Thursday, May 28, 2015

I Aimed For The Public's Heart, And. . .hit It In The Stomach

This one’s hard, not because I don’t have a lot to say but because I am interested in bringing some new perspectives and it has pretty much all been said.  HoCoRising, specifically did an epic job of putting my thoughts to words here and here.  I suppose I sit with two remaining thoughts that have been covered to some degree but are worth reiterating.

The first revolves around the use of science in policy making.  I think mostly because of the (policy) debates around anthropomorphic climate change and evolution it feels like it is the political right that looks skeptically at science when it doesn’t fit their existing value narrative.  We all do it though.  Politically, on the left, the obvious example is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The science, thus far, says that they are not currently dangerous and in fact has shown many ecological and nutritional benefits. 

This very much doesn’t fit my own personal narrative which is to say, it’s a pretty bad idea to mess around with nature that way and with big corporate money interests pushing the “progress” (not to mention buying of the scientists) we probably have no real understanding of the true damage yet to be revealed.  As it stands, however, the science is compelling and scientists mostly agree that there is no evidence of ecological damage or human health risks.  The science isn’t as compelling or the consensus as strong as anthropomorphic climate change but nevertheless if I ignore it, I am ignoring sound peer reviewed science so as to fit my worldview. 

Back to nutrition standards, I am frustrated with the science here because it makes for, at best, mediocre politics.  However, this proposal is good policy rooted in strong science.[2]  This brings me to my other point, which has been made ad infinitum but certainly is worth a quick repeat.  With this proposal, if you want to have yourself a sugar-sweetened beverage on County property, go for it.  FREEDOM.  ‘MURICA.  All that.  Nothing stands in your way.   It seems to me though that this initiative is saying that the Government should not profit or supply things that make its citizens unhealthy.  I eat/drink and do plenty of unhealthy things and would be outraged if any government tried to prohibit me from doing them.  However,  I also don’t dare presume the same government should make any of those unhealthy choices readily available.   

One final word, this idea that the nutritional standards bill is part of a big political strategy to make Executive Kittleman look like he says no to everything or some other subversive purpose seems so completely strange to me.  I mean first of all politics is politics and as political “schemes” go, introducing policy initiatives to put another politician on the line to make decisions seems so painfully softball that it’s hard to even articulate here.  More importantly though, if Councilman Ball is in fact doing this for purely political reasons and not because he believes it’s good policy[3] then he’s doing it wrong.  Why would he possibly introduce these things and force the Executive to vote a certain way 3 years (give or take) before anyone is actually paying attention? 

[1] Title is Upton Sinclair quote, where he talks about The Jungle and how he was trying to wake Americans up about the working conditions and instead they passed food safety laws.

[2] One of the few highlights of watching the hearing on the nutritional standards bill from the comfort of my home was Dr. Appel confirming Councilman Fox’s assertion that yes in fact University of Miami is a large institution.  Of course by that point I was pretty thirsty for a highlight.
[3] To be perfectly clear, I have not talked to him in either my real or assumed identity.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Defense of Anonymity . . . For Now

Well week one is in the books and all in all things seem to be off to a decent start. Inside the HoCo bloggerverse most of the feedback has revolved around my anonymity.  Mostly shall we say NOT in favor. 

Most of that feedback has been heartfelt and honest.  Here are the arguments (paraphrased) I have heard against my anonymity:

All the anonymity in this world (both virtual and real) has done way too much damage for it to be used for a good purpose.

This is just a gimmick to get people guessing and paying attention.

People will assume the worst of my intentions maybe even that I am an elected official using anonymity to take cheap shots without consequence. 

I’ve lost the higher ground with the inevitable deluge of anonymous and obnoxious commenters. 

I truly appreciate these comments/criticisms.  The first one was made even more clear when someone anonymously acted like an asshole to blogger JuliaMcCready.  While the anonymous letter would have been no less out of line had it been done with attribution I easily concede that without the protection of anonymity the sender would have not had the “courage” to send it in the first place.

As I said in my first post, the decision to go at it anonymously was done with a great deal of thought and I wasn’t 100% convinced it was the right move then (or now) although I still do feel it is with the complete understanding that I will not be anonymous forever[1].  Let me first take a quick moment to remember the good things that came under anonymity or by pseudonym.[2]

Richard Bachman

Let’s talk political writing, of course there is Publius arguably the best persuasive political writing of our nation.  None other than Ben Franklin did a great deal of writing under various pseudonyms.  For many of them he developed robust backstories.[4]

Finally of course there is Hayduke, dare I say the originator of quality HoCo blogging.  In fact, I reached out to Ian last week (maintaining my pseudonym) and talked to him about his experience writing anonymously and the “outing” process.   We emailed quite a bit and he was supportive of my decision because of my motivations.  I took a lot of what Ian said to heart, including the fact that when he wrote the norms were different and that he might not have written HoCoHayduke under todays norms.  Ultimately he said breaking those norms had to be my call of course but that he certainly saw and supported the concept of what and why I was doing this.

For the time being I am standing firm that my words should be judged without the context of who I am precisely.  I am not asking you to trust that I have appropriate motivations, I have done nothing to garner that trust.  Rather I am simply asking that you read critically, and contribute.   This post here actually shows what that might look like.

Finally, in HoCo Rising’s last post entitled “I Bet You Think This Bill is About You” I saw in the comment section a narrative that precisely described my motivations for staying anonymous.  They came from current CDC President Josh Friedman: “[L]ook at the debate last year over sugary drinks. The debate, which started out as a debate about the role of government, mutated into a debate about why supporters supported it so much, and why opponents were so staunchly opposed. Inevitably, such a discussion becomes what we are seeing today; a battle where ideas are belittled and conspiracy theories about hidden agendas take hold. Then we are no longer debating a problem and possible solutions, we are debating who feels stronger about their own position. The problem with those who oppose ideas by belittling the problem, or trying to morph the issue into some sort of personal attack is that, in so doing, you are no longer attempting to influence the management of the affairs of state. It is no longer about politics, nor governing.”

Well said, and though I don’t presume that being anonymous will entirely protect me or my ideas from that devolution it does legitimately set a buffer and it helps.  Judge me, attack me, debate me or embellish me, all based on my ideas.  It’s a big ask I know but we live in #HoCo FFS we should be able to pull it off.

[1] I also know that I likely can not completely control my own outing or I may not be able to control it at all.
[2] I decided not to list any classical musical compositions because it was impossible for me to discern which were intentionally anonymous and which we simply lost who actually wrote them
[3] I am definitely open to the definition of “good” for these guys.  But hey, avant garde music as done here really has positively (I think) effected modern music.  Even if it by itself it sounds kind of silly to me.
[4] Interesting side note that doesn’t particularly help my point, Franklin published the following in the New England Courant under the pseudonym Silence Dogood:  “The generality of people, now a days, are unwilling either to commend or dispraise what they read, until they are in some measure informed who or what the Author of it is.”   He then establishes the character of Silence Dogood.  I am not playing a character and think doing so would be a bad idea for my purposes.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Budget vote scheduled for today

Councilmembers Ball and Terrasa appear to me to be attempting to solve two different but equally important flaws in the Administration proposed budget.  They have introduced Amendment26 to CB 23-2015 and Amendment2 to CR 73-2015.

Problem #1 is what I discussed earlier this week, using one-time money in the operating budget.  In my post earlier I said “Kittleman’s proposed budget takes $5 million in revenue from the sale of a piece of property and uses it to pay for operating expenses, half of it in the school budget of all places.”  The part about half of it being placed in the school system is accurate according to the administration.  However, like Denise Richards – it’s complicated[1].  Truthfully inside general pots of money in the budget one cannot actually delineate specific dollars from specific sources.  So we can tell that the money from the property sale is in operating but not which dollars spent are those dollars. 

These amendments clearly fix that budgeting faux pas by proposing to move that money to the school system capital budget, where as James Howard notes here, is precisely where money from property disposal revenue belongs.

Secondly, these amendments get enough money in the school system budget to offer teachers a minimal raise. This takes a little back story so stay with me for a moment.  The Council has limited authority to amend the Administration’s proposed budget.  They can cut but they cannot add except to restore any difference between the Board of Education request and the actual proposed in the Administration’s budget.  So if the Board of Ed asks for $1 Billion and the Executive’s proposes giving them $900 million, the Council can give them the additional $100 million.

In developing their proposed budget, the Board of Ed was forced to guess what would happen on the state level as it relates to funding the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI)[2].   I don’t fully understand GCEI really and truthfully it’s not that relevant here except for it’s the back-story.  Within the predictions for GCEI funding, reality in GCEI funding, and reality in what the Executive has proposed there is a gap that the Council has the authority to restore and these Amendments propose to do just that.

Without that restoration of funds the Board of Ed says they do not have any money to offer teacher's a raise in the next budget.  Truthfully, I find that kind of shameful but that's a post for another time.  The bottom line is these amendments give the school system money to offer teachers a small raise.  We can engage in the arguments over teacher pay and every condescending piece of that argument if you like but I stand unapologetically on the side of getting anything we can to our teachers.

One last note, the money for both of these fixes is taken out of the OPEB[3] fund.  If you’re not following County budgets over the last few years you know little nothing of OPEB and if you are you maybe know slightly more than that. It seems likely that opposition to these amendments will revolve around the theory that short changing our OPEB plan is bad fiscal management and might be frowned upon by the three debt rating agencies.  While I think these numbers fall within the margins and no one (except for maybe Councilman Fox) is overly concerned about a rush to fully fund OPEB this argument is ironic to the core.  Not correcting the irresponsible budget stunt of using one time money in operating because it would be irresponsible to reduce the contribution to OPEB is ironic and a little too mad hatter through the looking glass for my tastes.

[1] That’s such a stupid and obscure reference but if you are curious this clip explains (sorta) the bottom of the barrel reality show.
[2] This WashingtonPost article discusses O’Malley’s fight with GCEI.  Hogan’s fight over GCEI discussed in this WBAL story
[3] Other Post-Employment Benefits or what we will have to pay retired and other former County Employees.  It’s a future expense and it fairly recently became a larger burden than originally anticipated.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It doesn't matter what your height is, it's what's in your heart.

Hey remember Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter?  If not maybe this can jog your memory.  Kirby Delauter is back in the news for very different reasons.  He is the owner of W.F. Delauter & Son, an excavation, utility, and drilling contractor.  Back when he was a County Commissioner[2] the Ethics Commission in Frederick County ruled that it would be a conflict for his company to bid on County projects.  Now that he is a County Councilmember, however, the Ethics Commission no longer feels like it would be a conflict of interest.  According to this article Delauter can vote on the capital improvement budget but should recuse himself on any project he wishes to or already has bid on.   County Executive Jan Gardner (a Democrat) and Council President Bud Otis (a Republican) wrote this letter to the Ethics Commission to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) “WTF?  No seriously, WTF?” They end the letter with this “We will take immediate action to remedy this situation with legislation and executive order” and according to thisarticle they are moving forward quickly to take those actions.  I will bring this to Howard County in a second but first let’s take a moment to gawk at Kirby Delauter.  Here are his highlights from that article:

"I really didn't think she would be that arrogant to do what she is doing," [Delauter] said.  It shows that whenever Gardner doesn't agree with something, she will go around the process, he said. He said Gardner says she wants a fair process and wants people involved, but she really wants only certain people involved.
"She wants the process to benefit her," Delauter said.
The way that Gardner is running the county is "basically like a dictatorship," Delauter said.

And in case you were wondering why his fellow Republican and colleague escaped his wrath, wonder no longer:

When told that Otis' name was also on the letter, Delauter said, "He has to look in the mirror every day."

Okay so I bring this whole issue up for two reasons.  The first is that we have two County elected officials who are Republican.  The first is Councilman Greg Fox and the other of course is County Executive Alan Kittleman.  While my disagreements with both are widespread both are smart, good intentioned, and decent.  Greg Fox appears to have even made it his habit to recuse himself when any energy related policy or procurement comes before him[3].  I know that my declarations are pretty mild but seeing Kirby Delauter in action compelled me to mention how bad we COULD have it here in Howard County.

Secondly, conflict of interest and undue influence are terms we throw around a lot in Howard County.  Almost always around issues that are very gray and this issue, a County Councilmember literally bidding on a County project, helps set the end zone line.  

[1] The title is a quote from my favorite Kirby, Kirby Puckett.  Although his song "lady willpower" is mediocre at best and a lot of his stuff is creepy.  Wait that's Gary Puckett, never mind.  So a quote from my favorite Kirby for a post on my least favorite Kirby.
[2] Without going into too much detail, a Commission serves as both the Executive and the Legislative branch and in a charter County there is a Council (Legislative Branch) and an Executive.  Frederick is in its first year with a Council and Executive. 
[3] He works for Constellation Energy.

Monday, May 18, 2015

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Two words actually.  Fiscal responsibility.

I don’t think I am speaking too flippantly when I say that Allan Kittleman ran with very few actual policy initiatives in his platform.  Truthfully if you were looking for anything, you would find more overarching . . . "perspectives" than proposed initiatives.   Here is my outsider’s determination of the four that stuck out: government is a noun not a verb, government should be transparent, I am independent (presumably from overt party influence), and fiscal responsibility.  I’ll deal with the first three in future posts but for today I want to focus on fiscal responsibility. 

A lot of people don’t like to hear this, but developing a big budget requires creativity.  It is silly and kind of annoying to compare government budgeting to personal finance for many reasons but one of which of course is that government budgets are developed around projections because we can’t possibly know precisely how much money will be coming in or need to go out for that matter. 

I read two things from Allan Kittleman when he emphasized fiscal responsibility.  The first was simply that he would spend less money than his predecessors.  Not Brownback style reckless budget cuts but budget cuts nevertheless.   His budget proposal appears to reveal this strategy.  He did make some budget cuts including zeroing out road repaving, pushing off a desperately needed update to the emergency radio system, and kicking a few other cans down the proverbial road.  None of it is immediately debilitating although zero investment in infrastructure upkeep will certainly come home to roost.

The second message I read from Kittleman around “fiscal responsibility” was that he would not be so loose and creative with his budgeting the way that other guy was.  As I said earlier, large institutional budgets must be, by definition, creative at times.  There are, to be sure, limits (by both policy and best practices) to how creative.  The Ulman administration embraced creative budgeting which by and large I see as a very good thing (though I am sure others disagree) but always seemed to hold to certain core best practices to keep the budgets clean. 

I remember hearing, in reference to Howard County’s budget, that we do not and should not ever use one-time money for the general operating budget.  I haven’t researched the history, but I do believe it to be true in the time I have been paying attention.  The reason is easy to understand, and one only need look at some of the surrounding jurisdictions and their budgets during the “great recession”. Anything in our operating budget, by definition, will exist year after year and so if you pay for any of it with money that won’t be there next year, we have a problem.  

Kittleman’s proposed budget takes $5 million in revenue from the sale of a piece of property and uses it to pay for operating expenses, half of it in the school budget of all places.  That’s not fiscal responsibility; it’s the height of irresponsibility.  The administration is stating that in future years revenues will be stronger and so they will make up that money then.  This is the precise fool's gamble that makes this move fiscally irresponsible.  Also of note is that in future years we are going to encounter a whole bunch of cans we should have dealt with earlier that will be competing for that new revenue.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I’m just a blog. Yes, I’m only a blog.

I was also thinking of titling this “Greetings and Salutations . . . you a Heather?”

So, yeah this is happening.  A new blog in Howard County that hopefully will hit some new territory but I certainly understand that others have treaded in this general field before.   In a nutshell I am a new school progressive, I am a Democrat by registration and have been my whole life.  While not a particular party loyalist or activist I see benefit in buying into the two party system and find the Democratic party overwhelmingly matches my views as compared to the alternative.  The name of the blog should give you a clear insight into my perspective.  If you don’t know the reference the Google machine is here to serve.  I can wait a minute while you Google it . . . Wait, let me get that for you.

I will talk a little about my viewpoints and perspectives for this blog but it seems important that I begin with the discussion of the most obvious feature of this blog – I am writing it anonymously.  I didn’t come to this decision lightly, in fact I really struggled with it before I finally decided it was the right decision.

As anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows, a lot of horrible things have been said and done under the protections of anonymity.  Truthfully, I have on rare occasion even said things online I would not have if I had to do so with my name attached.  That is not why I decided to go it anonymously.  I am moving forward with the understanding that someday it is very likely that my identity will be revealed, either through my choice or through just the right person putting together just the right clues.  I have no intention of saying anything that I would be upset were it to be attributed to me personally.

So, why be anonymous then?  While I don’t believe this to be unique to Howard County, certainly here in Howard County we spend far more time dissecting the messengers over the message.  In dozens of policy debates, online discussions, and community meetings, I have watched the noise about a messenger’s motivations or background or bias fill up the space so that NO ONE hears the message.  While I am no one of particular significance in our community, my hope here is that I can stay anonymous long enough that folks will judge this blog, my thoughts ideas and positions, on their merit and not on their flawed messenger.

What am I going to talk about?  Good question imaginary question asker.  Local politics mostly, I have a keen eye on the new Republican administration and with an almost complete lack of local media I do feel someone should be paying attention.  Local politics, regional politics, community engagement and observations from the not so mean streets of HoCo.  That’s it; email me if you like  I’ll be tweaking the layout, the format, and the commenting sections in the days and weeks to come so bear with me on that.   I already know the comment section is the first place I’ll have to figure it all out and I am eagerly awaiting my first troll.  Do we still have internet trolls in Howard County? Or have they all retreated to their dark corners of the internet and/or Howard County?

HoCo Jurgis Rudkus