Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bathtub Blue Ink Tells a Story


I didn’t get a chance to watch the work session live and when watching online after the fact the temptation to scroll forward is pretty overwhelming.  This time, at least there were no surprisingly terrible nominations like this one, which derailed my last viewing experience. [2]

I decided my time was best spent watching the discussion on the three (technically four) properties bought in the last administration and proposed for “disposal” by the current administration.   The first property referred to as “the Hurst building” is on Route 1 in N. Laurel.  The second property is referred to as the “Bickley Property” and is on Main St. Ellicott City, west of Ellicott Mills Dr.  The final property is “The Flier Building” on Little Patuxent Parkway near the Community College. 

Councilman Fox used the session to go hell bent for leather[3] in proving a conspiracy of waste and inappropriateness by the previous administration.  While he certainly moved like a dog with a bone, he revealed pretty early that if a bone at all, it was a red herring [4] bone.  Fox’s objections to the actions of the last administration appear to revolve around purpose and process.

Let’s deal with process first because the answer seems clear and is the same for all three.  Fox is fixated on the fact that none of these properties were purchased using the traditional route through Public Works Real Estate Services.  That’s potentially a valid point although a pretty steep leap to make some sort of proof of bad dealings.  Nevertheless each of these properties exists in the middle of broader issues that cut dramatically across different departments and have followed very non-traditional routes.  For the Hurst property, Rt. 1 revitalization; for the Flier building, downtown Columbia development; and for the Bickley property, Ellicott City flooding.  In the context of the bigger issues they were part of, the acquisition being coordinated by someone outside of real estate seems to make sense. 

The second issue Fox honed in on was the purpose for each property and whether or not the County could legitimately justify them as serving a public purpose.  Now, if you decide to watch the work session you will see somewhat cryptic but robust discussion about appropriate bonding and the term “public purpose.”   Councilman Fox, some of his colleagues, the lawyer, and the Finance Director all participate and indicate that there is a legal definition of public purpose and a different definition in a place or arena that I didn’t actually catch and don’t actually know.

From the hearing and the work session the intended purpose for purchasing was made clear.  The Hurst property was purchased to help catalyze revitalization in the Rt. 1 corridor.  The Flier Building was purchased as a home for the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Bickley property was purchased as the most cost effective strategy for keeping residents out of property with high flooding risk.  I am not going to defend any of these purposes because I don’t actually know all the details.  However, I think even in these meetings with no one actually tasked with defending them, it is clear that a perfectly defensible position can be claimed that it was in the public interest to acquire these properties.  That being said, I also think that you can (and the administration is) making an equally justifiable claim that the public interest is served by selling them.  Two opposing positions, each justifiable, it just depends on priorities. 

One final caveat to my statement above.  I am having a bit of a hard time swallowing the sale of the Bickley property.  In the hearing, Councilman Fox and Councilman Weinstein get into a nice little back and forth (with an occasional errant statement from Mr. Irvin) about the nature of the flooding on this property.  I am definitely paraphrasing but it went something like this:

“Did the house actually flood?”
“Yes, they lost everything in the basement”
“OK the basement flooded but did the house?”
“They were water rescued, fire & rescue pulled up to their front door in a boat”
“Ok so the yard flooded, did the house?”
“A boat, Councilman Fox.  A boat.  And it says here water came in through the kitchen windows”
“It's still not clear if the house actually flooded”
“It appears to be clear to everybody but you” (Definitely no one said this line, that’s me talking pretending I was there and screaming).

So here is my problem.  The County should NOT be in the business of putting someone in the way of that kind of risk even if they are fully knowledgeable.  We should NOT be selling that property to anyone planning on living there, it’s questionable ethically for sure.

[1] The title is a lyric from this song by Colin Bickley, the former owner of the Ellicott City property being considered for sale by the Administration.  I do not know Mr. Bickley but I think based on the lyrics and imagery it’s a safe bet that the flooding they experienced is somehow relevant in this song.

[2] I would really love to know where the Council members are on the nomination.  I feel confident that there should be at least three votes there to defeat her nomination but I would love to see them go further and at least one of them clearly articulate why CPC’s are offensive. 

[3] Just typing that made me curious about the origin of that expression.  I found a mildly witty explanation here, which I have done zero work to verify.

[4]  Well I couldn’t look up the origin of one trite idiom and then not look up the origin of my second.  This origin story of red herring also not verified (at least not by me).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

America's Turtles all the Way Down

Editor’s Note:  I wrote this post last week and had intended to post it on Friday (give or take).  Then the shooting in South Carolina happened.  I decided I should hold off, trying to decide if I can say something that adds to the conversation.  I decided an anonymous blog post on that topic didn’t feel right.  Truth is though, I also think that this is a very relevant piece in the wake of this tragedy.

I’ve started and abandoned a dozen different attempts at a post on affordable housing.  I couldn’t even hone in on why I was abandoning these attempts until finally I figured it out.  I work relatively hard to make my writing[1] narrative.  I like to write in the form of telling a story.  I can’t make it work on this one.  What I have is a series of disjointed thoughts and incomplete ideas.  None of which tell a complete story.  Nearly all of the pre-eminent blogs in HoCo have tackled the issue to some level in a manner that fits their blogs.  I am in awe of there abilities and a little envious. I still want to add to the dialogue and so I tried to pick up one thread in my disjointed hodgepodge of ideas.  The thread came to me after reading this.

I will do a quick summary but I am asking, nearly begging, for you to click on the link and read the article.  The title says a lot of what you need to know “How Section 8 became a racial slur.”  It’s really a discussion on two things.  The first is historical contextualization of American housing policy and racism.  The second is a little bit of a look into coded language.  This is the piece I want to explore a little and put into a HoCo context.  We in HoCo (certainly in Columbia) seem to think we have done a pretty good job on the whole race equality thing but have a ways to go in class equity.  Any attempt to separate them into two separate issues is dangerous.  I do not believe that they are the same but we must understand that race and class issues are forever linked in America and housing, as explained through this article, is the perfect place to understand that.

I am now going to talk in first person, partially so as to not sound accusatory but also you should understand that I do not think I am alone in this, in fact I may believe that I am the exact opposite of alone.  When I say “section 8” or “subsidized housing” the image I have of the residents are black (or maybe other people of color).  When I say “full spectrum housing” or “work force housing” or otherwise talk about housing for teachers and police officers etc. the image in my head is of white residents. 

It is not that I don’t believe that our affordable housing fights are partially about how many poor(er) people we think are acceptable in given neighborhoods. However, I just don’t think we do our community any favors by ignoring the fact that we are also talking about how many people of color we think are acceptable in our neighborhoods. 

While I completely grasp the desire to keep these two difficult conversations separate, they simply are not separate conversations.  And truth be told, it is very clear here but this is, after all, America.  With but a few exceptions, race is a component of the context/history of every public conversation/debate.  I wish I could attribute this but I can’t remember who I heard it from and couldn’t find it with the googler.  “You can feel free to accuse me of playing the race card, but take an honest look at our deck – race is on every card.”  Or just to prove how much of a nerd I really am, consider this America’s “Turtles all the way down.”

[1] Specifically in this blog but in my writing in general

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Nomination I am REALLY Concerned About

So there I was settling in to a calm evening of watching the hearing from the comforts of my own home.   I know there will be some sparks on the Susan Garber nomination and, being the wonky blogger that I am, I was puffing away on my chocolate strawberry flavored bubble machine[1], waiting for surplus properties and vaping.   Near the beginning of the hearing I catch something out of the corner of my ear:

Council Resolution 29-2015 a resolution confirming the appointment of Kimberly A. Hartman to the Howard County Local Children’s Board.

Now to be clear, I don’t know Ms. Hartman personally, in fact we have never met and I had never even heard her name until last night.  What set sirens off in my head was when she came up to testify and introduced herself as “the Executive Director of the Columbia Pregnancy Center”.

Are you familiar with crisis pregnancy centers?  They are the source behind the billboards and ads that say things like “Pregnant? Scared?  We can help”.  They are also the purveyors of some blatantly dishonest information and a systematic strategy to prevent woman from accessing real medical clinics with their actual doctors and complete access to legal reproductive options[2].

Feel free to get more information from (I typed the whole thing out so you could see that the campaign against crisis pregnancy centers is called “it’s lies”.)  Of course there are many other sources to find out about them and feel free to do any and all due diligence.  You will excuse me though if I just skip past that (having already done it myself) and go straight to the outrage.
On a national level, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform[3] produced this report for Representative Waxman.  Here is the highlight quote for me “[CPCs] frequently fail to provide medically accurate information. The vast majority of pregnancy centers contacted in this investigation misrepresented the medical consequences of abortion, often grossly exaggerating the risks. This tactic may be effective in frightening pregnant teenagers and women and discouraging abortion. But it denies the teenagers and women vital health information, prevents them from making an informed decision, and is not an accepted public health practice.”

This report about CPCs here in Maryland “found consistent use of false and misleading information, biased and manipulative counseling, and delay tactics to deter and prevent women from exercising their right to choose. The centers investigated also consistently refused to provide information or referrals for affordable birth control services, despite targeting their services to sexually active low-income and young women.” 

To be sure there will be little to no opportunity for Ms. Hartman to exercise these views or the deceptive tactics of her organization on the Local Children’s Board.  That is hardly the point though.  The Executive Director of Howard County’s own version of this affront to reproductive freedom SHOULD NOT be confirmed to ANY board by our County Council.  To do so would be . . . not in line with our County’s values.  All crisis pregnancy centers are an insult and this sort of appointment could easily serve to validate it as a community service.

[1] That’s a poorly executed vaping joke.  I wasn’t puffing on anything for the record
[2] Including birth control
[3] Minority Staff Special Investigations Divisions

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tolls, Infrastructure, Resurfacing

I would have posted this an hour ago but couldn’t come up with a catchy title.  Strangely I’ve found that the title may be the hardest thing to write.  My last post the title was of course a lyric from “Those were the days” most well known as the theme song to All in the Family (See what I did there).  However, inadvertently or maybe subconsciously, it was also perfectly fitting to have a Herbert Hoover reference come before a discussion on infrastructure investment.[1] 

According to this article, the Hogan Administration is defending the recent decision to make modest decreases in bridge and road tolls and the resulting $336 million in lost revenue.  My first reaction was to rail against this as a cheap pandering move but that’s kind of a trite reaction.  While it is a pandering move (EVERYBODY grumbles when they pull up to a toll booth), I actually think the best politicians learn to put forth a bingpot[2] of easy slam dunk initiatives to buffer bold policy moves or politically “risky” projects. 

Also I should say that I have very mixed feelings about tolls.  On the one hand, with programs like education, libraries, and parks, I am a strong advocate for spreading the costs across the entire population regardless of usage.   For programs like roads though, I prefer user fees.  If I don’t use it, I don’t see the need to pay for the roads/bridges I don’t use.  I have a half decent defense of this position and I hope the difference between our education system and our road system is understood as it relates to social benefit.  However, I do see the potential for social injustice in a toll where everybody pays the same.  High tolls then have a disproportionate effect on those least able to pay them.  In the end though, I feel like in the mountain of social injustice in our world, road tolls (even the pay to avoid traffic ones) fall somewhere after pretty much everything I can think of at the moment.

Ok that was a definite sidetrack.  There are two important points I want to make.  The first revolves around the fact that, according to the article, the Transportation Secretary said that the corresponding decrease in revenue “can be offset with unanticipated extra revenues and spending reductions.”  How do you fill a revenue hole by anticipating “unanticipated” revenue?  It’s a little sillier but not much sillier than the Kittleman Administration’s claim that they will make up the money they used one time funds for next year with an improved economy.   I’m legitimately curious, is this Republicans naively believing their policies will turn the economy into gold or are they reading financial tealeaves and laying the groundwork to claim credit for an improved economy?

My second more important point brings it squarely back to HoCo.   The corresponding cuts from the toll decreases, again according to the article, will mostly revolve around repair of bridges and roads and overall investment in this infrastructure.  Here in Howard County, the Executive’s now approved budget put exactly zero dollars in road resurfacing.  Others have talked about this but it is worth repeating.  It’s crazy.  Truthfully, the repercussions may not be felt even with this political term, but make no mistake, they will be felt by all of us and once we fall this far behind a resurfacing schedule, it will take us years to catch back up.  Of all the moves made by the Administration thus far, this one might easily be the most damaging to Howard County.  

[1] You know because Herbert Hoover preceded the greatest infrastructure investment program in US History?  See what I did there?  Hello?  Is this thing on?
[2] I was going to say bonanza but it reminded me of Brooklyn 99 this season where the lead can’t decide between Bingo and Jackpot so he ends up saying “Bingpot” which is really fun to say as an exclamation!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mister We Could Use a Man Like Herbert Hoover Again

So those last posts apparently struck some nerves, which is a reminder to me that other issues are mostly in the margins and that our public school system, in HoCo especially, is the heart of the matter.  Maybe our PTA’s should be advising and making community decisions over our community associations.  Anyway, I have at least two more school posts in me in the near future but today I am back in County government.

I am going to tread very lightly on this post and try to be careful with my words.  Here is the forewarning, I am talking about a person and I am talking about who he is not what he has done.  All right, let the tiptoeing begin.

During the early days of the Ulman administration and then again shortly after his re-election there were some small but noticeable grumblings about Ulman hiring campaign staff and close political allies throughout his administration.  Two criticisms that came with that were the questioning of the qualifications of these hires and some new positions created for these hires.  Now a few months into the Kittleman administration he has done precisely the same thing.  Most of the non-department head appointments were given to campaign workers or close political allies.  There has been some buzz about qualifications for a few and at least one new position created (Press Secretary)[1] and one long defunct position re-instituted (Labor Relations Coordinator)[2]. 

I could take this time to call into question the qualifications of some of the new appointees but that would be, in my opinion, inappropriate.  Not because I don’t have legitimate questions about some of them but because the assessment of their qualifications is and should be the sole discretion of the Executive.  His performance will be assessed largely on the work of his staff.  It is way too early to assess how any are doing but when that time comes the answer will be given with an assessment on how the Executive is doing and therefore his call without question even from critics like me.

That being said, there is one hire that, at the very least raises an eyebrow.  In January, this article explained that Kittleman hired his Brother-in-law, Tom Yeatts, as a “technology consultant.”  I don’t actually know what technology consultant was supposed to mean but fairly quickly thereafter it became Deputy Director of Technology and Communication Services.   Mr. Yeatts had been, most recently a realtor though he had run a software company before that.  Again, I should state that it is not my attention to question the qualifications of Mr. Yeatts or any appointee.  However, despite the fact that Kittleman hired his own brother-in-law in what I presume is a transparent way[3], transparency does not inherently mean it was advisable or appropriate.  Hiring close political allies into the government is one thing.  Hiring your own family is very much another. 

[1] The Communications Office of the Executive now has a Communications Director, a Press Secretary, and an Administrator (the traditional head of this office). 
[2] An Ulman Administration holdover filled the Labor Relations Coordinator position.
[3] The Sun obviously knew quickly enough to report on it as soon as he was hired so I presume it was because the administration mentioned he was Kittleman’s brother in law from the onset.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand

"Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will."- Frederick Douglass

After my last post I started to think more about teachers/administration in comparison to a traditional worker/management “fight.”[1]  Workers have pretty much always been painted as the selfish ones, thinking only about themselves and not about the greater good.  In almost all cases this is a pretty insidious label but has been used with varying levels of success.   Of course if it can be used successfully against the organizing and support of the workers in a widget factory, then even whispers of it are bound to be successful against the teachers in our school system.

The only reason anyone wants widgets made is to make money, it’s equally true of the workers and management.  In the school system the “product” is the education of our children.  This gives management an overwhelming advantage in the messaging of any fight over teacher pay (or any other issue under debate with teacher contracts).  The result of ANY action taken by teachers in response to their treatment will easily be painted as having a detrimental effect on the kids. 

While I could make a compelling argument that the detrimental effect is a direct result of management treating their workers disrespectfully and not the response by the workers, the reality is everyone will connect the impact to the actions of the teachers.  Truth be told, teachers also make that connection which is why there is such poor participation numbers in actions like work-to-rule.  Paraphrasing from one teacher I heard from back at the last work-to-rule action “I refuse to tell a kid I have taught for four years that I will not write her recommendation because the administration is playing hardball with my salary.”

Very few teachers will ever choose their own self-interest over the support of their students and so they will ALWAYS lose these negotiation games.  Teachers therefore are always negotiating from a point of severe weakness.  The only avenue available to them in the past was pure politics.  Support politicians[2] with money, time, and elbow grease so they support the teachers when in office.  To some, including many teachers, this is crass and not “appropriate” for the educators of our children.  My reaction to that ranges from annoyance to outrage depending on who is making it and why.  As I said, it’s the only way to amass power for the teachers in their protection for themselves.

All this has had me thinking for some time.  What the teachers need is a way to show power over the administration, over the system, in a way that will not have a detrimental effect on individual students.  I came up with one idea that is so rough that it’s not even course sandpaper yet.  There is also a whole lot I don’t know as it relates to the inner workings of the school system so I will rely on others to fill me in.

What would happen if the teachers unified to “opt out” of administering sme specific or even all of the standardized tests?  Clearly it would have to be a unified position.  If Laurel Woods teachers opted out and Manor Woods teachers didn’t (or vice versa) the whole plan goes to hell.  However, even if the teachers could establish it as a credible threat (my language is intentionally provocative there) the system would be threatened to the (common) core.  I want to be clear here, this is not about me taking a position on the nature of these tests.  I have a slightly nuanced position but that’s NOT what this is about.  I would support this idea even if I were 100% behind the epic levels of standardized testing.  My point is that the results of these tests affect the school system but not the individual students (at least not directly).   This, to me, seems like the only place where teachers might have an avenue to exercise their power within the bounds of what’s morally acceptable to the teachers themselves.[3]

[1] Many of the teachers I talk to bristle at the concept of being categorized as workers.  All have Bachelor’s degrees, some have advanced degrees and many have told me they find the classification as “worker” to be demeaning to the profession.  I struggle with the term worker being demeaning but I certainly mean no offense.  For these purposes it simply means the bottom rung of a management flow chart.
[2] I of course very much include School Board members in this pool of “politicians”
[3] If you’ve studied organizing at all this should be reminiscent of of Alinsky’s threatened Fart-In at the Rochester Philharmonic.  Hit them where they breathe.  Pun intended for sure.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A + B = C’mon really? Or the Superintendant talks to teachers.

In response to my school budget post I received an email from a County teacher, attached was a message (s)he had received from Superintendent Foose after the passage of the budget.  Paragraph one of the email says: 

“I am pleased to let you know that the Board of Education has approved the Operating Budget for the 2015-2016 school year. The budget totals $776.3 million, which is $3 million above the Board’s budget proposed in March, and includes $11.5 million for salary increases. “

Two statements I think are important here.  First and foremost the $776.3 million that she declares is $3 million above the Board’s proposed budget in March.  Now, unless I am reading this wrong (pg. 67 of the document specifically) that number is exactly what the Board requested.  To get precise the number requested was $776,338,380.   I will not speculate whether this is a misreading of their own numbers or misleading the teachers.  However, it clearly supports, in my opinion, a false narrative set up in this email.  

The second important statement is the $11.5 million included for salary increases.   That’s more important in the narrative with the addition of the next paragraph.

“I am especially pleased to announce that you will see a pay increase in your first July paycheck. This increase will include a half step as well as a cash payment equivalent to a half step”

Both of these statements together appear to be at least implying, “hey we got you the raise you were whining about.”  Unfortunately that is not actually the case.  See that $11.5 million for salary increases is to pay for the raises agreed to in the last contract.  That is money (which funds the pay increase on the first July paycheck) the Board of Ed is contractually obligated to pay the teachers.  If they did not have that money in the budget, they would be in direct violation of their legal agreements.  

There is no money in the approved budget to offer any raises in the current contract negotiations.[1]  Had the amendments I discussed here [2] passed there would have been but those amendments failed with only the cosponsors supporting. 

So now the Superintendent and the Board of Ed appear to have gotten exactly what they were “fighting” for in the original negotiations.  NO money for teacher raises.  Of course they could have developed a budget (even one of the same size as the one approved) that offered raises but they indicated very clearly where that fit in their overall budget priorities.  It didn’t.

Of course that is pretty crappy and truth be told I don’t understand why the school system wouldn’t just agree to the teachers' demands contingent on funding from the county and let the fight happen at the County level but it is clearly possible I am missing something.

This post isn’t really about the fight over teacher raises though.  I mean it is but it is also about the email and how disrespectful it seems to me.  The Superintendent seems to hope that teachers aren’t . . . smart enough to figure out that the facts that she lays out while entirely accurate and true, should NOT lead them to the conclusion she wants them to go to.  Specifically, that the raise they want is coming.  If you are going to play hardball with our teachers, at least respect them enough to play it straight.

[1] In case you don’t remember usually these negotiations are completed before the budget is proposed, however teachers and the Board reached an impasse and negotiations broke down.
[2] Am I already hyperlinking to myself?  That’s just shameful