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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,