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Death Grip on Optimism

Death Grip on Optimism

New Year. New Executive. TOTALLY New County Council. New Hope…at least a glimmer. (Note I am speaking entirely of local HoCo concerns, not the national scene.) To all the newly elected and newly appointed: PLEASE don’t burst my optimistic bubble just yet. PLEASE let me bask in the light of optimism at least for a little while longer. Let me keep the slight spring in my step……

There was a wonderful lull in County government activity, especially County Council actions, from the time of the election in November until the first Council legislative sessions in January. One could almost put one’s guard down, knowing there would be weeks before the need to take a stand and to prepare testimony on the first bills and resolutions of the year. Well on second thought, there was the need to testify on the 2020 budget and on bills proposed by our State legislators during this lull. Nevertheless, there was an opportunity for a bit of a break from constant vigilance.

This break helped me to experience a certain lightness. And I found I liked it! Consequently I resolved to try to look at things more optimistically. This took some effort given the number of gray, gloomy days in this period. But frankly it’s exhausting always waiting for the next shoe to drop re: yet another development, unresolved school overcrowding, inadequate roadways, flood ravaged towns, costly government projects I consider unnecessary, etc., etc.

The two keys to my attitude readjustment:
The first step to my ‘rehabilitation’ was admittedly to consciously work at being less well informed. I avoided the local paper, the HC web pages, even other blogs. I began to understand the choice of those who are tuned out and content to be ill-informed. That irresponsible behavior does free-up a lot of time for other things!

The second key step was to watch for any positive signs in the behavior of our newly elected officials. I could then comment on these observations to counter the doom and gloom of my activist comrades. I was, as an example, very pleased that the Executive recognized the importance of listening directly to his public in an extensive series of listening sessions which were considerately sprinkled around the County geographically and during different time slots. I was similarly pleased when the Executive’s staff was asked to reach out to ask me to compile my community’s list of short, mid, and long term priorities.

It was obvious to me that our new Council members were working long days to learn about all of the aspects of their positions. I so respect that they don’t hesitate to ask questions about complex things they need to understand. I regard this as a particularly critical behavior. IMHO it takes an intelligent person to ask a good question and one cannot make good decisions on important matters if one is hesitant to ask questions. While some in the public may be uncomfortable about having a totally new Council, it reminds me favorably of when I supervised cohorts of graduate students in an emerging field. Everyone embarking to learn new subject matter and skills provides a level playing field and one which fosters the ability to work as a team. I see signs of cooperation and team effort in our new Council. Oh how I hope it will continue.

No doubt my activist friends who have not adopted the same resolution for optimism thought they’d lost another fellow advocate to exhaustion when I’d express my positive hope for the future in response to their expressions of concerns. Yes, I am very concerned about how things are going with APFO. Yes, I worry about campaign contributions influencing votes. Yes, I am concerned about the dire financial predictions and looming tax raises. Yes, it bothers me that the development community is over-represented on some Transition Teams. But I’m keeping that death grip on optimism at least until the outcome of the Councils’ votes on Monday, February, 4th. I soooo don’t want to slip back into a defeatist, nothing-will-ever-change, mindset. But I can feel I am treading unstable ground.

Threats to my rehabilitation:
Admitting one’s addictions is critical, so here goes. My name is Susan and I am addicted to more than dark chocolate; I have that seemingly insatiable addiction to knowing-what-is-going-on. (Some would understandably add ‘and expressing my opinion on it’.)

Getting ‘back on the saddle’ meant diving into the legislative fray in January. My optimism ran high during some portions of the January 22 Council Legislative Hearing due to lots of great supportive citizen testimony on two bills (CB-2 and CB3) seeking to improve on our abysmal development regulations. (NOW!—not in 2+ years when a Code Re-write may occur).

My optimism was bruised during discussion of a proposed road realignment (CR-3) at taxpayer expense which will cause as many problems as it solves, benefits only commercial landowners, and ignores the consequences of expanding the public service area.

The Council Work Session generally sent me on a downhill slalom. Let me be clear that this was NOT the fault of the Council members. They were asking good probing questions. Unfortunately the responses from DPW and DPZ staff were all too familiarly vague and uncertain. Inexplicably they can deliver ‘this is how we do it’ in a sage like mentoring tone. For those listening intently, the meaning is actually ‘this is what’s convenient for us.’ I hope the Council will be quick to learn that ‘I may not be the best person to respond to that question’ is a dodge for avoiding a response not wanted on the record OR signifies a lack of cross training within and between departments. In either case, asking for THE knowledgeable person to be called to the meeting right then and there would be a great procedure to adopt. If this Council will continue, as was done at the work session, to demand proof of broad statements by departmental staff and the Office of Law there may yet be hope for Optimism!

I’m back in the saddle to testify, to blog, to advocate. But like someone returning to driving a car after a serious accident, I do have a death grip on that steering wheel. From my years working in the field of disability I firmly embrace the adage “Asking for help is a sign of strength.” I will need the on-going help of our elected officials and of you the citizenry to prevent my relapse into pessimism.

I offer my help in return. After a lovely break I am re-energized and prepared to tackle the important role each citizen has –to tune in to issues and to advocate for causes that support an improved quality of life for one’s own community and for the broader community. Won’t you do the same???

PLEASE take an active role in our County governmental matters. Support Council and Executive actions that benefit the many, rather than the few–and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Rested, Renewed, and Ready for the Next Round

Rested, Renewed, and Ready for the Next Round

I certainly enjoyed a welcome break for the last five weeks. I took advantage of the lack of HoCo legislative activity to step back for rest and renewal.  (Granted, I DID attend the Installation of our new Executive and Council members, testify at two Listening Sessions and the budget hearing, and attempt to testify before the Board of Appeals; but that seemed child’s play compared to the rigors of Council legislative sessions or Planning Board meetings.)  Before I jump into complete HoCo-immersion-activism-mode again I decided to ease in by reviewing some previous postings and stats.

Listed below for your re-reading or reading pleasure are my top five most- read posts from 2018. You may find they also help YOU to gear back up for the excitement of addressing some of HoCo’s top issues. The election may be behind us, but the issues remain……

Resolve to be an active participant in 2019—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

#1.  From Sept. 10, 2018   http://howcome.md/how-come-little-people-lose-while-big-people-win/

#2.  From July 6, 2018     http://howcome.md/how-come-the-primaries-produced-some-surprises/

#3.  From Nov. 26, 2018   http://howcome.md/the-race-is-on/

#4.  From Sept. 1, 2018   http://howcome.md/wefloodtoo/

#5. From April 4, 2018    http://howcome.md/deja-poo-an-introduction/

The Race is On

The Race is On

The race for more and more development is picking up speed.  Need proof that it is not just my imagination?  Glance at the upcoming pre-submission meetings and hearings periodically at https://data.howardcountymd.gov/Search_Plans/Search_Plans_Web.aspx.

In my opinion, as a long time resident, under current conditions the race is not a fair one. The rules, if they can be called that, greatly favor developers. Citizens are left in the dust wondering what happened?  What happened to the forests and the hillsides and the historic properties? What happened to all the things that attracted me to Howard County in the first place? What happened to the schools? How come I’m spending so much time sitting in traffic?

Residents are paying more attention, at least now and again, in an effort to slow development to allow infrastructure and facilities to catch up. They are also demanding more “breathing room” and planned open spaces rather than the scraps which are truly not buildable. Many are not accepting of the push for urbanization and are expressing it at the ballot box.

Developers are frantically racing ahead with plans in order to avoid proposed changes which they correctly foresee could

  • increase delays on their desired construction start dates
  • add to the school and other APFO fees they must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments
  • decrease opportunities for maximum density/maximum profits with changes in regulations

It’s not unexpected that developers would prefer to continue the current operating conditions and profit margins in which:

  • the misinterpretation of the words “property rights” eliminates common sense best practices in favor of the all-holy maximum density.
  • HoCo developers pay significantly less than surrounding counties to cover the impact of their development yet use our school system as their major marketing tool.
  • the ambiguous development regulations permit them to ultimately do whatever they’d like despite the negative impact on the environment and residents’ quality of life.
  • Developers and their attorneys can recite their practiced mantra that it’s ALL LEGAL as written (the extreme density, the incompatibility with existing neighborhoods, the lack of truly effective storm water management, etc.) –because most of our codes were written by the developer’s attorneys in the first place.

Change is a comin’.  What are the PENDING changes that COULD help make the race a little more fair?

New thresholds on school overcrowding

  • Developers know they can be delayed up to three years if elementary or middle schools are overcrowded— currently defined as at 115% of capacity. But under the new APFO law the thresholds for delay will soon be 105% of capacity for elementary schools, 110% for middle schools, and new to the mix-115% of capacity for High Schools, HSs had previously not been considered at all. But with some HSs currently exceeding 147% and new HSs costing approximately $90 million to build, it is clear this MUST change.

Increases in school impact fees (and other APFO fees) developers must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments

  • Unfortunately some have put forth that our State Legislators must authorize any increase in fees which HoCo charges, although others argue that we have the right to do so as a charter county. The former thought prevails and regrettably two legislative sessions has passed with NO relief! Whether you believe that “the third time is the charm” or not, you should attend the Legislative hearing this evening (Monday, Nov. 26) to express your opinion on the proposed bill to do so.***See details at the end .

Howard County DPZ is beginning the HoCode Rewrite, a process to modernize and unify the County’s development regulations under a single, comprehensive Unified Development Code that will make the regulations simpler for residents and stakeholders to understand and use.

  • Citizens will need to take an active part throughout the process to assure that developer campaign contributions don’t skew the results. Environmentalists and activists in neighboring Prince George’s County appear unhappy with the results of their code changes under the direction of Clarion Associates, the same contractor producing HoCo’s.

But why is the race to the finish line so intense right now? Numerous possible explanations come to mind:

  • The trifecta of changes listed above, possibly converging within the next 2 years, creates additional uncertainty and unpredictability for ever-declining available land in the state’s second smallest jurisdiction.
  • The new County Executive elect ran on a platform heavily prioritizing our schools and the environment and correcting issues contributing to Ellicott City flooding. If he is true to his word, those priorities could make development a slower, more thoughtful process—one that proactively preserves Targeted Ecological Areas and that recognizes that over-development and development without comprehensive planning is a threat to us all.
  • There is a totally inexperienced County Council assuming their positions next week, perhaps making it easier to ‘confront or confuse’. (Though I’m inclined to think we have a couple of tough cookies on the new Council who won’t be content with responses from DPZ staff like, “That’s how we’ve always done it.”) You go girls!

Developers know the public has been distracted by the election and the start of the holiday season. Citizens are less likely to attend Pre-submission meetings on new developments, new capital projects, local area plans and DRRAs, speeding them through the process. I hope to find time to share specific examples in a future blog.

***But for the moment, let’s revisit tonight’s all important hearing held by our HoCo state senators and delegates.

Here is a link to the actual proposed legislation on increasing school impact fees:  https://www.howardcountymd.gov/LinkClick.aspxfileticket=yJYqPwm3_zA%3d&tabid=2120&portalid=0

Here is a link to the citizen group which has been shepherding improvements to APFO along:

https://hocoapfo.blogspot.com/2018/11/howard-county-school-facilities.html?fbclid=IwAR2UmfvfAjVZ9x9DN1b77TFdoMy6xA_RuwJ1A3aE5LcY-8EJK3RwF-ln2AM

In order to speak at the meeting you must sign up in person between 7:00 and 7:20 pm outside the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.  The meeting will begin at 7:30. Citizens will have just 3 minutes to address any and all proposed bills on the agenda, which includes one on redistricting (although no details are as yet available at the time of my writing).

I hope that you –and our newly elected county officials will be in attendance. I will NOT want to see you at HoCo budget hearings in the future asking for miscellaneous community-specific or activity-specific amenities if you cannot make the effort to show up for the opportunity to INCREASE developer charges for adequate facilities. If developers are charged their fair, market based share, then requests could be budgeted for without the need to increase property taxes!

Prepare for the hearing now—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Scattered thoughts on our local election

Scattered thoughts on our local election

With Election Day only hours away I find I still have numerous, somewhat disjointed thoughts I’d like to share about our local elections.

Thought cluster one

Before you head out to vote November 6th it might be beneficial to do a little soul searching and self-evaluation.  Ask yourself some of these questions:

Am I voting based on my concern for a single issue rather trying to weigh a candidate’s position on multiple issues?  Is it unwise to base my vote SOLELY on

  • the location of the next high school?
  • the plan for Ellicott City?
  • my stance on “Sanctuary County” status?
  • industrial mulching on agricultural land?
  • developer influence on elections?
  • over-development and inadequate facilities?
  • a desire for more elected officials who share my party, my gender, my religion, my ethnicity, my neighborhood?

Am I ignoring my own obligation to be an informed voter by just voting as my friend has suggested?  or do I just accept a sample ballot of endorsements handed out at the polling place as a helpful time and thought saver?  Do I check to make sure I really know something about the group providing a list of endorsements?

  • Do I understand that if the group is ‘union-based’ (including the teacher’s union) endorsements sometime just reflect actual or promised pay raises from the candidate for members of that union, without a broader consideration.
  • Do I realize union endorsements generally have a strong preference for a single party, the Democrats, which perpetuates a single party system in Maryland?
  • If a group providing endorsements claims to be non-partisan do I check the party affiliation of the Board members to be sure they genuinely represent both major parties?

Am I letting my thoughts and feelings about NATIONAL issues erroneously color my voting for LOCAL or STATE candidates? Am I exhibiting the bias and rhetoric I claim to eschew?

If I like what a candidate says they will provide, have I checked out how they will pay for it?

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Thought cluster two

My very first blog this election season commented on how good it was to see additional ethnic groups step up to participate as candidates in the election process.  As a fan of the underdog I encouraged people to consider these legal immigrants and to be true to Howard County’s position of embracing diversity. It has been rather disappointing that these people of color have not been encouraged and supported by their own party and have been harshly criticized by the other.

I examined the existing make up of our County Council (4Ds, 1R; 3 men, 2 women; 4 Caucasians, 1 African American; two religions represented). I hoped for greater diversity—a diversity of Council members which reflect the changing face of Howard County.  For example, 19.5% of our population is African American.  Asians constitute just one half of one percent fewer, or 19%. With 5 Council seats available shouldn’t we be considering this population group which constitutes almost 20% of our population? Shouldn’t the same thought process be considered in evaluating candidates for Board of Education?

In terms of gender the new Council could turn out just the same as the departing one. But it also could result in 3 women and 2 men OR 4 women and 1 man. Given the Council candidates running, we are guaranteed at least 2 women Council members again. (District 3’s unopposed Christiana Rigby plus the winner from D4 where both candidates are women.) We are guaranteed just a single Councilman since both candidates in D2 are male.  So far there is no guarantee that the Council will be bipartisan……..

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Thought cluster three

Combining thoughts from both cluster one and two, I want to shine a spot light on D2 candidate John Liao. I have observed John campaigning very hard, familiarizing himself with the issues and generating a comprehensive platform. I regard him as another ‘underdog’ worthy of your consideration.  While both John and his opponent are first time candidates, I must admit some personal concerns. I worry that Opel Jones has been considered by his party as ‘heir apparent’ to Calvin Ball’s seat and therefore has not had to put in the same level of work getting to know potential constituents and their concerns. Quite concerning to me as well is the amount of developer money which had poured in to his campaign chest on a regular basis. He is one of the two highest Council candidate recipients of developer contributions with a long list which includes:

Double R Ventures, LLC                  $500

Erickson Living                                 $1000 + 487.32 + 1250

James Moxley                                  $250 + 500

Breeden Family LLC                        $500

Howard Research & Devel              $500 + 500 + 1000

First Deep Run Ltd                           $1000

The Morris Weinman Co                  $1000

Hoddinott LLC                                  $500

George Stone                                   $1000

William Erskine                                $500

Talkin & Oh                                      $500

IMA (Merriweather)                          $500

Costello Construction                      $1000

Buch Construction                           $1000

Arnold Sagner                                  $1000

Centennial Reserve LLC                  $250

Garand LLC                                      $500

BA B2 Residential LLC                     $500

Howard County PAC of MD

Building Industry Assc.                     $2500

In contrast, John Liao accepted NO developer money. While some may choose to make light of developer contributions I consider them to be a ‘red flag’ for possible undue influence. While I’d originally hoped to provide comprehensive data about all major candidates’ significant financial contributions just prior to the election I simply ran out of time for that comprehensive task.  I was pleasantly surprised today to find yard signs advertising more information on HoCo candidates at http://forthepeopleballot.com .  *If I knew who compiled the financial information that can be found there I’d surely thank them for completing that arduous task. It’s a task that requires a greater familiarity (than I or most citizens possess) of the major ‘players’ behind numerous development firms and development oriented law firms.  It was a bonus to read at  http://forthepeopleballot.com/county-council-2 that John Liao was the site’s recommended pick for D2 Council!

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Thought cluster four

One reason for such a collection of thoughts this late in the game is due to an ‘epiphany’ from the election of 4 years ago. At the time, in 2014, I was not yet blogging nor did I have a Facebook account. However, I was a prolific author of Letters to the Editor in which I freely shared my opinion of specific candidates.

Candidates, like most people, do not like someone holding up a mirror or magnifier to their faults, weaknesses, or questionable behavior. They don’t like to be identified as mailers of attack ads, recipients of large developer contributions, or having a history of voting for over-development without consideration of adequate facilities. Despite my exhaustively researching the validity of my claims, keeping an eye to civility, and carefully choosing my words to not reflect the brash, mean-spirited comments one encounters all too commonly on Facebook— those candidates for public office DID take offense at my lack of support for their campaigns. MOST of them nevertheless won the seats they sought.  ALL of them held a grudge for quite some time, SOME of them to this day.

With this knowledge, I felt quite stifled this election cycle. As a consequence, I shared my thoughts publicly much less often. I’ll admit I was envious of those bloggers and Facebook posters who “let it rip,” even if I doubted there was any real research behind the reasoning for their comments. I didn’t like the uncivility and snark in their statements. I particularly abhorred the partisanship and ‘us vs. them’ perspective. So why was I envious?  How come I wasn’t more ‘brave’ about sharing my recommendations for candidates?

Unlike most bloggers and Facebook posters who don’t actively participate in County affairs, I want to continue researching and commenting on proposed legislation and public plans at Council meetings and other governmental forums in order to shape public laws and procedures for the betterment of life in Howard County. I want my thoughts and ideas to actually be thoughtfully considered in order to justify my time for research, travel, and preparation and delivery of testimony.  Who wouldn’t?

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that candidates who one offends (by endorsing their opponent) WILL hold a grudge, totally ignoring one’s input seemingly FOREVER. I am hopeful that with a totally new Council and many other first time officeholders, I too will start the legislative year with a clean slate.  But oopps, when silence may have been more beneficial to me personally, I took the risk of expressing a personal endorsement tonight.  Ultimately I guess I just value above my own interest the right of residents in District 2 to be aware of some additional considerations. But please note that I pointed out why I favor John Liao without harsh words for his opponent!

Exercise and cherish your right to vote by doing it thoughtfully—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Early Voting: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Early Voting: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Let’s consider Early Voting.

The Good:

  • People who have travel plans, who have to arrange transportation days in advance, who work irregular shifts, or fear getting sick and missing “regular” voting day have no worries.
  • People who simply can’t bear to wait in line for anything but carryout avoid the potential of some waiting.
  • People who can’t remember when Election Day is have several opportunities to get it right.
  • People who have never been to the southeastern part of the County may use their GPS to locate the Ridgely Run Center to avoid lines at Miller and Bain.

The Bad:

  • Many people put a premium on being first—first in line, or at least first hour, first day…..without actually PREPARING to vote. I suspect many people these days devote more time to studying the features of a soon-to-be-released smart phone than they do studying the qualifications and positions of candidates who will be making decisions that will affect their quality of life for years. There are people who don’t even feel the need to compare the newest smart phone’s features and value before purchase, instead continuing their thought-free allegiance to a particular brand. Unfortunately, many who demonstrate this type of thought (free) process, in other words have decided to let Apple dictate their choice in phones, have also given over the ‘task’ of selecting highly qualified candidates whose philosophies match their own to a political party. If you reflexively and lazily vote according to which letter follows the candidate’s name (REGARDLESS of past crimes, being officially diagnosed as a pathological liar, or running naked in the public square) then YOU should do us all a favor and maybe not vote just to get your sticker.
  • Early voting creates an extra burden on candidates. They feel compelled to attempt to find sufficient volunteers to staff ‘greeting voters’ 10 hours a day for 8 days at four early voting locations—-in addition to many or ALL precincts on regular Election Day. This constitutes a small army of cold, wet, and wind-blown patriots. For those candidates with more money than friends, it often produces paid, ill informed, and aggressive greeters bused in from other jurisdictions.
  • Staffing by the Board of Elections for those 8 extra days at 4 locations is costly.
  • The early voting turn-out figures can create a false impression of how the voting is actually going.

The Ugly:

I again suggest voters take the time to acquaint themselves with the candidates. There are numerous resources on-line including videos of candidate forums and candidate interviews. (Including the final Council Candidate forum with a focus on U.S. 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQmSsila7lI

For those who prefer print, you can pick up copies of the League of Women Voters’ Guide at libraries and senior centers throughout the county. Don’t rely on political commercials or mailers without carefully checking WHO is actually sponsoring that commercial or mailer. Learn to question scathing attacks.

Vote INFORMED—and meet me on the highroad,

Susan