Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Politics of Nutrition

Here it is, my first official correction.  On May 28th in my post titled “I Aimed For The Public's Heart, And. . .Hit It In The Stomach” in reference to the nutritional standards legislation and the science that supports it, I stated that “I am frustrated with the science here because it makes for, at best, mediocre politics.”

According to the poll announced here by the Horizon Foundation, apparently it makes for pretty good politics.  OK that’s not really a correction but whatever I stand by my statement.  Both of them.

A lot of people disregard polls, usually saying something like “you can get a majority of people to agree to anything if you frame the question right.”  Mildly good point, imaginary curmudgeon.  Additional skepticism could be raised because the Horizon Foundation commissioned the poll here.  Well, these are concerns easily assuaged as the actual text of the questions asked can be found here.  These are the three questions relevant to this exercise:

Assess three specific components of the legislation, indicating whether you feel it is a “good idea or a bad idea.”

1)        This law would require all vending machines on County property like parks, libraries, and recreation centers to provide at least 75% healthier food and drink options. 25% of the offerings would be less healthy, like regular soda, chips, and candy bars.

2)        This law would require the County to offer or sell only healthier food and drinks to children during programs when their parents are not present.

3)        This law would exempt special events like the 4th of July and Wine in the Woods from its requirements, and would also exempt non-profits like booster clubs who want to sell food and drink on County property.

The results were resounding with 68% thinking components one and two were good ideas and 78% thinking component three was a good idea.  So, it turns out that this is only, at best, mediocre politics if you put forth straw man arguments based on preconceived notions of what this legislation does rather than the reality of what it does.  I worked this sentence over and over before I ended up here and I am not totally happy with it.  However, I think to make it clearer I would have to list and debunk the most egregious of the straw man arguments.  After deliberating I decided that was a bad idea because every time one repeats an argument, even if to debunk it, the argument gains a hold in people’s minds.  (Think weapons of mass destruction or was Obama born in America?)  So, I decided the only thing you would read in this post is what the bill ACTUALLY does.

Here is my biggest annoyance.  Setting up straw men like that, playing political games, scare tactics, and obfuscating the facts just to further an agenda.  In my book there is a phrase to describe this type of “policy making”.  Washington style politics.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Children in Poverty and the #HoCoMD

I had several ideas bouncing around my head for my next post, none earth shattering.  I was going to write about nutritional standards, but Councilman Ball wrapped that up very nicely here[1].  Then I thought I should stay focused on the nominations process and maybe dig up a cornucopia of troll comments from Housing Commission nominee Chris Oxenham.[2]  Finally, I saw a lot of potential for snarkery with the free Wi-Fi in Ellicott City story and resulting silly editorial, but I yawned even writing this sentence.

All of this was in my head when this came across my screen – The Annie E. Casey Foundation 2015 Kids Count Data Book which reveals and analyzes statistics and trends on children’s well being.  I have a long way to go before I am done reading and digesting all of it.  I actually hope I can put some of the stuff I find most interesting up in future posts.  In the meantime, one statistic I came across early brought me to my knees.  22% of American children live in poverty.  Let’s be “generous” and say 1 in 5 US kids.  As a quick refresher, the poverty line for a family of four in 2013 was $23,550.  If that information doesn’t break your heart, then you do not have one.

I put this number into the context of our community.  We here in Howard County should be in a much better position to help make things better in our region.  In my view, this is similar to the U.S. role in fighting both climate change and nuclear arms proliferation.  In both of these issues, the U.S. is in a very strong position to take a leadership role and we bear some level of responsibility for getting everyone into this mess in the first place.  Same goes for affluent suburbs outside of large urban areas.  Of course Howard County does not have quite the redlining history as other jurisdictions, but nevertheless, we are still on the winning side of the same interdependent economic system that put one in five children in poverty.  Three items in our recent history got me kind of angry thinking about this:

1)   The Susan Garber led assault on the new Day Resource Center
2)   The nomination of a rich white man[3] to the Housing Commission to replace an African American woman who has dedicated her career to affordable housing. 
3)   The push in Oakland Mills by mostly liberal Democrats to fight to create a country club like sports complex to attract “high end condos” to replace housing that currently works for less affluent people of color.


This isn’t an attack on any politician current or past; truthfully it’s not a great political issue.  Especially in Howard County, we like to care on a conceptual level.  If you get a moment, talk to the leaders at the Community Foundation of Howard County about Howard County’s philanthropy as it relates to other jurisdictions.  It is shameful.  Both of those statements being said, poverty in the region is an all hands on deck issue.  Every organization and institution in this County needs to engage, and our government should be leading that collective effort.

[1] Also feel free to read the comments anywhere that article exists or is shared if you find yourself low on bile #thanksobama I mean Communist Calvin
[2] They’re remarkably easy to find but worth noting that his blog commenting got A LOT more polite of late.  I wonder why?
[3] A rich white man who has shown himself to (being generous) not fully grasp issues around poverty.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Blogging About the News . . . paper

I’m going to be honest; there is something about blogging about the state of print media that really tickles my fancy.  I feel like an Oldsmobile newsletter author in 1929 writing a piece on the current state of buggy manufacturing.   Anyway, what inspired me to write has already seen some decent writing, primarily from Village Green Town2.  She started talking about it here with a follow up here.  Her stuff is quite compelling and she is more succinct than I am so if you haven’t already I encourage you to check it out.

A lot has been said about the sorry state of modern journalism generally, not to mention the sparseness of it locally and my beef here is not with the reporters[1].  In two successive pages, three items spell out how sad things are and how sad they will likely be until it is mercifully over.

Item #1

Instead of writing their own editorial on, well anything at all, the Flier editorial staff simply handed over the reins to Executive Kittleman and printed an unedited copy of his defense of veto letter on nutritional standards.  Now, this one could have been worse.  They could have, with marginally more effort, simply rearranged the words and printed it as their own.  We’ve all read editorials and known they were regurgitating what they had been spoon-fed.[2]  At least they respected themselves or maybe even their readers[3] enough to acknowledge it as a propaganda piece by slapping Kittleman’s name and picture on it.

Item #2

Doug Miller writes an Op-Ed on the nominations in the County, which you know I have talked at length about, and so has every other blogger.  Here is my beef: there wasn’t any.  You ever watch a British period piece movie?  I usually spend them having the following conversation with whomever I’m watching the movie with “Did something important just happen?  I feel like that was a thing but I can’t tell, nothing actually happened.”[4]

The piece reads as written by someone who is barely, and I mean BARELY, paying attention to the process at all.  Here is the most illustrative statement “Council member Calvin Ball’s appeal for a ‘conversation’ about why Kittleman wants to replace someone eligible for reappointment with someone new is reasonable enough, but Kittleman’s under no obligation to spell it out.”  BOOM.  No, that’s not it.  WHIFF.

Item #3

That cartoon bugs me to no end.  If you didn’t see it, it shows a satellite rounding Pluto with the words “Made in Howard County.  No Sugary Drinks on Board.”  I get jokes.  I can even get and appreciate jokes/cartoons that take positions I don’t agree with.  This one ignorantly continues a false narrative, which is pretty insidious.  Like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” false narratives take hold as truth the more they are repeated.  In this case a bill about better options but still is including the bad ones (like sugary drinks) being portrayed as a prohibition.  Of course the cartoon is usually a graphic representation of the week’s editorial, but since the week's editorial was propaganda furthering the false narrative, maybe the cartoon was right on point.

[1] Well reporter singular these days but still, it’s not with her.
[2] That’s not aimed specifically at the flier/sun/tribune but they’re not immune either.
[3] All nine of us.  OK, that might be one snark too far.  Apologies.
[4] I know that’s a one sided conversation, but let’s be honest, by the time anything that could be construed as a thing happens in a British period piece, everyone’s asleep anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Nominations (Full Continue)

On Monday in #HoCoMD all the political folks sat around waiting for the most predictable outcome since Titanic and were not disappointed as County Executive Kittleman predictably vetoed the nutritional standards bill and used a lot of very predictable language in his veto message.  My focus, however, remains tightly on the nominations.

The Executive’s message through his campaign site and through his message givers on social media[1] appears to be two fold.  The first focuses very much on Susan Garber while the second is about the process.  More specifically on process, they claim other Executives got deference with their nominations and the Council can vote nominees up or down but tabling is somehow a violation of civility. 

First things first, Susan Garber is barely the issue.  On her own merits I personally find her a bit out of touch but specifically around the development issues not a particularly big deal.  On the Planning Board my prediction is she would simply be frustrated while simultaneously frustrating (primarily the Columbia Downtown process).  It would be annoying but not overly so.  In short, Susan Garber is not the issue.[2] 

For the Garber nomination the focus is much more on the fact that she is set up to replace an existing Planning Board member who has another term he could serve if reappointed.  To dismiss a volunteer that way is, at best, tacky.  At worst it is a blatant sign of disrespect to the largely thankless job of serving on a Board, especially the Planning Board.

The Ivan Betancourt nomination for Human Rights Commission is a two fer.  He is replacing an existing member (the Chair in fact).  She blogged about her experience here so I won’t venture to put words in her mouth.   Additionally, as I stated before, Betancourt was an extremely outspoken opponent of the Dream Act, going so far as to declare his refusal to vote for McCain because of his position on immigration and appear in an ad for John White for Congress on the issue of immigration.  Feel free to call this political, but that kind of fervor against people based on immigration status[3] should be a disqualification for appointment to the Human Rights Commission.

As I have now said several times, the Kimberly Hartman nomination for Local Children’s Board is a blatant affront to the values of Howard County.  For Kittleman to nominate someone whose job it is to be dishonest to young people to the Local CHILDREN’S Board is so abhorrent it makes me shake every time I think about it.

Now let us get to the issue of “process.”  Here is what I don’t understand.  If the Council really was just trying to send a message to the Executive that he couldn’t have the nominations he wanted, than they would have relished an “up or down vote” as much as he seems to desire one.   However, their message is quite different.  Bipartisanship means, by its very nature, things have to be done differently.  Above all, bipartisanship means communication throughout the process. 

I am not in a position to know that these meetings did or did not happen, so I am reading the tea leaves[4] here and none of them say open lines of communication to facilitate working relationship.  The picking apart of potentially every nominee in public is bad form for everybody and so, just my humble opinion, if the Executive is truly committed to being an independent leader he must reach across the aisle BEFORE nominations are made.  At the end they may very well reach an impasse, at which point an up or down vote on the impasse would be suitable.  But Mr. Kittleman, please at least respect the Council – and the citizens of Howard County – enough to stop pretending you play no part in the current stalemate.  Especially if it’s true that you threatened to shut down the Planning Board until you got your way[5].

[1] Which apparently, based on their editorial about nominations and giving him a column for his veto, includes the Columbia Flier.
[2] I do also want to note however that Ms. Garber was extremely active with a group that took direct aim at Councilmember Weinstein in lets just say an unpleasant way.  If I were Weinstein, I would take this nomination as a personal insult.  It would be like if President Bush expected Senator Kerry not to obstruct the nomination of the leader of the Swift Boat Veterans to the Supreme Court.
[3] Yes, I know he is a legal immigrant.  That does not change my opinion on what taking this position does to delegitimize his nomination to the Human Rights Commission.
[4] In this case the leaves are the request by the Councilmembers for more information and the memo back saying, “nah I'm good.”
[5] A move I can’t for the life of me imagine is legal which may very well be why the threat wasn’t executed. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Nominations (Full Stop)

I watched the legislative session Monday night and the steady stream of social media afterwards.  At issue for me, and clearly others as well, were the appointments.  A small bubbling of a rift between Council and Administration revealed itself, as covered in this article.

Democrats outside the Council appear to be claiming victory because all three of the worst nominations:

Ivan Betancourt for Human Rights Commission
Susan Garber for Planning Board
Kimberly Hartman for the Local Children’s Board (One more time, I wrote about this one here)

Were tabled or left on the table.  I, on the other hand, think this was a bit of a lost opportunity.  The Council focused on two primary over arching issues.  The first is that some of these nominations are replacing currently serving appointees who have at least another term to serve if they were reappointed.  The second is that they requested the Administration provide additional information on its nominations and were refused.

In response County Executive Kittleman and the lone Republican on the Council, Greg Fox, said that this was playing politics with . . . political appointments.  Kittleman’s direct quote from the article is "It seems that the council is starting to use Washington-style politics here in Howard County," First of all, this is classic “Kittleman style politics.”  Which is to say this a sound bite without depth or context but even I will agree that hey, I don’t want no Washington style politics so I must be against that move.

Secondly, the Councilmembers appear to be struggling to find ways in which to . . . work together.  There are two steps to individuals getting appointed onto County boards and commissions.  The first is nomination by the Executive and the second is confirmation by the Council.  Kittleman mentions that no other Council has required such scrutiny over nominations previously and asks why he is being treated differently.  This is called bipartisanship; if I’m not mistaken it is what you ran on being good at Mr. Executive.  It’s more work for everyone involved but to assume that you are given deference in the process is disingenuous at best.  Besides any deference he may have earned, he lost by nominating a vocal opponent to the Dream Act to the Human Rights Commission[1] and the Executive Director of the local Crisis Pregnancy Center to anything at all but in this case the Local Children’s Board. 

I was thinking about his statement about “Washington style politics” and I was trying to come up with a time when I remember legitimate bipartisanship instead of attempts to out sound bite each other.  Then I remembered this.  President Clinton reached out to Senator Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee[2] and asked him for suggestions for his Supreme Court Justice nominee.  Senator Hatch gave him Ruth Bader Ginsburg; she was nominated and confirmed 96-3.  That is what bipartisanship looks like.

Now back to the lost opportunity.  This was a moment that the Council could have made the above point.  We are from different parties trying to run government and so as the Executive, you MUST include us more in the process before nomination if you expect deference during confirmation.  Until you are willing to entertain that notion, the whole process will wait.  It will be on hold for everyone, whether a good or bad nominee.  They still have time to make that point though, and should at least consider holding up ALL nominees until such time as the Executive is willing to make the process truly bipartisan. 

One final unrelated note.  The Council tabled the disposal of two of the properties I talk about in this post but approved the disposal of the Bickley property.  I will be keeping a close eye on who that property gets sold to, as I believe strongly that it is inappropriate for the government to take money from someone for the purposes of living on this dangerous property.

[1] An opponent of the Dream Act.  To the Human Rights Commission.  Let that bounce around in your head a little bit.   Here is a letter to the editor from Mr. Betancourt on the subject.
[2] The Republicans were in the minority of the Senate at the time and the President still reached out.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Love Wins. Teachers Lose. (Not Causal)

Two completely unrelated things today.  It’s not a round up.  Don’t call it that.

First, love wins.  Yay.  Of course there was a sea of social media around the Supreme Court decision (you may have seen some of it) and County Executive Kittleman tweeted “Proud to have championed marriage equality in the MD Senate & across the state b/c it was the right thing to do.” 

My first reaction was to be a bit annoyed at this.  I watched tweets and Facebook posts fly by from people with all kinds of involvement in this issue and this was the ONLY one that felt a need to slice off a hunk of credit instead of simply being happy about the victory.  It struck me as a tad gauche.  In the end I decided playas gonna play [1] and in the grand scheme of political offenses, it was a pretty small one and I have other issues to address anyway. 

And now I return to the topic in this post, the way teachers are being talked to by the school system, specifically Superintendent Foose.  I received from several teachers a forwarded email from HCEA President Paul Lemle.  As I explained in the linked post above, the Superintendent promised pay increases she was already contractually obligated to provide and seemed to be pretending that this was a result of her good graces and hard work fighting for the teachers in the budget.  She explained that  “I am especially pleased to announce that you will see a pay increase in your first July paycheck.”  In the recent Lemle email he reports that she followed up with (definite paraphrasing here) “Did I say FIRST paycheck in July?  I meant second.”  When asked for clarification from HCEA, the Superintendent gave three very logistical answers [2].

I get that we are not talking about a lot of money between starting on the first paycheck of July vs the second.  That’s hardly the point though.  First off, all three points the school system uses in defense were true when they made the promise.  If they couldn’t logistically pull off the first paycheck then WHY PROMISE TO?  Secondly, since you are already presenting your legal obligation as a show of some sort of act of good faith and partnership, the least you could do [3] is do it when you said you would.

In the end, this is what will continue to happen quite simply because they have the power to blatantly disrespect teachers.  I did propose a potential solution where the teachers might flex what muscle they have[4] but it wasn’t exactly met with great fanfare.  Believe it or not, the idea was really steeped in Saul Alinsky power dynamic organizing, more specifically, his threatened “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic.

I can’t possibly do this whole thing justice so I won’t really try but you can read his account of it here.  The important part is that the tactic (which he never had to actually employ) was perfectly strategic.  It threatened something his target (the executives of Eastman Kodak and the leaders of the community of Rochester) held sacred in a way that was safe and morally acceptable to the community striving for power and acceptance within the community (the African-American community at large in Rochester).  Until the teachers can find something that accomplishes both of the above, I’m not sure if I see a route where they don’t continue to be so disrespected.

This is entirely my opinion but I do think that this Superintendent is treating teachers the way administration and school boards have wished to do so for years.  If she accomplishes it without real negative consequence, the result will be an embiggened[5] administration henceforth.

[1] Play play play play
[2] 1)   “The July 17th paycheck covers the pay period beginning June 25th and ending July 8th
2) The lump sum is to be paid from funds in fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1, 2015;
3) HCPSS’s payroll system can not accommodate a stand-alone payment for all employees on July 1.
[3] And I mean the very VERY least
[4] I will say one more time that the problem seemed to be that it got caught in the debate over standardized tests which I was taking NO position on but rather searching for a place where teachers could exercise their power without violating their own sense of morality.
[5] Yes of course I know it’s not a word.  But watch this for the reference