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Who Let the Dog’s Out?

Who Let the Dog’s Out?

Writing about the Council’s special session from last week may help me work through the emotions it evoked. By the time this blog concludes you should have a better understanding of why it seems heavily “dog-oriented’ and I should be able to, if not ‘let it go’, at least learn from it.

[Many readers may reflexively connect Who Let the Dogs Out? to the 2000 hit recording by Baha Men popularized locally by Ravens football. But the expression actually has multiple origins and I will suggest inquiring minds check Google for more in depth info.]

There is a long history of the Council having a very full agenda of critical bills during the ‘Dog Days of Summer’, prior to their August recess. I’ve come to think of it as the time for Summer Political Theatre. While citizen participation is always high, there is nevertheless a significant portion of citizens away on vacation who miss their opportunity to provide testimony.  Activists are quite aware that some Council members act as if what citizens are saying is spoken in frequencies outside normal human hearing capability. (Perhaps they are pretending that citizens are testifying in a frequency only dogs can hear.)

Ultimately, despite additional July legislative hearings and work sessions business always seems frightfully rushed. This year was certainly no exception and it was further complicated by the Administration moving up the schedule on the Courthouse financing bill, CB54. Some have questioned the coincidence of this occurring precisely when an activist began multiple public information requests because of concerns about the validity of need, location selection, companies benefiting and bidding procedures.

The answer to Who Let the Dogs Out? depends on whether one is considering a literal or a figurative connotation. The literal involves actually freeing dogs from a room, house, or enclosure and the figurative relates more to looking like or acting like a dog in a derogatory sense, suggesting one acts no better than dogs. I intend NO insult to dogs in my comments. I too am a HUGE dog lover, especially of rescued dogs whose loyalty to, protection of, and caring for their human family is unparalleled.

Starting with a literal example……Rambunctious dogs are often put in a spare room or separate fenced area when company comes. If someone lets them loose, it would be asked directly who had (inadvertently/ accidentally or thoughtlessly/ inconsiderately) let the dogs out. A lack of attention to detail (like failing to close a door or gate completely) or simple haste might also result in dogs being able to run free, potentially bringing harm to themselves or others. The Council appears to have greenlighted CB-59, the P3 arrangement for the new courthouse, without fully understanding it. In my opinion, they showed both haste and a lack of attention to detail. They valued speed over detail. Did they sacrifice time and accountability that is due their existing office to campaigning for the next? Did the Executive simply trust his staff and friends in business without truly looking over the details?  Was everyone just focused on fast action to assure their names will appear on the brass plate in the new courthouse?

Through their action/inaction they figuratively unleashed the mythological dogs of war, ‘allowing a bad thing to enter the world without restraint.’ In this case, the dogs of P3 (Public/Private Partnership for the Courthouse construction financing) were released to join the pack of wild TIFs (Tax Increment Financing Plans for downtown Columbia and others). I fear this combined ‘pack of dogs’ may haunt the County’s financial future for decades.

It is the job of watch dogs, of all shapes and sizes to pay attention and to alert us to threats, real or perceived. Sometimes it takes maintaining a close eye or ear—or sniffing things out. Our Council members, Executive, and County employees have a similar role. Yet when it comes to the courthouse, I’m not confident everyone earned their kibble. Issues which should have been obvious, appear to have gotten by them.

It was startling to have the Council learn only days before the final vote that the new facility was going to be THREE times the size of the existing one, despite HC not even qualifying for an additional judge. Was this size specified in the RFP? Is so, why? If not, why weren’t the proposals directed to a more reasonable size given costs for both construction and maintenance would relate directly to square feet involved.  Is this a continuation of the County’s ‘Edifice Complex’ where each subsequent building has to exceed the previous in costs and features? 

Only Council Members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa voted to table the bill, as citizens requested, in order to get clarification on multiple issues. Having already passed bills and resolutions carefully constructed by the Administration to pave the way for CB 54, four of the Council members clearly simply wanted to be done with it.  Dr. Ball was ultimately the sole dissenting vote on the bill. From my perspective, the other Council members are all in the doghouse.

So why is my brain seemingly stalled on references to dogs since Friday’s meeting? The explanation is simple. As if I didn’t already feel like someone had shot my dog, in addition to the disappointing vote on the courthouse debacle there came disappointing votes on the ethics bill (only to do the bare minimum required by state deadline, the rest tabled), repealing the mobile home site rental tax (tabled for financial need info), amending requirements for development on scenic roads (tabled to stall), extension of the planned service area for Erickson development opening the west to additional development (passed). If it weren’t for the passage of the delay in permits for the Tiber and Plumtree watersheds the session would have been a real dog.

Before concluding the session, CB39 referring to specifying sheltering, tethering and other animal control regulations was removed from the table in time to assure the bill didn’t expire.  The amount of time, effort, and attention to detail from citizen input that went into revising this DOG BILL  was MANY, MANY TIMES greater than that applied to the 452 MILLION DOLLAR+ COURTHOUSE DEAL. The contrast was so striking!!!  One must conclude that clearly HoCo is going to the dogs.  Or is it that our politicians fear the backlash of the large dog (owner) vote more than they fear the minute proportion of voters knowledgeable about the complexity of the courthouse decision……?

I’ll conclude by adding that it disturbs me that a new 21 firm entity, each with its own staffs and subcontractors will carry out the design, construction and 30 years of maintenance for the new courthouse. Prior to this new experimental way of creating a building, County staff was accountable to the public to administer and supervise such tasks.  It reminds me of the advice, “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself’ which means “Don’t pay someone to do a task and then do it yourself.” County folks will still be involved (one would hope) in assuring that contractual arrangements are met.

While most of the Council offhandedly negated my concerns, it is reassuring to receive private communications from persons with lots of experience bidding, negotiating, and building federal and state projects. Their conclusions provide affirmation of my thought process and concerns. They too are concerned about the cost of the courthouse, and more importantly – the process chosen to design, build and finance the work. They conclude “In the method they’ve chosen the county has decided it doesn’t want to manage the work.  They’ve chosen not to manage the risk.  But what they have chosen in this process is for Howard County Taxpayers to pay for this decision.   They have chosen the most expensive method to build a project.  It  also requires the least amount of government oversight. Something doesn’t seem quite right to me in this process.”

To the others out there who share this concern, only time will tell. For now all we can do is commit to continued vigilance, to laser focused attention and oversight. But we can at least take some time to recharge during August, doggone happy that no additional potentially harmful new legislation can be passed for the month the Council is away on break,

Evaluate all candidates and office holders on their likelihood to pay attention to constituents and to the details of matters before them—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Full Court Press vs. No Press Coverage

Full Court Press vs. No Press Coverage

Full court press: noun (from basketball) an aggressive defensive strategy or (conversely) a strong concerted offensive effort to achieve or get something until you do get it

Our County Council has been experiencing a full court press (double entendre intended) to pass the most expensive issue before them this month – authorizing funding for the proposed new Circuit Courthouse. Unfortunately, there has been almost no press coverage to make the broader citizenry aware of concerns over a lack of details and desired research into allegations of irregularities.

Through a complex Public Private Partnership (P3) the new courthouse will be designed and constructed and then maintained over a 30 year lease period by a private company formed specifically to perform this function for Howard County.

The most frequently heard reason for needing a new court house has been that the current court house is overcrowded. Couldn’t the same be said:

  • for our schools?
  • for our roads?
  • for our emergency room?

Those testifying in favor of the new 227,000 sq. ft. facility to be constructed on the current site of the Dorsey Building on Bendix Road, all echoed how crowded and unsafe the halls in the current courthouse are.  I sure wish Judy Fisher George had been there to remind the Council of how many times her daughter has been injured in the hallways of her seriously overcrowded school! I reminded the Council that instruction actually occurs in the hallways of some of our schools these days. And let’s not forget the terrifying experience of having a loved one parked for hours on a gurney in the hall of Howard Hospital while waiting to be seen in Emergency or awaiting admission– because no rooms are available. Forgive my lack of empathy for courthouse employees and visitors, but I just don’t see that their wants should take precedent over other’s needs, especially not the needs of our children or those who lost everything AGAIN in the Ellicott City floods. The County has many needs. It is owed to the citizens that prioritization be transparent. And unrushed.

Here is the root of my discontent. Perhaps after reading, you too will be ready to send off a quick letter to the Council at councilmail@howardcountymd.gov to ask them to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break.  They are scheduled to vote at 10 a.m. this Friday, July 27th.

According to documentation at http://ecsmart.org the case made for a new, larger courthouse was bogus. For example:

  • Contrary to claims that we needed to accommodate a 6th judge, the State won’t grant us one because we don’t have the cases to warrant it.
  • Contrary to claims that our cases were being delayed too long, our record is actually one of the best in the state for timeliness
  • Contrary to claims that our court house is the oldest, smallest, most antiquated of our neighbors; it is not. And where did previously allocated funds for expansion and updating of the current building disappear to?

Sure everyone enjoys working in or visiting a lovely new facility with space to spread out BUT do we really NEED a facility THREE TIMES the size of the current one. [When MedStar Health decided to leave their 70,000 sq. ft. building on Sterrett Place to occupy the corner of Brokenland and Little Patuxent Parkways they only took 97,000 sq. ft. of the 200,000 sq. ft. building.  Why is our government being so much more lavish than private enterprise? Lack of business sense?]

While the new courthouse plan has been in the works for some time and much money and staff time has gone into moving it along the bidding process, it still needs further examination, including determining a baseline for comparison on whether or not the P3 approach is better or not.  What would the building cost if we did it the conventional way, like having a school built.  [The irony of the Council being poised to authorize $91 million in bonds for the project isn’t lost on me: $91 million is the same amount batted about as the price tag for the desperately needed High School #13!] But the expense of this court house doesn’t stop at $91 million. That amount just covers the $75 million lump payment in July of 2021 when the building is ready for occupancy plus fixtures, furniture and service charges.  It’s the 30 years of annual lease payments for facilities operation and maintenance that is staggering!

Council Members had questions for staff and the winning bidder during the work sessions earlier this week, including what the total cost will be. Council Chair Sigaty quipped that she needed them to provide that number because the cost estimates she heard from citizens testifying on Monday night were all over the place. Surely citizens were working from misinformation….. I listened very intently, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed myself. The $450 million estimate I stated in my testimony for HCCA was the highest one proffered that night. Well by golly, I feel like the winner of The Price is Right, coming closest– without going over! The estimate provided by the experts was $452 million over the 30 years. [But keep in mind that does not include the cost of utilities, or leasing space in 3 buildings to accommodate all the departments being dispersed from the Dorsey Building, or the cost of moving them or the occupants of the old court house to their new homes. It also doesn’t include the 4.9 million annual GoBond debt service payment for 30 years. In both the short and long run there will be numerous additional expenses NOT being defined at this time.]

I’m particularly thankful that Council members Ball and Sigaty asked so many critical questions at the work session, but why wasn’t the Council provided basic information about the deal in the first place? Why were those being questioned so cagey, (or visibly nervous,) providing only minimal details? How come it’s insisted the Council needs to pass the bill this Friday when the bid pricing is good through November 15th?

Once the Council approves the bill, there will be no turning back, no way out of the contract which obligates us to that debt. Should the economy tank or we face other disasters in the next 30+ years, the obligation to this debt must be paid first and fully.  Future Execs and Council Members will be forced to decide which other critical services and facilities won’t be funded as a result of shortfalls or taxes will need to be raised.

How come no one seems to be thinking about how the removal of the Courthouse from Old Ellicott City will further retard any recovery?  Isn’t it counterproductive to rebuild OEC and then eliminate the major customer base generated by the court house? Isn’t it pre-mature to be jumping all in with no plan for the use of the existing courthouse when it’s vacated?

Perhaps the P3 arrangement is not in our best fiscal interest. Since the public (and perhaps the Council?) haven’t seen any figures on the cost of constructing a new courthouse by the conventional means (even one double, rather than triple the size of the current one) there is no baseline to measure the expense.

I fear we have basically worked out a complex and costly P3 scheme that is analogous to a 30 year lease-to-own contract on a Ferrari…… when our Ford is still running.

I’ve only begun to touch on the numerous issues involved with this monumental decision. Act immediately, if as a taxpayer you’d like to see the Council conduct further research to assure all the issues are researched/revealed completely, from:

  • questionable urgency of need
  • to competing priorities after Ellicott City’s recently repeated destruction
  • to risking future crucial infrastructure and service needs by taking on this 30 year debt obligation
  • to contract specifics and questionable players.

Tell all the Council members to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break with one e-mail to councilmail@howardcountymd.gov or one call to 410-313-2001 —and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

 

Recount confirms Walsh victory in D1

Recount confirms Walsh victory in D1

Some photos and comments from this morning:

The public was invited to watch the recount of votes today in the District 1 Council race  where Liz Walsh had been leading incumbent Jon Weinstein by just 2 votes. Several dozen citizens walked through this entrance to the Board of Elections’ warehouse to witness history in the making.

 

Seven and eleven are often considered lucky numbers.  On today’s date 7/11, it was indeed a lucky outcome for Liz Walsh and her supporters.  Ultimately, the final total after the recount was 3,175 for newcomer Walsh to 3,169 for Weinstein, a margin of just 6 votes. The recount process was run efficiently and smoothly and was complimented upon by the State Board of Elections.

 

After the recount was complete, Walsh was surrounded by her team of campaigners and supporters, their big smiles prominently displayed. Many agree that over development was a key issue in the campaign. If anyone doubted that EVERY vote counts, there is much to be learned from this race!  Hopefully it will signal a great turnout in November.

 

 

How will the event be remembered by those in attendance?  Scientific studies show that our olfactory sense is key in triggering memories.  Pizza just might be the “smell of victory.”  Anticipating a long full day of counting, the Board of elections had ordered numerous pizzas to provide lunch for all of the workers involved. They generously shared lunch as well as gallons of coffee, energy drinks, and donuts with citizens, proving that it is good to participate in the democratic process.  Arduous campaigning is clearly fueled by caffeine, sugar, and carbs, right to the final count.

indulge in whatever it takes to keep YOUR energy up to be an active participant in our November elections (perhaps a belief that change for the better can happen will be sufficient)–and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

 

How come the Primaries produced some surprises?

How come the Primaries produced some surprises?

Now that most of the dust has settled on the June 26th primaries, it is a good time to look for patterns and to make some observations. Here is my take away. The results of the Howard County Primary Election highlight the growing discontent of citizens concerned with the results of over development and the influence of campaign contributions.

PRIME EXAMPLES:

  • In a surprise upset, incumbent District One Council Member Weinstein has been defeated by two votes after the counting of provisional and absentee ballots! His opponent, political newcomer Liz Walsh, joined the race late with a campaign heavily devoted to over development as a causal factor in both the repeated flooding of Ellicott City and the overcrowding of schools. Ms. Walsh had only 1/30 of the funding of Mr. Weinstein’s campaign war chest, proving that it IS possible to run a successful campaign on a budget.
  • The words ‘Slow Growth Dunbar’ appear to have resonated with over 5000 voters in the Democrat County Executive vote. While this posed no threat to Councilman Ball with 5 times that amount of votes, it nevertheless makes a statement on how folks are feeling. Granted Republican voter turnout was low due to almost no contested races, but Mr. Dunbar garnered more than half as many votes as incumbent County Exec. Kittleman. [Almost 24% of the County’s registered voters are not members of either the D’s or the R’s and were thus unable to participate in the Primary Election except for Board of Education. They will clearly be the swing vote in November.]
  • Council Chair Sigaty, high density advocate and champion of ‘urbanizing’ all parts of Howard County, was soundly defeated in her bid for the State Senate. Her amendments to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, increased housing allocations for Downtown Columbia and stance on adding industrial mulching and composting in the West raised the ire of voters countywide. No amount of campaign contributions or endorsements could wipe clean her voting record.
  • Unopposed District 5 Democrat candidate, newcomer China Williams, campaigned vigorously to protect the West from encroaching development, the extension of the Public Service Area and the proliferation of solar ‘farms’. This newcomer received more votes than the two Republican candidates combined! Is this the year GOP tradition is broken in the West?

What has brought on the shifting of political winds? How and where did the storm clouds gather? Look back over the past four years for a number of reasons.

  • Citizen efforts to overturn a select group of Comprehensive Zoning cases was squashed by the previous administration. Sadly the new administration did nothing to prevent any of the citizens’ fears from being realized by permitting the dense developments as proposed.
  • New staffing at the DPZ made only a modicum of difference in the rubber stamping of developer plans, assuring greater and greater increased density under the name of “property rights.”
  • Then, even the most tuned out citizenry was abruptly awakened by the threat of massive redistricting of schools due to severe overcrowding. Suddenly children would not be attending the school they thought their neighborhood selection guaranteed.
  • The protracted process of a contractual assessment of development regulations brought to light many, many issues regarding our cumbersome process. It also brought about an awareness that there are NO real regulations in place to assure open space and preservation of environmentally and historically sensitive lands. The “pausing of the process during the election season” only extends the opportunity for more poor development decisions to be made, destroying the last vestiges of green space.
  • An incredibly protracted review of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has left the public severely disappointed by both the lack of any improvements on the horizon and a realization that developers have been getting ‘a free ride’ compared to what surrounding districts charge to assure adequate schools, roads, etc.
  • And then came the second of two floods in two years in Ellicott City with the loss of yet another life……

These all combine to give citizens a great deal to think about in an election year—all while stuck in relentless traffic.

The County Executive and Council candidates should heed the warning signs and clearly define their plans for balancing growth with the provision of adequate facilities and services. Our quality of life– and their political future depend on it.

Prepare to be an educated voter in November—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

 

 

Results are in:  Comprehensive Council Candidate Comparisons

Results are in: Comprehensive Council Candidate Comparisons

Like many, I get suspicious of  radio ads where the “qualifiers” are all jammed in at the end at an accelerated rate. You know, the kind where in under 4 seconds you are informed that the offer is only good to the first 20 customers arriving before dawn on the third Thursdays and who have not participated previously and can present their loyalty card. One per customer? To avoid that phenomenon, I’m going to present all of my ‘qualifiers” up front and offer the results of the Comprehensive Council Candidates Comparison (hereafter referred to as CCCCs) up front–even if it doesn’t make for exciting reading. The comparison charts will be at the end.

In my blog of June 8  http://howcome.md/council-candidates-guide-to-getting-my-vote/  I established what is and is not important to me in selecting our all-important Council representatives. I then challenged readers to do their homework, gather and share information on Council candidates in three categories: Campaign Financing, Active Participation and Transparency. Citizen researchers were directed to campaign finance pages, and to the Council’s Watch Me and Written testimony pages on key legislation, in addition to candidates’ web sites.

Hats off to those voters who took up my challenge and submitted information to help compile CCCCs for Democrat Primaries in Districts 3 and 4 and the Republican Primary in D5.  D2 Council candidates face no primary opposition. The D1 Democrat primary differs somewhat in being the only Council district with an incumbent.

Note: Analysis of Active Participation and Transparency in D1 could be regarded as slanted, given that the incumbent has necessarily attended all Council meetings and has a voting record on each piece of legislation considered.  I would therefore still welcome input from D1 residents on how to best present that data, or if you just want the campaign finance figures already submitted. If you hurry with your response, there will still be time to publish a balanced report before June 26.

Enough Already!

Regarding campaign financing:  As confirmed in numerous locations on Facebook and in a 6/17/18 Baltimore Sun article “Here’s the prime issue in primary,” development/ overdevelopment has emerged as the major issue of this election cycle in Howard County.  Beginning with the threat of massive school redistricting and progressing to another life-ending flood, Howard residents have a heightened sense of urgency to better control or slow growth.  Consequently, voters appear very interested in possible links between development and campaign contributions from those who benefit from increased development. These include commercial and residential developers, land acquisition firms, contractors, realtors, land use attorneys, mortgage brokers, etc. While I am not implying a direct link between votes and major contributors, the County Council’s dual roles as both legislators and as the Zoning Board places them in a position where there will always be speculation of such. It is, after all, the Council members who are responsible for:

  • the up-zoning of properties during Comprehensive rezoning,
  • raising the housing allocations by adjusting Plan 2030,
  • expanding the public service area, opening the West to development,
  • approval of TIFs to accelerate growth,
  • introduction of and approval of Zoning Regulation Amendments (ZRAs) often written by developers’ attorneys,
  • amendment and passage of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO),
  • approval of school capacity charts permitting development to proceed
  • approving individual zoning cases

In addition to these items, our newly elected Council will have responsibility for the massive undertaking of establishing our REVISED development regulations as recommended by the Clarion study. This adds to voters’ interest in knowing more about who could be influenced by campaign contributions.

The Active Participation category deals with attendance at various County meetings/ providing written or oral testimony, and attending local community meetings.  The Transparency category explores whether the candidate has openly stated their positions on issues and their specific ideas for solving problems.

Because there was insufficient time for me to personally verify each bit of information submitted, I let candidates preview their own listings before publishing to better assure accuracy. Unfortunately, some responded that they would respond to my inquiry AFTER the primary. I understand that the early voting days have been tense and exhausting, but I question the usefulness of a candidate comparison delayed beyond the primary.  Does that response indicate battle fatigue, a lack of understanding, a supreme confidence in winning the primary, or just avoidance?

So at this time I will present the data collected. While my initial plan was to present the data in a color-coded fashion according to what appeared critical to my personal evaluation (green for positive, yellow for somewhat concerning, and red for more concerning), I ultimately decided to let voters reach their own conclusions based on their own evaluation criteria.

Please note that in a few instances (particularly where an “individual contributor” is a principal in the firm) I chose to list the employer.  While this is different from a direct contribution by a company, it provides valuable insight into clusters of developers, realtors, land use law firms, etc. Note:  This is NOT a complete list of campaign contributors, rather a posting of what could be considered significant, either due to the amount or due to the sector which frequently lobbies the Council.  It was not comforting to hear from several candidates that “these people are my friends.”  Human nature being what it is, although it could be unfounded, voters again question the possibility of favoritism in decision making.

Very Important!  Campaign contributions, active participation, and transparency are NOT the only qualifications one should consider in this election. The charts are intended to supplement with information not always readily at hand. But be sure to take a look at the positions the candidates in your district are taking on the issues important to you.

Consider the data and make your vote count—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Click on a chart listed below and magnify to see the details.  Note that revised editions of the D3 and D4 charts were published Saturday afternoon, 6/24 to correct errors or provide additional information to the listings for Christiana Rigby and Deb Jung.

D3-PDF-v2

D4-PDF-v2

D5Adobe