team helped Jane and I find our home here in Dorsey)
Kristin
Richard McCready
Frank Hecker

I actually was so excited when I went to bed last night that I had a hard time falling asleep.

Have a great Friday doing what you love!  It is impossible not to.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gone Fishing (Thursday LINKS)

According to Wiktionary, the parable "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime" is derived from a 19th Century novel Mrs Drymond:

"...I suppose the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes. Will Mr. Bagginal now produce his ticket - the result of favour and the unjust sub-division of spiritual environments?"

Contrary to 21st Century faux-theology, this parable is not derived from the Bible, which states:

"Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty) and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him as a sojourner and resident-settler, and he is to live beside you." (Leviticus 25:35)

But...he brought his fishin' pole, right?  Because I'm not having my brother live beside me if he can't fish.

Don't get me wrong, I believe it is a very noble sentiment...that is unjustly used to reject any type of social safety net to help those in need.  Never mind the irony that many of the world's poorest people are fishermen and in the United States nets an annual income of approximately $25,590.

The other day I saw one of our elected leaders post this column to their Facebook page.  It is called "Teaching Jim to Fish for Himself" and is about one proud Compassionate Conservative's journey from finding homeless people yucky to...telling them to get a job.  I'm being a little snarky here, but I won't say my summary is too far off.  In the midst of all of our work for Living in Recovery, and my personal experiences with those living in the woods, I was taken aback by this post and felt compelled to start a dialogue:

[Insert Representative's Name], this piece completely mischaracterizes the homeless in America based on the author's anecdotal experience. I truly hope this is not how you view this problem and that you understand that not all homelessness is due to laziness, addiction, or personal fault. Unfortunately, there are not kind-hearted rich folks to direct the "dirty" homeless to the job down the street, as described in this piece. Rather, we have an untrained manufacturing/construction work-force that is one disability away from being without employment. We do not need government hand-outs, but we also don't need misinformation like this. I hope you will consider supporting grassroots efforts like Living in Recovery, which looks to help those looking to help themselves. They operate in ways similar to the protagonist in this article, but in ways that are much more realistic.

The response:

Not how I view it, I was impressed with her "evolution". She focused on real solutions, not just impersonal and outs or three times removed government programs. 

I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid.  I know a done deal when I see one, and clicked away from the page.

But since then, I've thought about "teaching Jim to fish".  What happens when the pond is empty?  Are we willing to teach Jim to hunt?  Trap?  Find edible plant-stuffs?  How much time are we willing to spend with Jim and are we willing to have him come back to us if the skills don't work?  If we want to have an honest conversation, and not just some flippant limerick, about the current employment situation in America, can we really do so without at least mentioning that large sectors of our economy (i.e., fishing holes) have been wiped out and our workforce needs to be retrained?  How about the fact that the people teaching the Jimmy's and Sally's of the world to fish (i.e., teachers) are some of our lowest paid professionals?  Might that affect the way we fish?

It seems like everyone loves the grand applicability of a fortune cookie public policy until we unfold the implications. 

How about this one: Would you hire someone that has not showered or shaved in three days, is wearing dirty clothes, and appears constantly tired?  Would you think less of someone else for refusing to do so?  

That's the real end of failed-actress-turned-Town-Hall-Columnist Ann-Marie Murrell's story.  If the camera had followed Jim down the street as he hurried to the job site, we would see him shooed off the grounds by an angry manager.  Or maybe he gets to ask for that job and hear that he should "check back later".  Maybe even under the most humane of circumstances that manager says "If you can find a place to clean yourself up, come back and we can talk."  But one thing that is certain is that the only happy ending was for the "Compassionate Conservative" who gave a half-assed fishing lesson to a homeless man named Jim.

LINKS
 

I loved this article about non-profit Community Development Corporations that are taking on quasi-governmental roles to augment urban development and translate community interests into action.  I think that at its best, the Columbia Downtown Partnership will meet this profile and augment, supplement, and synergize the work done by Howard Hughes.

Get your Maryland corn now, as the projections for later this year are coming up short due to dry weather.  Between the Feastival and our CSA, Jane and I have had plenty of corn, but I will still miss it when it is gone. 

Speaking of vegetables, Jane and I watched Forks Over Knives last night on Netflix.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly for those currently on statins or battling other chronic diseases.  At the end of the day, the most important question you can ask yourself is "How much do I want to feel better?"

DREAM Act supporters have officially launched their campaign, while opponents are well...tell us what you're doing Del. McDonough? "Even though we don't have an organization, we do have the sentiment of the people." 

I'm always up for a good book recommendation, so I loved this piece in the New Yorker about famous author recommendations for "what to read next".  Although the author was discussing book recommendations, I did appreciate this bit about "content curation":

"There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about “curation” (the original meaning of the word has morphed into something else entirely; maybe we still lack a needed word). It has come to signify sifting through the ever-increasing avalanche of “content” in order to identify the things that are worthiest of our attention, and bringing those things to an interested audience. In fact, there should be no question about this at all; with our time and attention being limited as they are, it’s crucial that we have skilled cultural guides."

Featured Blog Post of the Day: There were so many good posts yesterday that I have to pick two.  The first is Sarah's post about Bicycle Superhighways (sounds like a cool name for a band) and the other is Matt's commitment to our daily rag, which is getting smaller by the day; however, by my observation is also increasing the quality of content.

For reasons I can't quite explain, every morning I get anxious about us reaching the $5,000 goal.  Then, when you all prove me wrong day after day, it feels all the better. We raised $245 yesterday, putting us at $4,455, which is only $645 away from the goal.  I am also very proud to note that we have had 65 donors to the project.  Remember, even if you can only contribute $5, simply adding your name to the rolls is a much larger contribution to what we are trying to accomplish.

Thank You's:
Jim Vannoy
Ada Bohorfoush
Marcy Leonard
Tom O'Conner

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

About A Park (Wednesday LINKS)

One of the hardest agenda items that I've been asked to address as a member of the CA Board of Directors has been Symphony Woods Park.  It wraps up all of the individual conflicts within the Board:

Amateur v. Expert Opinion
Oversight v. Strategy
Micro-managing v. Acquiescence
Community input v. Community dictation

Every vote has been hard.  In fact, the decision as to whether or not particular votes are even appropriate has been hard.  (Do you want us to design the park benches?)  But due to dedicated Staff and some key considerations by the Board along the way, we've produced a Phase 1 overview that found consensus amongst the Board.  That was a difficult task.  Each of us came to the table with different interests in what we wanted to see out of the park.  My greatest concern was connectivity and synergy with Merriweather Post Pavilion.  Phase 1 provides an avenue to further exploring those possibilities.  Others wanted to make sure the park expressed the right congruence of "music and nature".  Phase 1 provides the platform for developing this theme with later programmatic features.  The vast majority of the Board just wanted the Park to look professional, and I think the Phase 1 infrastructure/back-bone will grow into something quite spectacular as additional resources are made available.

This is the platform for future growth.  It takes a creative mind to see the poured cement of a new foundation and imagine the bedroom views.  To truly appreciate Phase 1, that type of projected imagination is necessary.  So I forgive anyone who finds this Plan to be boring or without a draw.  I might even agree...if this was where the process ended.  If Columbia redevelopment lives up to its potential, and population density follows projections, the ceiling for this Park is similarly raised.   As the Merriweather Arts district is developed, and additional programmatic features are planned, the Park is augmented further, and points of joint development can be identified.  As the Park is used, and utilization patterns develop, the Park can evolve further to meet the growing needs of Columbia.

But to plan all of that in 2012 would be foolhardy and rash.  More than that, it could potentially throw a wrench into the entirety of Downtown Development, putting a square gear in amongst the round ones for Howard Hughes and GGP to work around.  The frustration, anger, and embarrassment would come home to roost on CA's doorstep, not those who suggest this preliminary plan is not enough.  More importantly, it would undercut the expectations we had set for our residents, which is a primary consideration throughout the process.

I don't have much to say about trees.  I'm just exhausted on this point.  To preserve 63 trees in the name of Jim Rouse is to ignore a lifetime of transforming nature into livable environments.

I appreciate the feedback CA has received about its proposals, but it does not change my conviction that this preliminary Plan is the correct approach.

LINKS

The Columbia Flier was kind enough to publish a letter to the editor I submitted regarding Symphony Woods park.  I'm happy to go on the public record regarding my expectations for this Park.

Old and Busted: Coon Hunt Court.  New Hotness: April Wind Circle.  Congratulations to the advocates in Oakland Mills.  I really love when the community folks win.

The new Columbia beat writer for the Flier, Luke Lavoie, has already won me over by citing Wordbones in his piece about Whole Foods coming to town.  Three years ago, blogs were the stuff reporters scraped off their shoe.  Nowadays, we're just an "odd smell".  Progress!

Tuesday morning, my secretary asked "How long do you think it will be before Light Street is fixed?"  I said "Three weeks."  She said, "You really think it will take that long?"  Survey SAYS -- Three weeks.

Part 1 of Mayor SRB's "10,000 Family Plan" may be challenging census numbers.  The City is arguing that they have 30,000 more people than were counted in the 2010 census.  Ta da, 10,000 more 2.5 families!

The Chair of the "No Slots at the Mall" activist group is now joining forces with Maryland Live! to oppose a sixth casino in Prince George's County.  I particularly liked this line that seems to wrap up my thinking on Maryland gambling: "Such is the evolution of the gambling debate in Maryland. Politicians and lobbyists alike have crossed lines they once drew in the sand."  Why can't you jokers draw fake lines in the sand about direct wine shipping?

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Mac's Mom has a great post about a new project to collect school supplies for underprivileged children.  If you really believe in and care about upward mobility, education is key.  That includes the smallest things such as having a pencil or a binder to hold your homework.  This is great work and I look forward to seeing it grow.

Project UPDATE: We're now at $4,210, $790 away from doubling our original goal.  Yesterday, someone told me "It will be ok if you don't get to 200%.  You met your first goal, right?"  I don't think we can get this close and come up short.  If you donated, don't you want to be a part of 200%?

Thank You's:
The Smith Family
Bob and Cheryl Guth

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

Monday, July 16, 2012

DC Disaster (Monday LINKS)

Washington, D.C. has itself a bit of a governance problem, and not the type you'll see on a license plate any time soon.  Over the past three months, one council-member resigned after being charged with bank fraud, another was sentenced to 38 months in prison for theft of government money and tax fraud, and their Mayor is accused of running a "shadow campaign", the result of which has led to three of his campaign advisers pleading guilty to corruption related charges, and is expected to bring on the resignation of Vincent Gray.

Whoa.

NPR Host Kojo Nnamdi wonders if this corruption is brought on my the ceiling on D.C. politicos:

We don’t have statehood or voting rights in Congress, which means there is limited political space in the District. School board member, council member, mayor, non-voting delegate to Congress, and soon, attorney general. That’s it. Those are all the available opportunities for elected office in the District of Columbia.

...

The result is that a relatively small percentage of the city’s remarkable talent pool is interested in running for office, which sometimes makes room for less-qualified opportunists who view public office as a lifestyle upgrade and taxpayers and campaign contributors as neighborhood ATMs.


Strong words from a respected journalist.  Another Post commentator, Dana Milbank, wonders if this is the result of a protected primary system that does not allow independents to have a voice:

We in the District have, in short, seen the future. We have already arrived at where the rest of the country is headed. The voters have checked out. The primaries have been hijacked by a small, unrepresentative group that chooses bad candidates. And these candidates, confident that nobody is paying attention, brazenly ignore the already-flimsy campaign-finance laws. 

Either way, it must be gut-wrenchingly frustrating for such an educated and skilled populace to be run by crooks.  What is truly odd is that D.C. is undoubtedly in the flowering stage of a renaissance that began five or six years ago.  It has positioned itself as a very desirable place for young people to live and is propping the lowest murder rate since 1963

To sum it up: Everything is going well but the folks in charge.

D.C. makes a very good example of a self-sustaining, engaged citizenry paired with a business culture that allows for big progress and development outside the realm of government.  It is almost like one large NGO, limited only by the occasional palm greasing required by corrupt politicians.

As is my tendency, I drew this example back to Columbia.  Being without a municipal government dedicated to the brain shaped province betwixt Routes 29, 32, and 108, we can use D.C. as an example. 

Just not the folks in charge.

LINKS

I was very sad to hear about the shooting at Shipley's Grant over the weekend.  Thankfully, the Sun decided against giving "Shooting In Howard County...where all the kids are above average!" front page billing this time.

Groundwater aquifers provide water for approximately 1 million Marylanders, mostly to the south and east of Route 95.  According to this piece, we are drawing it out faster than it is being replaced and Frederick Delegate Galen Glagett predicts that one day "we're going to wake up thirsty".  In the course of being forced to drill even deeper to find water, geologists have found a groundwater deposit that may be up to 2 million years old.  Said otherwise, we are past the capacity of what had served coastal peoples since this area was first settled hundreds of thousands of years ago.  If that doesn't get your attention, I'm not sure what will.

Developers of the Ritz-Carlton and Silo Point condos will no longer be able to enjoy favorable tax treatment for their vacant buildings along the Baltimore waterfront and will face an added $2.3 million on their tax bill this year.  It is worth remembering these kind of stories when we talk about land developers and their "greed".  These folks take big risks, hoping to have a successful community with economic benefits for the surrounding properties.  When they lose, it falls on them to foot the bill.

The Sun had an interesting news analysis piece over the weekend featuring Baltimore City's role as lead plaintiff against a legion of banks related to LIBOR fixing.  Even outside of the practical considerations of a windfall verdict, I'm sure the banking defense bar appreciates the business.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: AnneRie Unplugged does a financial assessment of her CSA and comes out ahead.  Jane and I have tried a new CSA this year and are, yet again, enjoying everything that comes along with Community Supported Agriculture.  It is a total yuppie indulgence, but one that I never want to do without.

So, in case you haven't noticed, we are a mere $990 away from doubling our goal of $2,500 with about 15 days to go.  Psychologically, I think we need to get to that $5,000 mark, don't you?  If you haven't donated yet, please consider dropping $5 or $10 into the "tip jar".  There is no "minimum donation" here.  The most important thing is showing your support for Living in Recovery and providing an opportunity for those who are looking to pick themselves up and start a new life.

And if we make $5,000, we will be having a party.  This time I mean it.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!


Friday, July 13, 2012

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

Start Time: 7:36 pm
End Time: 10:13 pm

While I certainly appreciate the meeting ending about 45 minutes earlier than our average (and getting to see an awake Jane before she sets out on a weekend long sailing trip), this accomplishment is ever so diminished by the simple fact that we did not have much to do.  The real work is getting this Board to operate more efficiently and intentionally.  As you will read, I believe that even with this shortened meeting, we still spent a lot of time spinning our wheels in the mud.

John DeWolf Presentation on Downtown Columbia

The Board has requested an opportunity to have John DeWolf, VP of Howard Hughes, speak at our meeting regarding HH's plans for Downtown Columbia.  I think it is fair to say that the Board was "wow'ed", which is all the more impressive considering the adversarial stance many of these same Board members had taken towards our community developer as recently as last year.

I will be honoring Mr. DeWolf's request to keep some of the subject matters discussed under my hat, despite this being presented at an open meeting.  I would strongly encourage any of you that are interested to download the audio recording of last night's meeting when it becomes available on Tuesday.  The Downtown Presentation is right at the beginning.  (Funny aside: John did say that if he had known the County Council meetings were viewed recorded and webcast, he may have taken a different approach with the County Council last month.)

First of all, this is very exciting.  Mr. DeWolf laid out the planned progression of development across a number of parcels and gave us an overview of the "grand scheme" (my words).  He noted that HH has been receiving significant resistance to incorporating "paid parking", which I think is unfortunate.  Traffic is not some disease that goes into remission.  It must be treated.  Paid parking and cutting back on vast expanses of ugly, watershed destroying, property wasting asphalt will be an important step in encouraging alternative modes of transit.  Mr. DeWolf noted that many people have said "this is a suburban town and we need our parking".  The fact that he is respecting that interest says a lot about HH's intentions and the frivolousness of having staid community comforts running the show.

My biggest take-away from this presentation was something John DeWolf never actually said.  When he was asked what Howard Hughes wants from CA, he noted that HH is "big on property rights".  He then said "we don't want you...we don't want to tell you or GGP what to do with your property."  What I thought he was going to say, and what I think he intended behind that me/you semantic slight of hand, was "We don't want you telling us what to do with our property".  The Board nodded and smiled at what he actually said, with many looking to say "Well good, we don't want you telling us what to do either", but I hope they understood part B of that statement.  Personally, I'm ready to agree to that request, but I wonder how much the rest of the Board may be interested in letting up on the reigns (that we don't actually hold).


Village Share Allocation

This albatross is not going away anytime soon.  As a quick refresher, the Allocation Model is designed to distribute CA lien assessments amongst the 10 Villages according to various classifications, expenditures, and other needs.  It is very complicated and lends itself to grievous misinterpretation (and I don't use "grievous" lightly).  The Board is objectively paralyzed by the concerns of three Villages, two of which feel a third has been mis-categorized and, as such, receiving more than a fair share of the assessment.  It is unfortunate that this record found itself on the turntable, yet again, but I think the Board is taking a professional approach to the issue by having all Villages reassessed to ensure uniformity across the Columbia Villages.  Once that is done, however, I will have no tolerance for any further objections or tweaking to the model.  We came into this explaining to the Villages that not everyone would be satisfied, but that we would try to find the most palatable solution for the most Villages possible.  The vast majority of Villages accepted that premise and did not seek any further adjustments of the model because of it.  To now go back and tinker with what was originally proposed undercuts that trust and the preliminary agreement we extended to those Villages that did not look at this item in terms of whether money was left on the table.  We open a whole new bag of worms by suggesting that this model is incomplete and I would not blame other Villages for feeling like they were tricked into complacence.  Nonetheless, if these reassessments do not change the final outcome, we have maintained our original deal and no one is worse off.

Key Strategic Issue Radar Screen

This is another item that, at first blush, would seem to be a quick item for approval.  It was not.  We spent about 15 minutes deciding whether we wanted to include the words "information technology" or "channels of communication" with the premise being that our older residents may not use "the Twitter or the Facebook".  You may recall that at the first reading of the Key Strategic Issues, I said that I didn't see much relevance of these directives to what CA actually does.  I still don't. 

Joint Venture Policy

One of the most productive items on the agenda was a review of a proposed Joint Venture Policy to outline the guidelines by which CA will enter into Joint Ventures with for-profit entities in a manner that will preserve our 501(c)(4) status.  I think Staff did a tremendous job on this policy and incorporated both the legal and financial considerations that are at play with these types of arrangements.  The Board was on task and asked good questions about certain edits that may be necessary.  This was an example of what the Board can do when it is on focus, has a pre-set objective in terms of what is being asked of the Board, and is directed by a strong Chair.  We referred the policy back for additional edits, but will see it again next month.

Five Year Capital Improvement Plan

Here's where I think we were a little inefficient with our time.  CA President Phil Nelson has drafted a Five Year Capital Improvement Plan.  Phil is particularly good at long term planning and I'm not sure we have fully utilized his capacity in this regard.  Nevertheless, the Planning and Strategy Committee has specifically solicited this Plan and I am glad it has been brought to the Board level.  However, Phil was not at last night's meeting.  He was at the Planning Board meeting to defend CA's Plan for Symphony Woods (the decision on which will be postponed to the next meeting).  Due to Phil's absence, the Board spent a lot of time discussing issues that may have been easily answered by the author of the Plan, such as "Does this Plan limit us?" "Why does the Plan presume this revenue stream when we may have more available in two-three years?"  The Board continued this discussion under the premise of "passing ideas and concerns on to Staff", but it seemed like much of the time was spent criticizing aspects of the Plan that may be a complete misinterpretation of its terms.

By my review, we spent about 45 minutes on this topic, and I'm not entirely sure it was worthwhile.  What I would have preferred is a request to the Board to review this Plan and have questions for the next PSC meeting, at which Phil would address those question in turn and see if we actually have criticisms that are more than mere misunderstanding.

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

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Valid (Thursday LINKS)

I listened to a podcast yesterday that discussed performance art.  There must be some line between art and looking like a fool, yet to define it would undercut all of the emotional/subjective conditions of art.  We are left with a condition where we are over-inclusive of what may be considered "art" and diluting the pool, for fear of discouraging art by exclusion.  Nonetheless, there is someone or some group along the way that validates the work and calls it "art".

Being a self-referential red-blooded American, I started thinking about how this applies to my life.  Validation.  Who says that CA/Village Board service has "value"?  Don't we talk about this all the time?  Whether it is worth your time.  We are made to question, but has this one ever been answered?

And please understand, I am not soliciting a pep talk.  I am doing just fine on the Board and this is not a cynical post.  My question is more for all of you.  While I've heard many times over that the time requirement is the greatest deterrent to Board service, those same time requirements apply in other levels of elected office without the same resistance to participation.  Is it prestige?  Reputation?  Notoriety?

All these questions come back to validation.  Who says this is a valid use of time?  What would make it more valid?  What are we doing to diminish that?

Lamenting the lack of participation on the CA/Village level is pointless.  The majority of those holding those offices, particularly on the CA Board level, are not interested in encouraging their next opponent to run.  Similarly, there has been resistance at the Board level to allow any work by Staff to recruit the next class of Columbia Council members or broaden the understanding of what we do.    At the very base level, the one that grants validation is whomever puts their name on the candidate petition.

LINKS

Slate's Moneybox suggests that the Federal Reserve is deliberating adopting policies to push the inflation rate below 2 percent, which is a policy track that can be presumed to stifle job growth.

Howard County Board of Education attorney Judith Bresler projects that the decision to remove Allen Dyer from office may not occur until after...he is removed...from office.

"I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."
-- George Bernard Shaw

In this week's Political Notebook, Ken Ulman Byron McFarlane says he will not be satisfied if only 55% of Howard County voters support same-sex marriage in November.  I think it is admirable that Ken Ulman is spending precious fund-raising time and resources to support Marriage Equality and also appreciate Byron McFarlane's spear-heading of the local effort.  Without much of a contested election anywhere within our borders, it will be curious to see how Dem political machine runs over the next four months.  Will it be directed towards School Board candidates?  Or will the ballot initiatives be a primary focus?

Adding to that referendum total will be a ballot question regarding the federal congressional redistricting scheme, as Republican opponents have collected enough signatures to put the matter on the ballot.  As predicted, the ballot initiative paired with online resources has become an effective weapon for the GOP in Maryland...never mind the disastrous consequences of direct democracy in California...or Federalist Paper No. 10.

The Anne Arundel County Police Chief has stepped down in conjunction with an agreement between the Chief and the Maryland State Prosecutor's Office.  James Teare Sr. was being investigated for ordering Anne Arundel police officers to do personal and political favors for County Executive John Leopold.  One would think that Teare would assist in the prosecution against Leopold, but the former Chief's attorney says that his client will not be aiding that investigation.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Well & Wise notes Howard County General Hospital's support for breast feeding and participation in the "Best Fed Beginnings" program.  HCGH has received some recent press in this regard and this post is an important read for prospective parents in the area.

Thank you's:
Rotary Club of Columbia Patuxent (HUGE Thanks to Dave Bittner, Charlie McCabe, and Darrell Nevin for their support in this regard)
David & April Proudfoot

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tax Rates and Growth (Wednesday LINKS)

One thing you will hear a lot over the next few months is that increasing taxes on those making over $250,000 a year will hurt the economy.  It is the reverse trickle-down theory.  "We're being trickled on right now, we just don't realize how wonderful this trickle is."  (I don't like that sentence any more than you do, but we're keeping it, ok?).

I've heard that explanation so often that I had never thought whether it was true.  Seems obvious right?  Rich people have less money, they spend less money.  But here are some charts to consider.

First, the government does not tax people, it taxes dollars.  Those making over $250,000 a year would still enjoy all of the tax cuts up to that amount.  It is only that income over $250,000 that will have a higher tax rate.  Check out this graph from The Center for Tax Justice:
You'll see that even under President Obama's approach, the top 1% still end up getting the greatest tax cut, even though it is $50,000 less than they may otherwise receive under the GOP plan.

Second, were is the data that a lower top marginal rate causes or sustains growth?  I don't exactly remember the "Booming Aughts", do you?  I remember the booming 90's, with a top marginal tax rate of 39.6%.  Things weren't so bad in the 80's either, with top earners paying a 50% marginal tax rate.  But if the Bush Tax Cuts were the foundation of growth, and not just war-time deficit spending, where's the beef?  Consider this graph from the Center for American Progress:

Admittedly, the lower marginal rates have been weighed down by the most recent recession, and no one is suggesting that higher marginal rates causes economic growth, but it certainly doesn't appear to impede it.  In fact, the times of greatest average GDP growth have occurred with a top marginal rate of 75-80% (mostly under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan).  You'll also note that economic growth in real, inflation-adjusted GDP has been at its weakest with lower marginal taxes of the recent age:
Between 1960 and 1969 the top marginal tax rate was between 70-80%.

The real taxes to look at, and be concerned about in terms of economic growth, are those that you are paying.  That is not just self-interest, it is basic economics.  High taxes are bad when they are stopping you from spending.  Each individual can only buy so many TV sets.  If more consumers have more expendable income, the economy grows.  If a smaller segment of consumers receive the benefit that would otherwise be spread out over a greater number of consumers, their individual discretion drives the economy, and there is no prohibition against saving/investing that money overseas.

I'm a little out over my skis in talking about economics, but I did want to share these thoughts and these graphs.  I wholly acknowledge that the graphs are from advocating sources (except for maybe the St. Louis Reserve) and would welcome any counter-points to include links to outside data.  I just don't think we should accept as true the idea that high marginal tax rates automatically stifle growth.  It seems like a very convenient line for wealthy boosters of "grassroots" political movements to send down to the masses.

LINKS

Jim Johnson's 1-2-3 inning for the American League may have been just about the only thing that went right for the DH-propping team, which was drubbed 8-0 by the National League.  If this were any other season, Johnson would be all the talk of trade rumors as he was shopped around to contenders. 

Howard County middle school reading scores have declined from 92.7% to 90.9% passing.  This dip joined an overall decline across the State from 83.5% to 82.1%.  A reasonable evaluation of this may be that a 1.8% difference is within the variability of alternating classes of individual students, but I would not expect a reasonable assessment, particularly on the heels of last year's controversial decision to incorporate reading into the inter-disciplinary work-load and not maintain it as a stand-alone class.

Hindsight being 20/20, I think returning paddle-boats to Lake Kittamaqundi should have been a higher priority for CA since their discontinuation in 2003.  This has been a very popular change and one that was ripe for the picking.

County Executives from across the State, including Howard, sent a "what the heck" letter to the Public Service Commission requesting a better communication system for power outages and exploring the possibility of burying power lines.

The Board of Elections has certified the same-sex marriage petition for inclusion on the 2012 ballot.  There is good reason to believe that Maryland will be the first State to affirm same-sex marriage by referendum, which could be a death knell for opponents across the Country as their most successful weapon is disarmed on he national stage. 

Featured Blog Post of the Day: HoCo Matt looks at the various entry points of civic engagement and participation, particularly the less traditional solicitations of community input.  Implicit in Matt's piece is that we can't expect the previous generations method's of engagement to work, or otherwise require those looking to participate do so in ways institutionalized by those currently in power/influence.  I met up with a friend yesterday who noted that those currently in positions of influence on the Village/local level have very little incentive to encourage new participants who may one day challenge them for their spot.  This will have to be outside pressure and dedication, which presents a very concerning "chicken or egg" question of what makes people get involved...one that I've been trying to answer for three years.

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Populism's Denominator (Tuesday LINKS)

Here's a thought experiment for you: Imagine if a random person, of average intelligence (high school education), came into your office/work-space/traveling road-show at 10:47 am this morning, pointed to your computer, pile of documents, trained seal and said "What's that and what are you doing?"

How long would it take you to explain your task to the point that your inquisitor would not only understand what you were doing, but why, and had enough information to approve or disapprove of that action intelligently?  15 minutes?  1 hour?  18 seminar hours with a certificate at the end?

My guess is that you would originally say 15 minutes, but then stumble across some complex macro-issue that would need further discussion, which would then need additional context, and now we're talking over a full cup of coffee.

Does it concern you that our elected officials have to do it in 2 minutes or less, through a third-party news source, and that their job hangs in the balance?

I don't know whether it was the chicken or the egg, but a 24-hour news cycle enables and promotes populist government in ways that are not only dangerous to this Country, but already harmful to those conducting its business.  This may offend you, but I would suggest that if the average American understands a proposed policy choice or piece of legislation in 2 minutes or less, it is bad law.  Yet Americans were polled about things like "raising the debt ceiling" (something I still don't fully understand) and were overwhelmingly against it, with only ~35% being modest (or honest) enough to say they don't know enough to have an opinion. 

Poll-driven politics is paired with a rejection of "elitism", which is a code word for "anything I don't understand".  Politicians, particularly on the right, are discouraged from producing or supporting complex legislation in the same way education advancement may be discouraged in inner city neighborhoods.  Why?  Because the elites should keep their hands off our government...a government we understand in 2 minutes or less.

But that's ok.  Party politics gives us all Cliff Notes on the whole shebang.  "I missed those two minutes, could you tell me what the Answer to Number 14 is?  Thank you."  Meanwhile, voters across this Country will go to the ballot box and vote against their own self-interest because of party allegiance (on both the right and left, some more knowing about their self-injury than others).

The term "political science" always seemed like a lie to me.  Once you're actual in the capstone course, you're no longer talking about policies.  You're talking about statistics (and that is a sad sad day, my friends).  With all due respect to my statistician friends, political science is passive.  There is no laboratory where better politics is created and patented.  As such, in the midst of advancements in every other area of science and humanities, politics could very well be getting worse, and every indication is that it has been for some time.  More concerning is that these other advancements are whispers back-dropping the loud voice of politics at the microphone.

"Tom's on another cynicism binge.  Must have stubbed his toe on the way to the shower again."

Not really.  I honestly believe that if smart people ever stopped doubting themselves and started doing something about what they thought was wrong with the world, we would be in a much better place.  "We" (if I may) don't like dedicating ourselves too strongly a particular candidate, either because we resent their super-humanity or we know they will let us down.  "We" question our own positions on a semi-daily basis, because we've been wrong before and look forward to the opportunity to be wrong again.  Most importantly, we hate to admit that deep down inside we admire those with thoughtless convictions because it would provide some manner of certainty in a world that scares the dickens out of us.

There's no "right" or "left" to smart.  In fact, I would suggest that the most progress you can make for politics in general is being a self-critical Republican/Democrat.  I was listening to Rachel Maddow last night and thought to myself "She would probably do so much more good if she was picking on Democrats instead of straw-man Republicans."  Cable news is an entirely different post, but the sentiment remains.

Denominator politics is hurting this Country.  Partisanship, obstinacy, bad policy -- all of this goes into the fold of denominator politics.  We are dumbing down complex work.  And then boxing it into 2 minutes.

LINKS

Corruption judge extraordinaire Dennis Sweeney will be presiding over the trial of Anne Arundel Executive John R. Leopold, who will face charges related to the alleged misuse of his police detail.  Many of you may be aware that Judge Sweeney is retired from the Howard County bench, and probably one of the nicest judges I've had the opportunity to meet.

Four young men accused of beating, stripping, and robbing a tourist in front of the Baltimore City Courthouse have pled guilty.  Most will serve some jail time, with the majority of their sentences suspended. 

The Baltimore Sun's Scott Calvert posts a jarring statistic: "On average, Baltimore City-owned cars and trucks are involved in more than two accidents a day."  Over the past 5 years, the City has paid out $31 million in accident related claims.  I would not blame the Mayor if she decided to stop reading the Sun.  It is like getting a bad report card every single day of your life.

Ken Ulman may want to pass on today's edition as well.  Real Estate Wonk Jamie Smith Hopkins found that two Ellicott City homeowners had received homestead tax credits that increased their bill instead of decreased the taxes owed, resulting in refunds of $1,941 and $784 (plus interest for both).  These errors were supposedly caused by a clerk performing the tax calculations manually and adding when they should have been subtracting.  Tax computations are no longer performed manually...because it is the twenty-first century.  Where oh where did I put that abacus?

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Lisa B, Mrs. S looks at some school redistricting stories with additional perspective from her service on the School Attendance Area Committee.  If you are a parent in Howard County, this is probably a item you want to look into.

A belated Thank You:
Edmund S. Coale, III (aka "Pops")

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