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).

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