Friday, December 30, 2005

Congratulations, Hormeks...

In the few minutes before things start to get crazy around here, I have to wish two of my closest friends the best on their wedding day and new life together. A more perfect or happy couple you will not find.

Unfortunately, a truncated well-wishing is all I have time for. As co-Best Man, it fell on me to ensure he was plied with enough booze to subdue the nervous energy and get some sleep, however un-restful and short, the night before his wedding. Now, only a few hours since the groom fell asleep on the couch in my guest room, it's time to go wake him up and start what is sure to be the fastest, most hectic and memorable day of his life. Godspeed, Mr. and (soon-to-be) Mrs. Hormek.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs...

A few weeks ago I wrote about the changing of Columbia's street signs. Before I published the post, I wrote a couple of snarky comments that never made it onto the blog. Basically, I asked where the defenders of Columbia were and why weren't they raising a stink about the desecration of these unique artifacts of our city.

The answers to my unasked questions are right here.

Although county officials are following federal guidelines in erecting the new signs, they also are erasing some of Columbia's originality, Barbara Kellner, Columbia's archivist, said she believes.

In the 1960s, employees of The Rouse Co., which developed Columbia, decided to name the community's streets and neighborhoods after icons of American art and literature, Kellner said.

Hence, for example, Faulkner Ridge Circle, after novelist William Faulkner, and Jeffers Hill, after Robinson Jeffers, the poet.

"They were looking for a theme they could use that would give them a lot of names," Kellner said.

The shape and color of the street signs created one of Columbia's most distinctive features, according to Kellner, adding that the signs came about in part thanks to the attention that Columbia's late founder, James Rouse, paid to even the smallest details in planning the new town.

"Those signs made you instantly realize that you were in Columbia and, to me, the change in the signs is another indication that less attention is being paid to the little things," she said.

I've got nothing really to add about the signs, but I do have something to say.

Barbara Kellner is one of the greatest people living in Columbia. For those of you who haven't paid a visit to the Columbia Archives, you don't know what you're missing. Her knowledge and enthusiasm bring to life the old maps and writings from the gestational period of our community, to the point that you feel as though you were actually there. Grab a coffee at the Lakeside cafe and head across the lobby to the archives to have a talk with her (maybe you should call ahead first). You'll leave there with a much greater appreciation of Columbia and the woman who brings our history to life.

Also, buy her book. It's got some great pictures and is totally worth $14.

What's going on...

Not much, apparently.

I remember longingly the days when as the sole local scribe I roamed the streets of a rural town hunting for scandalous stories and loose-lipped leads. As a newspaper man, this was my favorite time of the year; news was slow and all there was to write were the formulaic year-end fluff pieces and recaps, the sole purpose of which being to frame the plethora of holiday advertisements.

Of course, while most journalists hate not having anything to write about, I enjoyed the relaxed pace between Christmas and New Year's; to be honest, news in a rural town is always pretty slow, but I digress. This time was so enjoyable that, later in life, I turned down a job specifically because I was told that December was the busiest time, and it wasn't even retail. Naturally, my current employer found a way to sneak in a late December deadline for a massive project that has ruined what would otherwise be a week of long lunches, early dismissals, and days off. Alas, things just ain't what they used to be.

Anyway, as a blogger, one who relies on new stories to fuel the regular updates that keep readers coming back, the lack of anything interesting or relevant in the newspapers is a bit of a bummer. With nothing happening, all I've got to write about are a few nit-picky things that in during any other week would be ignored.

Nit-picking item #1: A headline in today's Flier reads: "CA Board kicks in extra 60,000 for Katrina relief". Wow, that is awful nice of them, even if the money really belongs to Columbians. But wait, the first sentence of the story reads: "The Columbia Association's Board of Directors has agreed to donate $6,000 to the Columbia Foundation to cover additional Hurricane Katrina relief costs." Whoops.

Nit-picking item #2: Okay, the above item was pretty lame; I couldn't even think of anything funny to say. "Whoops"? What's that about? Clearly, I'm losing my edge.

Nit-picking item #3: Back to item #1. Talk about grossly over-using colons. Wait, there's probably a horribly inappropriate joke in there somewhere. Let's move on.

Nit-picking item #4 (or Praising Objectivity): So, I've heard a lot recently about the idea of objectivity in the news. Mainly what I hear is liberals complaining that what passes for objectivity is quoting someone's assertion of a "fact" and then quoting an opposite assertion of someone else. Here's an example:

"The sky is green," says George Bush.

"The sky is most certainly not green," says Howard Dean. "It's blue."
Obviously, this is a made up exchange. If it were real, it would probably read something more like this:
"The sky is green," says George Bush. "It's hard work keeping the sky green like that, heh."

"The sky is most certainly not green," says Howard Dean. "It's blue, yaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhh."
Again, not a real exchange, but probably more realistic.

So, the complaint goes, the story leaves it there without the reporter stepping up to assert what really is fact, that the sky is blue, and readers are left trying to figure out who's citing the real fact and who's just a blowhard. Suddenly, facts have become muddied, in that it doesn't matter if they are true, only that you believe who uttered them. This, many argue, makes it easy for readers to conveniently brush off realities that don't suit their world view.

Now, I tend to have a little more faith in readers than many of those who complain about the media's inability to grow a spine and/or actually fact check. That said, it was refreshing to see this in a story from yesterday's Sun about the ICC and tolls:
[Sec of Transportation Robert] Flanagan disputed the contention that the projected ICC tolls are excessive.

"The cost to go the entire length of the Intercounty Connector is less than the cost to take the Washington subway system," he said. "Nobody is criticizing the fares on the Washington subway system, and they shouldn't be criticizing the fares on the ICC."

(Flanagan's comparison is accurate in certain cases - for instance, a maximum-distance ride on the Metro at peak times vs. a one-way ICC trip - but not others.)
The parenthetical sentence at the bottom actually appeared in the story. I'm sure conservatives will complain that this is further evidence of the Sun's liberal bias, but I see it solely as factual bias--a bias I think we can all support.

To go one step further, however, the simple calculations Flanagan is relying on don't take into account any number of additional costs imposed by driving that you avoid when taking the metro--namely, the $.48 per mile of gas and wear and tear on cars and the opportunity costs of sitting in traffic. But, what the Sun did in this case is definitely laudable and should continue.

And no, I'm not going to comment on the ICC itself. No need to open up that can of worms now. It's the holidays, remember.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Completely irrelevant

This post has nothing to do with Howard County (aside from the fact that it is being written in said location). For that matter, it doesn't have much to do with anything. Instead, I'm just feeding the desire to post something. And this is it.

First, because my league commish advised that writing/venting is rather cathartic, I'd like to thank the Fantasy Football gods for once again screwing me out of another handsome monetary prize. Long have I played this cursed game, and long have I been subjected to one-point losses and strange tiebreakers that keep me from my ultimate goal of total virtual football domination. While every season has been filled with discontent, this was surely the worst, capped off with a loss by a single point in the playoffs to a league rookie with a bunch of whodats on his roster. Shameful. I have been smited again and will hand in my ante next year only to be smited again.

Aside from that, I'd like to be the first person in the state to publicly hope for a continuance of the Kyle Boller era. Despite most of my acquaintances wishing for the team to cut their losses with the young lad, I want to see him brought back next year as the starter. I know the Ravens squandered an opportunity to be a good team this year, but letting Boller go after investing as much time and energy as they have would probably be a bigger opportunity squandered. After all, he's only 24. Think about what you were like 24; you would have nervously pranced around the pocket too if 300-pound defensive players were given free admission to Sackville by your offensive line. However, if next year he plays like the Boller of old (and not the Boller of the past two weeks), I'll personally drive him to the local airport--whatever it's name is then--and send him on his way.

Finally, my lack of a substantive post on Howard County is not so much the result of a lack of something to write about--I've got a back log of drafts waiting in the hopper. Rather, I've got over 2000 pages of American history sitting on my night-stand that simply won't read themselves--Santa apparently knows that I am a nerd. Anyway, the three books will be read in reverse chronological order--starting with the one covering the most recent topic, which is actually not that even recent. I just started book #1, which is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln and his diverse cabinet.

The goal of bringing this up is not to make myself sound intelligent--anyone reading this blog knows that would be a futile task--but instead to quote something from the introduction worthy of attention and consideration in the upcoming election year, when races to the bottom seem inevitable.

"...(I)n the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality--kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy--can also be impressive political resources."
If only our current crop of politicians--on all levels, from all parties--sought greatness with such poise and principle, perhaps greatness would not be so elusive.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Holiday Hangover: Still Recovering

I wish I could say that I'm done with Christmas, but alas, the aftermath seems just as intense as the actual festivities. I'll be spending the greater part of what's left of today cleaning, making phone calls, and trying to figure out where I am on various work related projects. As such, blogging has been moved to the bottom of the priority list. What's more, blogging will take a back seat to more time sensitive things this week, such as participation in a wedding (and all the assorted accompanying activities), a looming deadline at work, and some other projects I can't get into here.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't at least post something about various stories that broke over the weekend. So, falling back on the old standby, here's a quick Holiday Round Up:

Possibly more development in western Ellicott City, which is sure to ruffle the feathers of the local activists fighting the Turf Valley expansion. A key factor in this latest development, however, is that the property in question belongs to the descendants of a signer of the declaration of Independence. It's an interesting, though long, story and Larry Carson does a good job of covering all the important details. Grab a coffee, give it a read, and if you're inclined to support either side, attend a hearing on the matter on January 5.

He may not have a chance in hell at winning, but the just-announced candidacy of Democrat Donald Dunn (presumably no relation to Blues Brother backer "Duck") is an intriguing one. With no hope of actually being elected, Democrats usually run for office in western Howard County just to prove to voters that there are choices, but Dunn's cause may not be totally lost. He's anti-taxes for seniors and a supporter of golf--the sport of elitist, cloistered Republicans if ever there was one (sorry, Dad). Finally, none of Dunn's foes can think of anything bad to say about him. Surely, this is some kind of trap.

This makes you wonder why they even bother with the guns: controlled deer hunt kills 123 animals, whereas drivers collect over 1,000 trophies. Let's get this straight, we've got far more deer than we need, to the point that the ruminants are actually degrading the local environment. "Thinning" the population is a good thing and the ostensible reason for the controlled hunts. However, we have far more success "accidentally" killing them with our weapons of mass production, automobiles, than we do purposefully trying to kill them with guns. Thus, drivers acting out of self interest are the true environmental stewards in this parable. How about that?

Didn't get what you wanted for Christmas? Talk to your local homeowner's association/quasi-government because it has money to burn...


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Opening Statement at OM Candidates Forum

Good evening. My name is Ian Kennedy and I am running to serve as the Oakland Mills representative to the Columbia Council. These are exciting times for our village and our city, and I am seeking the opportunity to work with you in addressing the important issues we face.
To be sure, excitement about our future must be tempered by an understanding of the challenges that lie ahead, including revitalization of our village center, maintenance of our community amenities, open space and high quality of life, and effective leadership at the Columbia Association, among others.

But the challenges before us are not insurmountable – especially in a community as strong as ours, where residents consistently demonstrate their exceptional energy, talents, ingenuity and devotion. Indeed, these attributes and the level of involvement I have seen in Oakland Mills are what initially inspired me to run for Columbia Council.

In order to accomplish our goals, however, we must be able to create partnerships, to build consensus among stakeholders, and to tell the story of our community to a broader audience. While resourceful residents can accomplish much of this on their own, success ultimately requires leaders who share these goals and who are committed, above all else, to seeing them realized.

I promise that if elected I will work to meet the needs of Oakland Mills. As an active member of the community, I have a proven track record of getting things done. For instance, I founded Save Merriweather and prevented one of our community’s landmarks from being demolished. I have chaired the Columbia Association’s Environmental Matters Subcommittee for the last three years, implementing programs to increase environmental awareness among residents and creating a partnership between CA and the master gardeners to remove invasive species from our open space. My environmental work extended to the county level recently, when county executive Ken Ulman appointed me to his commission on the Environment and Sustainability.

And, in order to pay the mortgage, I work for Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit organization founded by Jim and Patty Rouse to help revitalize communities around the country. Enterprise has also been a key partner in the Oakland Mills revitalization effort.

I am confident that my knowledge, experience and dedication will allow me to perform well as a member of the Columbia Council and I am asking tonight for your vote.

Questions from the Columbia Flier Editorial Board

1. Which Columbia Association programs would you like to see get higher priority? Lower priority? Started? Eliminated? What changes would you suggest and what would be their financial implications?

Higher Priority: Time banking. Aside from a few stories in the papers and a buried page on the Columbia Association website, there hasn't been very much promotion of this program, which is unfortunate, because it seems quintessentially "Columbia." The Columbia Association Network (CAN) encourages public service and volunteerism by providing credits – "Time Dollars" – for each hour a resident spends helping others in the community. These credits can then be used in exchange for services from another participating resident.

While promoting volunteerism is a nice, lofty goal for a program, the tangible benefit of CAN – that which gets people to participate – is that it captures and adds real, fungible value to community service. Previously, the only incentive to serve had been altruism, which only gets you so far in this world, I'm afraid. CAN, however, builds on this motivation, while also leaving room for good old-fashioned self-interest. And it operates efficiently by allowing our neighbors to decide for themselves the highest and best uses of their endless talents and limited time. It's an economist's dream!

That said, CAN needs broad participation to actually work: the broader the pool of services available, the more likely it is that residents will join – a self-perpetuating cycle. In that vein, CA could do a better job marketing the program and describing actual services that are available now (there is no such information on the CAN webpage). Moreover, the range of included volunteer time could be expanded. For instance, time credits could be given to residents who serve on neighborhood committees or – as in Oakland Mills – serve as street captains, informing neighbors about the news of the village and organizing events that help strengthen bonds between residents. Also, some cities – Ithaca, New York, for one – have even gone so far as to create a unique form of currency used by local merchants. We should explore a system like this and ways that it can be integrated with CAN.

Because it is a volunteer-based system, CAN requires few CA resources to support it. There is already a program director in place, and additional marketing might increase costs marginally, as would widening the program to include a local currency component. But I don't feel that additional costs would register significantly on the CA budget (of course, one must always be aware of the costs of numerous small programs adding up).

Lower priority/Started/Eliminated: Maybe this is a cop-out – including all three of these categories together – but I feel very strongly that we need to stop dredging our lakes. By this, I don't mean we should allow them to entirely fill with silt. Rather, I would like to actually solve the silting problem or at least try.

Columbia was conceived before the days of "proper" stormwater management, and as such, our lakes serve as de facto stormwater retention ponds, in addition to aesthetic and recreational amenities for the community. While stormwater retention is essential to preserving fragile ecosystems – particularly the Chesapeake Bay – our current practices are neither sustainable nor, for that matter, effective.

Excessive stormwater run-off is continuing to plague our streams and open space. After each storm, water rushes through our streams, stripping the beds of soil and over time, diminishing the land's ability to support plant and animal life, and filling our lakes with material that must ultimately be dredged. When Columbia was founded, the prevailing approach to "respecting the land" was setting aside sensitive areas – stream buffers, steep slopes, etc. As is clear now, setting aside the land is not enough to prevent it from harm, even without additional development. The open space problems we face now – dredging being a major one – will continue to compound unless action is taken now.

Instead of passive and reactionary approaches to open space management, we need to be aggressive and proactive. The myriad problems of dredging will surface every decade unless we begin significant interventions now. These should include stream restorations and more integrated, holistic open space management (possibly strategic plantings, new wetlands, etc.). However, even though CA is the largest private landowner in the state of Maryland, it only posses approximately one-third of the total land in Columbia. If we truly want to address the continued degradation of our open space, we must build on these interventions in open space and move them to our own backyards.

I am not a proponent of heavy-handed, top-down approaches to anything. I believe that with the right information and a proper system of incentives, people will respond accordingly. CA should investigate and, where possible, implement programs for reducing the stormwater runoff from residential and commercial property. There are likely a variety of mechanisms to accomplish this, from education and demonstration programs to perhaps grants or loans to homeowners.

Although stream restoration and incentives for backyard remediation appear costly, what are the potential savings? Have we investigated the long-run costs of having to dredge each of our three major lakes every ten years or less? What savings are to be gained from stopping that and taking a more decentralized approach to stormwater management? My hunch is that we may end up spending a bit more up front on aggressive and proactive interventions, but that most of the costs will be made up for by the lack of dredging costs. I also think CA needs to more aggressively pursue governmental assistance for its open space management costs. I understand that its status as a public benefit organization limits available funding, but this may be an area that needs to be reexamined. Finally, there is a growing movement to create local, citizen-based watershed groups in Columbia that could assist in the implementation of these programs.

2. What would you as a Columbia Council/board member do to make the Columbia Association a more open organization?

I would push CA to have a stronger online presence. The web is an essential and easy tool busy people (i.e. all of us) can use to keep abreast of matters and happenings in their communities. I don't know if the right form is an improved website with more interactive web features, maybe even live video feeds of meetings, but this is an area that could always use improvement. Moreover, ensuring that debates between board members occur in the boardroom and not behind closed doors is essential. If the board wants to discuss things at times other than regularly scheduled meetings, why not create an online forum -- viewable by all -- for them to do this.

3. Do you believe your village needs a master plan to guide its redevelopment in the coming years? If so, how would you suggest such a plan be devised and implemented?

Yes! I suppose that's not a surprise given the village I'm seeking to represent. Such plans should come from the citizens. If Oakland Mills is any example, this is not only possible, but it provides the best outcome – a plan that almost everyone supports.

Citizen-driven planning, however, is the easy part (Town Center notwithstanding). Implementation is where the hard work begins. CA board members perform a key role in this, building consensus and reaching out to key partners, which will certainly include, among others, local business owners, Howard County Government, General Growth, village center owners and local non-profits. There are creative ways to accomplish anything, and implementation of these often ambitious plans will certainly require creativity and cooperation.

4. Do you think the board/council does an adequate job representing the interests and concerns of residents to the CA president and staff? If not, what improvements would you suggest?

Its record is probably mixed. I don't know, however, that there are any systemic improvements that can be made. The board will always have two constituencies (citizens and the corporation) that are occasionally at odds with each other. While board members obviously need to strike a balance between the two, I would hope in that balance the needs of citizens are weighted a bit more. See below for my thoughts on how CA could be a more effective organization, which could translate into the board more effectively representing citizens.

Regardless, citizens will always have to be diligent in observing the actions of CA staff, as well as board members. Ultimately, there is no better oversight mechanism for a public organization than informed, active citizens.

5. If there are any issues of particular importance that this questionnaire does not touch on, please outline them, and your prescription for dealing with them, here.

I think CA really needs to reexamine its role within the community from a big picture perspective. The organization has a lot of high-minded rhetoric in its mission statement and charter, but what does this actually mean and how is it manifested? Many of its problems, I think, are the result of a lack of a clear sense of purpose for the organization. Whatever it is, CA gets a lot of money each year from residents who deserve to have that money well spent.

Furthermore, I think the board must reexamine and ultimately clearly define its role within the organization. Many of the problems the board has had over the years stem from a desire by some board members to serve as managers. Boards should focus on big picture, high-priority issues, and not on minutiae – as has been the case.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Reports from the fringe...

Hayduke's favorite candidate for county executive, Harry Dunbar, is at it again with a letter to the editor in this week's Flier. Aside from his usual harmless but utterly contemptible "charade charrette" gimmick, he threw in this possibly libelous statement:

Apparently, corporate entities including the Columbia Association and General Growth Properties Inc., along with a few elected politicians, met behind closed doors and outside the charade charrette process and agreed upon the number of units to be built in Town Center (5,000) and the number of stories (22) for the Plaza tower the developer would be allowed to build.
Because I'm not a lawyer, I won't delve into the question of whether this actually qualifies as libel, but it is certainly not true and it was meant to defame the reputation of several public figures (he single's out "Kenneth 'Main Street' Ulman" earlier in the letter). Frankly, I don't care about what he says.

What I'm concerned about is the fact that the Flier would run something that is patently untrue (this is not the first time they have done so, though I don't have the specifics of the other instances). I understand the letters page is the bastion of the readers and their opinions, however wrong. But this letter asserts a conspiracy as fact, something that is just silly; the Plaza building was proposed long before the charrette was even a glimmer in Ulman's eye, and certainly no one dictated the outcome of the charrette for nefarious purposes. Shouldn't the Flier exercise some control over what they print?

I know it's probably too much to ask to have them fact check every detail of every letter. However, this letter and these statements are clearly false, and the sole purpose of such misinformation was to disparage its targets.

Politics is politics is politics, I guess.

If Dunbar disagrees with the outcome of the charrette, why not have an honest discussion about it? If he really thinks he represents a broad spectrum of voters, where were all his supporters during the charrette when much of these details were worked out?

Oh, right, it was all a charade anyway.

Round Up: East Coast Style

Why East Coast Style? Because back east, without much room for grazing, we've got to keep our herds small.

Are you glancing at me? From the Flier's "At A Glance" section:

  • Police have charged a man in connection with the accident that forced doctors to amputate the leg of 21 year old volunteer auxiliary officer Pieter Lucas. Apparently, the negligent driver was reaching for his cell phone when he pinned Lucas, who was directing traffic around another collision, between two vehicles. I wish I could muster the anger to moralize about using cell phones in cars, but at this point I'm more concerned about the health and future of Lucas. For those interested in contributing to a fund to support Lucas and help defray the surely massive medical bills he is facing, donations can be sent to the Howard County Policy Foundation, c/o Lt. John Newnan, Howard County Policy Department 3410 Court House Drive, Ellicott City, MD 21043.
  • The Planning Board delayed a decision on the proposed 22-story Plaza condimium building until January.
  • Finally, a new restaraunt, the Fire Rock Grill, opened on December 5 in Oakland Mills Village Center. Let's hope this new business helps push the ailing shopping center further along in its journey to recovery.
Here's a fun story about the Howard County Citizen's Police Academy, a program that allows Joe Six Pack to see what it's like to be John Q. Law. Driving fast, shooting guns, and martial arts, sounds like a good time.

Short, sweet, and to the point--Yeehaw!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Shocking news...

Despite the best efforts of many to drum up unnecessary controversy, it looks like we'll have to hold off on our righteous indignation for now.

As the county works to refine a planned makeover of downtown Columbia, at least one landmark business - Clyde's restaurant - is expected to keep a home on the Town Center lakefront, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

The restaurant, which last month celebrated its 30th anniversary in Columbia, faced the prospect of losing its building when Town Center is redeveloped. But McLaughlin has moved to reassure the restaurant and its patrons.

"No one is trying to get rid of Clyde's," she said. "Clyde's is what people like about downtown."

Paul Kraft, the restaurant's general manager, said he has been told that Clyde's lakefront location will not be put in jeopardy.

"We're not panicked or nervous," Kraft said. "We're getting all types of calls of support [from customers]."

The restaurant, which serves upscale American saloon food, is housed in a building on the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront that also is home to the Columbia Association and the Tomato Palace restaurant.

Residents have been concerned about Clyde's since the county-sponsored planning charrette about the future of downtown Columbia, which included a discussion of possibly razing the building to make way for an open lakefront vista.

The fact that this was ever a concern is something I cannot understand. Even if the (ugly, characterless, boring, old, needs-to-be-torn-down-anyway) building does get demolished, how exactly would that preclude Clyde's from moving to another location on the lake or taking up residence in the replacement building? Okay, so I understand the concerns about changing the interior and possibly screwing with the cramped atmosphere we've grown to love, but what about the possibility of rehabilitating the top few floors of the building and leaving Clyde's and the Tomato Palace (home to Columbia's best pre-dinner bread) unscathed?

The final thing that annoyed me about this faux outrage was the fact that the building's fate was not going to be determined by the charrette, the planners, or the Columbia Association, which somehow got unfairly rapped up in this mess, but rather by the owners , General Growth. Many, however, choose to use this potential non-incident to indict the charrette in general, saying the outcomes were predetermined by a conspiracy of CA, elected officials, General Growth, and those nefarious, new urbanist planners (damn you, planners!).

I'd like to use this story as a stepping stone onto a soap box for a minute. Please, to everyone reading this, if you know one of the pessimistic folks who have already determined the charrette was a sham, tell them to shut up for a while and stop judging a finished product we haven't seen. If we could all just let the process play out for another few weeks--the county will present a refined plan on January 19--we'll see if there's real cause for outrage, which I support when there is due cause, or if many have just spent the last few months wasting breath.

I apologize for the hostility of this post. But I've been seething over the unwarranted accusations lobbed at the charrette, its organizers, and facilitators since well before it even began and couldn't contain myself any longer. I expected more of Columbians--hope, optimism, trust, reason, patience. Instead, all I hear are cynics and critics.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Simmering on the back burner

More on the possible smoking ban

What could be the final phase of Howard County's latest fight over smoking in bars and restaurants began last night as the County Council heard testimony on a bill that would allow smoking where it is permitted now but ban it from all new establishments.

Anti-smoking and health advocates and County Executive James N. Robey oppose the bill, though it appears to have majority support. It was sponsored by east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes and has won endorsements from the five-member body's two Republicans, Chairman Christopher J. Merdon and Charles C. Feaga.

The remaining two Democrats, Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman, favor an earlier bill sponsored by Robey and Ulman that would ban all smoking in all public places.
Not much to report. Anti-smoking activistscriticizedd the bill in typical, non-newsworthy fashion, while restaurant and bar owners applauded similarly. There is, however, one quote worthy of a pithy, sarcastic comment:
Tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano called Rakes' bill "a balanced, common-sense, equitable proposal." He said Robey's proposed smoking ban would amount to a "taking without compensation." Bereano noted that in 20 years of testifying before the County Council, "this is the first time I'm testifying in favor of a smoking bill."
Balanced? Do lobbyists really know of such things? Also, of course it’s the first time he’s testifying in favor of such a bill. It’s the first time he’s had a choice between two of them, and given the alternative—an outright ban—this is his only hope.

Anyway, I’d put money on the Rakes bill passing without executive veto and the full ban being pushed back another few years (at least until the state bans all indoor smoking, which is really best and fairest way to address this).

Post Script: As I was about to publish this post, I went back to re-read the article and noticed this at the very bottom:
The latest round in the smoking debate followed a hearing Monday night as anti-smoking advocates and business interests opposed to strict limits waited through a lengthy hearing on a bill to provide a cable television franchise to Verizon, which would provide competition for Comcast in the county.

The new franchise is supported by Dean Smits, the county's cable administrator, and by the chairman of the county's cable advisory committee, Martin Stein. Comcast and cable industry representatives argue that a new franchise may give Verizon an unfair advantage.
This is the best news I've heard in years! If you're like me, you're tired of the unfettered monopoly and hegemonic status of our cable overlords, Comcast, and even if you don't decide to switch companies, you'll still benefit from competition (lower prices, Comcast actually responding to your needs, etc.).

But what's this mularky about Verizon getting an unfair advantage? Hmmm, in order for another cable provider to enter this market it has to get approval from the county council. Doesn't sound like Comcast has enjoyed an unfair advantage of it's own for quite some time, does it?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Promise and peril of affordable housing

So I "borrowed" the idea for the title of this post from an obscure book. Who's gonna know, aside from my father? No one. Good. Let's just assume it's my idea and move on.

Following years of exploding home prices, a concerted effort from a coalition of local religious groups, and widespread public support during the charrette, affordable housing has moved onto the radar screens of local politicians. An attempt to provide a quick fix to the problem that would have transferred housing allocations from the county's rural west to its developed east failed in September, but this was probably a good thing.

Quick fixes usually don't help complex problems. And complex doesn't even begin to describe this issue.

Inevitably intertwined with the issue of affordable housing is that of growth. As much as I'd like to delve into that fiery pit of hyperbole and misinformation, I'll try to steer clear of it for now (though I hope--but don't promise--to write a coup de grâce on the topic in the coming weeks? Months? Sometime. Hopefully.).

What I can write now is something about affordable housing's increasing presence on the pages of the local rags and lips of local officials. Just last week, county executive James Robey broached the topic at a luncheon sponsored by the Association of Community Services. Of course, he was prodded into speaking on the matter by Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, who asked a question about including moderately priced housing in Town Center as a part of the charrette/master plan.

Robey's response was nothing special, saying "I think there should be affordable housing in Town Center. This will not be an exclusive area for the rich." However, his willingness to counter the charachteristic bigotry of opponents of inclusive housing was refreshing to hear.

"You're allowing 'those people' to move into our community" is the complaint he has heard, he said.

"To me, those people are cops and teachers, mechanics, carpenters and plumbers," said Robey, who spent 32 years in the Police Department, including seven as its chief, in his native Howard County.

That's nice, but what about affordable housing in Town Center? Certainly, it was an issue discussed and supported by many participants.

Andre J. DeVerneil, a leader of the Coalition for Affordable Housing that has pushed for moderate- income housing in Town Center, said his group wants 10 percent moderate-income and 10 percent middle-income. General Growth has talked about designating 10 percent of the 2,000 to 5,000 living units expected to be built over the next several decades as lower-cost housing.

DeVerneil said the issue was left "vague" after the weeklong planning charrette in October, though he said most participants appeared to support the concept of below-market housing.

"This is just a golden opportunity," and perhaps the last to include lower-priced housing in a large housing development in Howard County, DeVerneil said.

DeVerneil is right about this being a good opportunity to get a lot of affordable housing in highly desirable location--close to employment, entertainment, shopping, transportation, and schools. Beyond Town Center, much of the future development in the county will consist of smaller projects (because of limited land and fear of density), and using the percentage set asides affordable housing types love so much, additional growth under the current county allocation system will yield only minimal, scattered moderately priced units.

(For more information about affordable housing's role in the charrette, click here for a .pdf document written by the Planning department.)

But Town Center is only one part of the county, and clearly affordable housing is an issue throughout the county. Also clear is the fact that the county's existing affordable housing program is not effective, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it. To counter the hyperactivity in the housing market that is driving up prices, the Planning department is proposing changes to the affordable housing program that would make these units available to wider range of income levels, supposedly to serve the needs of the middle income bracket.

County officials say they want to amend the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit law, which requires developers in the county to construct 10 to 15 percent of the houses they build for moderate-income families, depending on where in the county the houses are constructed.

Under the proposed policy, the county would require developers to use up to half of that 10 to 15 percent allotment to build middle-income dwellings, while using the remainder to construct houses for moderate-income families.

County housing officials say they are attempting to ensure that developers build more houses for teachers, nurses, police officers, retail and office workers, and other middle-income residents.

Affordable housing advocates don't like the plan because they say (and I'm paraphrasing) that it would rob from the poor to give to the middle class. And they're right, kind of. It does seem that some of the affordable housing set aside that would have gone to moderate income households will now go to middle income households, but they're focused on the wrong things.

We can argue all day about percentages and by the time the sun goes down we'll have accomplished close to nothing. The lack of affordable housing is not going to be ameliorated by going from 10 percent set asides to 15 or 20. We're talking about differences of tens of units a year in a county where the median household income is $82,065 and the median home price is over $400,000.

Indeed, a county study last May found that less than six percent of the homes available for sale that month were priced less than $260,000; using the standard assumption that one spends 3x annual income on housing, this means 50 percent of households are competing for less than six percent of the homes (yes I know this statement is fraught with statistical problems, but the point is valid). The profile of our housing stock is so out of touch with our income profile that such small-minded solutions will do next to nothing to help. Look at Montgomery county, a leader in the field of affordable housing with over 30 years of experience. Have they found a panacea for unaffordability?

All that will come of the proposed affordable housing solutions for Town Center and beyond are a couple of moderately priced houses (built who knows when) and a set ofpoliticianss who can rest happy thinking they stood up to developers and did what's best for the county. Gee, thanks.

If we were honest to ourselves about growth, housing, and our future, we would spend more time trying to understand the situation and developing ways to address it that would actually have an impact. Instead, it seems, we're happy with doing the minimum to get by (rather, votes) and calling it a day.

I usually hate it when people complain about something and don't offer any solution. In this case, I'd love to offer a solution, but I just don't have one. I might, however, if I actually had a clearer sense of the scope and scale of the problem, but that would require (for me, but not the county) more information than some Census figures and a search of Pat Hiban's website.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Political jockeying

I love it when one story (and therefore one link) covers multiple issues. Today's political story in the Sun is one of those welcome Sunday morning surprises. Divided into three mini-stories, let's tackle them in order.

First, on his annual pilgrimage to New York's bond rating agencies--those who control the county's credit--county executive James Robey brought with him both legitimate candidates for the seat he is relinquishing--Democrat Ken Ulman and Republican Chris Merdon. Custom calls for the executive to be accompanied by the county council chairman--and Ulman's invite initially upset his opponent, Merdon--but Robey offered a perfectly good and non-political reason for including both:

Robey said he felt the invitations could help the county in the long run.

"It makes sense. Whoever the next county executive is will have some experience, and it will show a relationship between the current administration and whoever is coming in," Robey said.

After the initial disappointment, Merdon put politics aside and seemed supportive of Robey's decision to buck tradition.
But after returning home Friday, Merdon said the trip itself changed his mind. "It's something all council members should have the opportunity to do at least once. You get a better understanding of what the bond rating agencies are looking for," he said, and it's not political.
I'm very glad to see this. The importance of the county's stellar bond rating cannot be understated. Financing public projects with bonds (read: debt) is terribly important to maintaining the high quality of life in this county, and keeping our credit score high ensures we pay less in debt service. Learning first hand about the way our county is rated and what measures are important to the bond agencies should be a part of every council person's education. Both Robey and Merdon (and presumably Ulman) recognize this, and we should be thankful for that.

But surely someone was pissed off about the list of invitees. That's right, the third announced candidate for county executive was left behind.

Howard's delegation usually has included the council chairman, who until this year was Democrat Guy Guzzone. Robey said Merdon and Ulman "appear to be front-runners" for the top job, though [Democratic candidate Harry] Dunbar disagreed.

"I'm a candidate for county executive. I should be there, too. I'm outraged," Dunbar said.

While technically Dunbar has a point, especially given Robey's ostensible reason for including Merdon and Ulman, I'm kind of happy he stayed home. Dunbar's a bit of a lose cannon, and in my mind represents only the views of himself (and a very small group of county residents). Keeping him away from those who excersise considerable control over the county's financial future is probably a good thing (it would be wise to remember this advice come next September as well).

Second in the above story is a discussion of the four Democrats vying for the three delegate positions for District 13 (south and east part of the county). The list includes current delegates Shane Pendergrass, Neil Quinter, and Frank Turner, and Guy Guzzone is the not-incumbent fourth. Guzzone, Pendergrass, and Turner have already formed an alliance, but Quinter's made some friends in his single term in the General Assembly, and called on prominent Democrats to help him out a fundraiser last week.
He announced the event with a news release claiming "the entire Democratic leadership of the Maryland House of Delegates is supporting his re-election" by sponsoring the affair. As if to emphasize his point, Quinter was introduced by House Majority Whip and Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown, who last week joined Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign as the ticket's candidate for lieutenant governor.
Brown has received a lot of glowing media attention recently and is good ally for Quinter to have. Still, the claim that the Democratic leadership supports his reelection appears to be a little misleading.

Guzzone said all Quinter did was get the House leadership to support his fundraiser, labeling the endorsement claims "not significant." Turner agreed.

"It's a general practice for all of leadership to allow any incumbent to use their name on a fundraiser," Turner said.

House Speaker Del. Michael E. Busch said, "We support the 98 Democrats in the General Assembly. As a practice, I will agree to be on a fundraising ticket."

Several House committee leaders confirmed that. But Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman Del. Peter A. Hammen went further, saying he endorses Quinter for re-election.

"He's worked hard. He's a very thoughtful delegate," Hammen said. Judiciary Committee Chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., also said he also supports Quinter's re-election.

Yes, it's never to early to squabble over these types of things, I guess. Petty politics aside, I still think it's Guzzone's race to lose (Turner and Pendergrass are locks,, for now anyway, but you know, things change, and I don't want to be pinned down--you know what, forget I even said this). Quinter, most certainly, will not go down easy, however. And this race could be one of the more interesting ones. Coffers will surely fill to overflowing.

In addition to the four Democrats, there are three Republicans who think they have a shot at representing District 13 in the House of Delegates.
As for the Republicans, [Loretta] Gaffney [an aide to GOP Del. Gail Bates] joins Mary Beth Tung and the Rev. Rick Bowers in seeking a seat in the Democrat-dominated, L-shaped southeastern county district.

Gaffney, a 15-year county resident who lives at the western edge of District 13 in Glenelg, has worked for Bates for two years, and she said that experience encouraged her to run.

In December, almost a year away, political hope springs eternal.

Hidden truths or agendas...

As one who attempts to deploy sarcasm in writing, I know that occasionally the true meaning of what I'm saying can be difficult to ascertain. When speaking, sarcasm is distinguished with a change in tone or a wink of the eye. On the other hand, when writing, you pretty much just throw it out there and hope most people get it, and if they don't...well, you can always explain yourself, but that's the short road to not-funny--the place where sarcasm goes to die.

Anyway, I bring this up because of a letter to the editor the today's Sun that could be either really funny sarcasm or just pointless sincerity. The context of the letter was a question posed by the Sun last week asking residents what they expect from the new Republican chair of the county council, Chris Merdon. To wit:

Based on previous experiences, I would expect the Republican chair to follow orders precisely from the Bush administration rather than from the people of Howard County, to try to merge state and church together, to attack the other person instead of the issue when in a debate, to send others into dangerous situations while they sit on the sidelines and root, to tell falsehoods and spin stories, to fire everyone who is not a Republican, to vote for more money for big corporations and millionaires, to take money from the poor, education and health, to track people who oppose their ideas and try to fill Howard citizens with fear instead of concern. And to say Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays to whomever they meet.
Because of the litany of charges against Republicans, I at first assumed this was a Democrat speaking with honesty about his opinion of the "other side." However, reading the letter a second time, it occurred to me that these are all the same bland talking points I hear Democrats whine about in newspapers and blogs, and therefore the writer could be a clever Republican taking pot shots at Democratic paranoia/silliness. Since I try to stay away from the ugly world of national politics, I'll just say that Democrats seem to have now a great opportunity to present optimism, hope, and a plan for the future of our country, but they're squandering it, focusing instead on blame, cynicism, and pessimism (certainly not the party I thought I signed up for when I turned 18).

So back to the letter. If the writer really thinks this way--that the Bush adminstration will rule Chris Merdon's chairmanship--than I think he (she?) is way off base and is doing more to hurt than help his party's cause. And, if this is the case, than the unintentional irony of the comment is just as funny as the possibility of it being a sarcastic take written by a Republican.

Of course, I read too much into things (sometimes) and would like to hear if you think the letter is sincere, sarcastic, or just plain right/wrong.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hit it and quit...

Sorry folks, Hayduke's got a string of busy days ahead (including today) and probably won't sign on again until Sunday. And all you're getting for now is the Roundup. My advice: read it slowly, then re-read previous posts. By the time you're done, it'll be Sunday, and we'll all be happy again.

Get out your lassos, kids. It's time to rope 'em in.

The county's working on a new affordable housing program that is worthy of much more criticism than I can dole out now. Your homework is to read the story and be prepared to discuss it on Monday. Got it?

CA continues to hold down those of us wanting to dry our clothes the old fashioned way. Buggers, concerned about slippery slopes and such. Have they been out on the roads today?

All the Flier's letters to the editor described in five words or less (per letter, of course--a man can only be so brief). In their order of appearance on the page.

  • ACS's job is fighting cancer.
  • Lamest. Christmas. Gift. Ever.
  • Signing in school? Yes!
  • Previous letter-writer=bad. Ulman=good. (Since letter-writer is hyphenated, it's one word. Trust me.)
  • The Flier hates Christmas.
  • Shouting out for Rakes.
There, that was easy.

Remember this (Update: the link is bad. The quote below is from a Flier story called 'Rouse plans dramatically scaled-back Merriwether' dated July 31, 2003. You can search the Flier's archives if you need to verify--or you can just trust me.):

[then Rouse Company vice president Dennis] Miller told the board that Merriweather, which opened in 1967, was no longer profitable for Rouse.

"It is a for-profit entity and it's not producing right now," Miller said.

"It hasn't produced for multiple years."

He compared trying to make the pavilion profitable to "trying to sell ice cubes in the middle of the winter."

I wonder if he likes apples. How about these apples? Probably not so much.

By the way, I hear the futures market for ice has spiked following predictions of a colder than normal winter.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rollin' in it

On the heels of last year's $20 million budget surplus comes news of more unexpected increases in county revenue.

Overall, the county collected $360.3 million by October's end, compared with predictions of $340.8 million by that time, according to Jonathon Seeman, the county budget director. The increase is 5.7 percent more than predicted. The revenue also represents an 11.6 percent increase over last year at the same time, and reflects better than expected results from income and property taxes, building permits and various fees, Seeman said.
While it is still to early to say if there will be a budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2006, the county's bottom line appears headed for the black. Of course, the economy changes all the time, and any change for the worse could push revenue back down to predicted levels. Thus, I'm still of the opinion that we see how things play out before we start talking about tax cuts.

That said, budget folks are often pretty good at predicting revenue, having years of experience and tons of data to help in such forecasts. And, given the sizeable revenue increases we've seen in just the first quarter of the budget, I don't think it's a stretch to say we could see a very significant budget surplus this year (simply extrapolating the first quarter increase out to the end of the year would yield an almost $80 million surplus). Obviously, this isn't free money--we're all paying for it--and there are significant needs--for instance, $400 million for future retiree health benefits--but our fiscal condition is clearly improved over where it was only a few years ago.

Sure as the night becomes day, many folks are already planning how to spend this money. From the above story:

None of the four County Council members at the meeting offered a view of what the increased revenue might mean at budget time next spring. But council Chairman and county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who was out of town and did not attend the meeting, called for a tax cut when he learned about the figures a day later.

"We are overcharging citizens," he said, noting the county had a $20.4 million surplus last fiscal year.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, another candidate for county executive, said after the meeting that a tax cut is always possible, though he would not want the next executive to face a potential revenue deficit because of a short-term tax cut.

...Pat Dornan, who led a grass-roots petition drive against Robey's 30 percent local income tax increase in 2003, said the news reinforces his belief that taxes are too high. "There absolutely should be a tax cut," he said.

No surprises there.

Weatherman Accountability: Postponed due to weather

The winter storm bearing down on our area doesn't promise to bring much snow with it. In fact, forecasters are predicting a combination of sleet, freezing rain and just plain rain. Because such precipitation is hard to measure vertically, I'm giving the local gang a week off from accountability. To be sure, I will be monitoring the situation, and if something unexpected happens between now and when the precipitation starts, we can address the need for accountability at that point.

For now, here's the general forecast consensus:

Snow/sleet starting tomorrow morning, changing to freezing rain in the afternoon, and all rain at night.

As I said, I'll be tracking the storm and will call "Game on" if the need arises.

Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feeeeeeeeeeeel, like I've been tied to the whipping post...

Capitalism endures its share of lashes from the left, right, center...basically, all over. Lord knows, I'm not accustomed to singing its praises, which makes this post admittedly hard to write.

But sometimes, you've just got to give respect to the soulless economic system. Today is one of those times.

It all began with the introduction of this little doohickey:

Upon laying eyes on this magical device several months ago, Abbzug, never afraid to say what she wants, proclaimed that one would be awaiting her under the tree on Christmas morning. The definitiveness of her proclamation immediately made me responsible for finding one. No problem, I thought, procuring a mass produced gadget in six months would be the easiest thing I've done in a while.

Well, since Christmas was beyond the horizon of my perspective, I procrastinated until last weekend. And, my procrastination almost the upset wedded bliss characteristic of my household.

As surprising as it sounds, I was not the only one who planned on gifting this device. Apparently, my quest was shared by just about everyone else engaged in holiday shopping.

After searching every electronics and computer retailer in the Columbia/Ellicott City/Laurel area, I grew concerned that my quest, and more importantly, my wife's wishes would go unfulfilled. Nevertheless, I visited the online Apple store, thinking that if I could at least bring one of these plastic players into my house before the end of the twelve days of Christmas, I could get by on a technicality.

Sure enough, Apple was more than willing to take my money, crank up the Chinese assembly line, and ship one of these bad boys posthaste. I placed the order on Saturday and prayed to the gods of commerce and shipping that it would arrive before Christmas morning.

And, of course, it did. However, not only did it arrive well before deadline, it awaited me upon my arrival from work today, four days after ordering it. Four days! It left China Sunday night and was in Columbia today! I don't think even Santa works that fast.

So, thank you, Capitalism. The profit motive has again brought about the highest level of utility for me, Abbzug, and everyone else smart enough to order their Nano before Monday, at which point the Apple store could no longer guarantee shipment by Christmas.

Now that I've said all that, I think I need to go take a shower.

Monday, December 12, 2005

No news is good news

Nothing new to report in the County of Howard today. But I've got a few things to say nonetheless.

First, there's another potential winter storm brewing for later this week (Thursday and Friday). The National Weather Service--which in case you didn't know provides the baseline forecast for all of our local weathermen and even the national chain sites (these folks then tweak their forecasts based on...intuition?...guesswork?)--is playing it close to the vest, saying we're in for any combination of rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain, and/or locusts. As the week progresses, we'll know better if there will be another edition of Weatherman Accountability. Stay tuned!

More to the point of this blog, the county Department of Planning and Zoning has updated its Town Center Charrette website. They have even built a Post Charrette Update page with two-page FAQs about relevant issues and an announcement about a "Charrette Focus group," which will be meeting this Wednesday, December 14 at the county office complex (click the above link for more info). Of course, in true bureaucratic fashion, the meetings of this focus group, apparently comprised of 20 various community members, will be open to the public, but only those who can attend during regular working hours--3 pm to be exact.

Of the people, for the people, by the people. Right.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Response to Hedgehog

Howard County resident and blogger David Wissing, who drops by here occasionally to comment and linked to my first post on the Rakes Coup of 2005 (a link that drove up traffic here to meteoric heights, mind you), wrote more today about the Rakes story. In his post, Wissing seemed to be responding to what I wrote about in this post about District 3 Democratic candidate Jennifer Terrasa. Here's what I said:

You’ve got to give the early lead in the district 3 race to Terrasa, who is up against Donna Thewes, for making herself known throughout the county. Local elections are often decided based on name recognition, something Terrasa seems to understand quite well.
And here's what he said:
Finally in District 3, Jennifer Terrasa, whose claim to fame appears to be a failed attempt to get a fence built around a playground in Columbia, will run as a Democrat against the former President of the Howard County Republican Club and someone I know pretty well, Donna Thewes.
He's got a point. Thewes is well known in political circles and the North Laurel/Savage area, but I was addressing the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome that is so prevalent in elections. In this respect, Terrasa, who hasn't yet lost the fight to get a fence built, has done a better job. However, the short memory endemic to politics may work against Terrasa in the long run.

Regardless, in the long run, we're all dead anyway.

Also, in the same post, Wissing notes that the Republicans already have a candidate lined up for Rakes's District 2 seat but they are not yet ready to announce anything. And he wonders if the Democrats are really going to run someone against the incumbent or if their rumblings about the party being finished with Rakes are just "hollow rhetoric." Though my inside information may not be as tight as Wissing's, I would say there's a 99.9 percent chance that there will be a primary.

Soon, all will be revealed.

What you already knew

Among the topics covered in Larry Carson's weekly political report for the Sun are:

  • The end of the male-dominated county council
  • Howard County Republican party chairman Howard Rensin's over-the-top rhetoric regarding David Rakes's vote making Chris Merdon the council chairman
  • A republican reverend enters the race for District 13 delegate seat
One has to wonder if Carson reads this blog in his spare time (I know, don't flatter yourself). Two out of those three stories have been discussed by Hayduke--particularly the potential for female council members, which was brought up here last night (also includes something about Rensin's comments) as well as several weeks ago.

And simply because the quotes that I included from Rensin last night weren't juicy enough, here's an excerpt from Carson's story:

Rensin, in an e-mail comment on Merdon's victory in becoming chairman Monday night, hailed vital support from Rakes, who is African-American, as a sign that Republicans are making inroads among black voters. That will help Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele win a U.S. Senate seat, Rensin said.

"This is yet another example of how thinking voters who are African-American are seeing that the Democrats have lied to them over all these years and do not deserve their continued support," Rensin said. "This is another signal that the time is right for Michael Steele. ...

"If the Democrats lose the African-American vote, which is clearly in the wind, they are rapidly heading to the ash can of history."

I'm all for supporting your side, but it's best to keep this kind of inflammatory talk internal. These statements show a lack of professionalism and may do more harm than good in the long run. As Carson said, even some Republicans think Rensin's gone too far.

New school board chair

In the wake of Courtney Watson's departure, up and comer, Joshua Kaufman assumes the reins.

(It is a Hayduke policy to not comment in depth on issues related to the school system, as the board overseeing the Best School System in the State is nonpartisan and therefore does not afford Hayduke the opportunity to chastise partisanship and petty politics, which he thoroughly enjoys doing.)

The put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in...

This makes you wonder why the CA board spent "up to" $20,000 on a consultant to do a safety assessment in the first place if they were just going to build a fence or "natural buffer" anyway.

After angry parents denounced a report that concluded a fence was unnecessary, the board discussed the issue for more than an hour Thursday night, and then voted unanimously that something needed to be done.

...The report, from the National Program for Playground Safety, was released last week. It concluded: "There is no compelling need to place a fence around the play area."

I don't wish to sound cold or unsympathetic, but policies and decisions based on emotion do not always result in the best outcomes. Then again, policies based solely on reason often fail as well. Either way, people are notoriously bad at assessing risk, especially when it involves events of very low probability and high emotion (see nuclear power).

That said, the most interesting take on this debate has to be this:
Phil Marcus, the board member from Kings Contrivance, said he and a few other members initially felt that no fence was needed. That changed as the discussion continued.

"I was slightly persuaded at the end that putting a fence there would really help," Marcus said.
Not a very strong statement of support, if you ask me.

As far as the natural buffer goes, wouldn't this reduce visibility from the tot lot to the lake, perhaps making the situation more dangerous? I'm just throwing out ideas and I'm sure CA will address this in their in-house, staff report on the matter, which is due out next month.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Watson's surprise

Board of Education chief Courtney Watson, a Democrat, will not run for county executive, as some foolish people speculated, opting instead to go after the District 1 seat currently in the hands of Republican executive candidate Chris Merdon.

Watson, who won her first bid for elected office when she ran for the school board in 2002, said she decided that the District 1 seat in northeast Howard "was where I could make the most impact." The seat is held by Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who wants to succeed County Executive James N. Robey.

This announcement is surely not too pleasing for the Republican candidate in this race, Tony Salazar, who no faces the unfortunate task of beating a well-known, well-regarded person, instead of some schlub foisted by Democrats into the race. Watson is a popular official in this county, and one from a well-connected political family. From the Sun:
Watson's decision to run for the District 1 seat held by Republican Christopher J. Merdon, also a candidate for county executive, continues her on a path followed decades ago by her father, Edward Cochran, former school board member, county councilman and county executive, who attended the announcement with about 75 other supporters and elected officials.
This announcement, of course, creates more questions than it answers--namely, why did she choose the council; does she have a chance to win; and what are the broader implications of her decision?

Ostensibly, her reason for staying away from the Merdon/Ulman/Dunbar slugfest was because the council "just felt like it was a better fit." She wants to do good things, and she believes she can do more on the council than as the executive. Moreover, her words portray an nonpartisan streak that may make her a uniter on the council, a board in need of some unity. Perhaps she didn't think she had a chance at beating Merdon or Ulman and wanted to assure a victory, but I'm willing to take her at her word.

Her father, however, thinks she could have aimed higher, saying she is "by far the most capable candidate for county executive."

On the other hand, Salazar isn't too concerned about facing Watson.
"I've always expected there will be a challenger, and I believe I will prevail. It's really a question of who is going to listen to the concerns of the community," Salazar said.
Does he have a reason to be scared, or is his confidence justified. From the archives of the Columbia Flier (an invaluable resource by the way) are the results from the 2002 race for the District 1 seat: Chris Merdon 12,245 votes, Lynne Bergling 6,325. Clearly, Watson has some ground to make up, but during the last election, Merdon was an incumbent, something he surely benefited from. One thing is for sure, her candidacy made this race and the election in general a lot more interested.

As far as the bigger picture goes, the above story from the Post does a good job of summing up the candidates in all the council races, as well as the main issue they will have to address, growth. Coupled with Watson's departure from the school board is that of Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty, who is attempting to win the council seat she lost to Ken Ulman in the 2002 primary. The impact of these vacancies on the school board is discussed here.

noticeably absent so far is speculation over District 2, currently the territory of David Rakes. Apparently, no one has yet announced a candidacy from either side, although Rakes has said he plans to run again but a primary is certain. Interesting.

So, what does all this mean? We could have three women on the council. We could have four Democrats (I'm not yet willing to say the same for the Republicans, who will have trouble winning four seats, in my opinion). Or, we could have something else that's equally surprising that I just can't think of right now.

I guess you'll just have to keep reading to find out more.

Note: The writing of this post was interrupted several times by family members who somehow think their concerns are more important than those of my readers. Wait, my family members are the only people who read this. Never mind.

More raking to do

I've just got a couple loose ends to tie up with respect to the Rakes Coup of 2005.

The first is Republicans' belief that David Rakes voting for Chris Merdon to be council chairman is the harbinger of massive shifts in political landscape of this county and state. From the Sun:

Howard M. Rensin, the county Republican Party chairman, said that because Rakes is African-American, his move could mean more support among black voters for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's U.S. Senate bid.
And the Post:

"I'm excited," said Republican Chairman Howard Rensin, who said he hoped Rakes's support of Merdon might entice other black County residents to the Republican Party. He said Democrats have long "taken the African American vote for granted."

I hate to be a nattering nabob of negativism, but I think they're overstating the significance of this. Just a wee bit. Sure, Rakes' vote was great for Merdon and bad for Guzzone, but I think the political implications of it don't extend far beyond the five seats on the dais of the George Howard Building's Banneker Room. I actually think they're making themselves sound silly by suggesting this.

Moreover, the Republican's seem to be looking to Rakes as new member of their coalition and the linchpin in their dreamed majority status. A dream, however, is all it is. Rakes is nothing if not inconsistent--just ask Guzzone--and to think he'll stand by them on a regular basis is kind of funny (and kind of sad). See:
Rakes said his decision to back Merdon over Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) had more to do with management and leadership style and less with party ideology. Rakes said he plans to seek reelection as a Democrat and doesn't portend alliances with Republicans on issues.

"That will be on a case by case basis," Rakes said.

Perspective, boys, perspective. Take a step back and enjoy this one. Or, as they say in football, don't look downfield until you catch the ball.

The second issue I'd like to mention is that of Rakes' motivation for this vote. He tries to maintain that the vote was not meant to be vindictive toward Guzzone and Ulman for them not supporting him during his previous, um, issues. But this quote from the Sun pretty much busts that myth:
...Rakes said he was offended at the council's July 28 meeting when Ulman criticized his vote on a moderate-income housing issue on which Rakes reversed himself and sided with council Republicans. At that meeting, Ulman accused Rakes of failing to understand the legislation and said his constituents "should be embarrassed for him."

"It was very condescending. I took it very personally," Rakes said. He said he voted for Merdon to be chairman because "I think the chairman should have stepped in and worked that out."
Well, "abolish" might be an overstatement, but it's just crazy to think that revenge was not a significant factor in his decision making process.

Man, I am going to miss having Rakes on the council after next year.

You can't have it both ways

I'm not sure who writes the editorials for the Columbia Flier, but reading the previous two, I don't think it's unfair to say that person a little confused.

First, last week the Flier endorsed the plan for a proposed 22-story high rise in Town Center, saying the new building will help spur revitalization. Implicit in their support for this building was the notion that more growth, including residential units, is needed downtown.

This 160-unit complex, which would include retail and dining along with its luxury condominiums, is just the sort of facility to spark the quasi-urban renaissance that both the downtown master plan and Columbia founder James Rouse envisioned. It will encourage foot traffic in the lakefront area and to the mall, perhaps even the central library, not to mention the other destinations that officials hope will sprout in town center in the coming decades.
However, on the heels of this editorial comes one this week that says the county has not acted strongly enough to effectively control growth, allowing it instead to run rampant while county services--presumably not the State's Best School System and Country's Best Library System--are taxed to the point of breaking.

The suburbs continue to expand, commuters travel longer distances and local governments make mostly half-hearted attempts to apply the brakes to a runaway train. Measures such as Howard's Adequate Public Facilities Act, which puts a temporary halt on development where existing roads and schools are incapable of carrying the load it would bring, obviously are not equal to the task.

State government's attention to these issues seems to have waned since "Smart Growth" proponent Gov. Parris Glendening left office. Meanwhile, the administration of County Executive James Robey and the County Councils that have served over his two terms have sat on their hands. Howard County has not implemented significant growth-control measures since the adequate facilities ordinance went into effect in 1992.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation: Road-building begets growth, which begets road-building, etc. But at whatever point in the cycle our elected officials can step in to slow it, they should do so. To let the current trend proceed unabated will have disastrous consequences for our quality of life and for the taxpayers who foot the bill for new schools, sewage treatment, refuse disposal, police protection and a host of other expenses that grow with the county's population.
Now I'm willing to give the Flier the benefit of the doubt--they're positions may be very nuanced and I may be missing some of the intricacies; indeed, the second editorial emphasizes a study that shows that Interstate 70 will need to be widened to accommodate traffic.

However, what I find most dishonest is the notion that the county has done too little to control growth. To be sure, the adequate facilities act was passed over a decade ago, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been effective. It also doesn't mean that other measures of growth control are not used. Indeed, the county vastly limits the supply of new residential construction through it's housing allocation chart, which is updated and approved in a public setting each year.

Some may say, and have said, that the county does too much to control growth. Exhibit A: Housing prices.

More important, though, is the need to understand that growth is not really something we can control, especially in its impact on our roads. Whether we like it or not, more people are going to move to our area, even if we keep them out of our county. And these people will find somewhere to live--if not here, than further west, where the land is cheap (relatively) and plentiful (also, relatively). Unfortunately, many of these people will still need to drive to or through our county; widened highways are inevitable.

A wiser approach than trying to stop an inherently exogenous problem would be to widen our perspective and approach it intelligently instead of reflexively, which was the goal of "Smart Growth," a concept that has been so tarred I'm amazed the Flier would even invoke it's name.

These things are hard, though, and require honesty to properly address. Living in a bubble is so much easier.

Budget busting

The purported $20 million budget surplus has mysteriously vanished before our eyes.

Though the local economy is humming, Howard County Executive James N. Robey said new revenue will barely cover inflationary costs for next year's budget, and he said he is not ready to consider tax cuts.

"We finished the previous year with a modest surplus. There are those who think there are oodles of money for their projects, but there isn't," Robey told a sparse crowd at his annual budget hearing Wednesday night in the George Howard Building.

The unappropriated surplus is $20.4 million, compared with less than $1 million the previous year. Robey has said $6 million of that is being used to bolster the county's Rainy Day Fund. Officials worry that the rest could be eaten away by a federally mandated accounting change that could force them to begin putting $400 million away for county employees' future retirement health benefits.

"We expect $43 million in new revenues, but built-in ... increases will cost $42 million. We're projecting a very small margin," Robey said.

I'm not terribly suprised, nor am I terribly upset. Unlike others, I'm not yet willing to say our economy is 100 percent back on track (and, no, I'm not blaming Bush). Robey's decision to proceed caustiously and conservatively strikes me as the best approach at this point. Things are looking up, but beneath us, the footing is still fragile.

Meanwhile, gubernatorial candidate Doug Duncan is pushing for tax cuts in Montgomery, a move that is based on politics more than anything else. Also, their situation is very different than ours.
Asked before the meeting about Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's proposal Tuesday night to cut property taxes there by 15 percent, Robey said he is not ready to follow suit. Montgomery, he noted, has a 10 percent assessment cap, compared with Howard's 5 percent, which means property tax revenue has been growing faster in Montgomery.
So, let's keep things in perspective for another year. If by that time we've built up some reserves and revenue has continued to increase, then let's talk about tax cuts.

No need to starve the beast when a diet will suffice.

I say sub shop, you say hot spot

A local late night eatery is getting an earful from some busy bodies at the Hickory Ridge Village Board.

Over the past three years, Howard County police have been called 143 times to the parking lot of Arirang Hill Cheese Steak Shop, in Hickory Ridge, for alleged crimes ranging from drug possession and thefts to disorderly conduct and assaults, according to police statistics.

Members of the Hickory Ridge Village Board say those numbers mean the shop's parking lot is a haven for criminals and that the store should be closed...

...(t)he board fired the first salvo in a Nov. 23 letter it wrote to the manager and owner of the Trellis Center in the 10700 block of Hickory Ridge Road, which houses the sub shop, complaining of crime in the shop's parking lot.

Board members wrote that the shop's 3 a.m. closing attracts young men to the lot late at night, leading to criminal activity. They asked the property's manager, David Shaffer, and its owner, Alperstein Investments of Potomac, to see that the shop be "shut down as soon as possible" or that "its contract should be allowed to expire and should not be renewed."

Okay, maybe it's unfair to call the village board members "busy bodies." After all, they're just trying to control crime in their neighborhood, which is understandable and the right thing to do.

But the heavy-handed approach they've decided to take--going so far as to call on the shopping center's owner to close the establishment--won't win them my support.

If there are problems with crime at this location, which apparently there are, the police should handle it; they should increase patrols, put some undercover officers on the scene, or something else along these lines.

And, maybe, the police department is already on top of this situation. Apparently, the 143 calls over three years--a number that certainly points to a problem--is a little misleading.
[The shop's owner Kovach] Sim pointed out that crime has gone down at the Trellis Center in recent years. He presented documents at the board meeting indicating that police were called to the center 110 times in 2001, but only 27 times so far this year.
Only 27 calls this year, eh? That means that there were 116 calls over the two previous years, 2003 and 2004, with an average of 58 calls per year. This, I would say, points to a downward trend.

I'm not supporting crime with this post, I'm opposing the abuse of power, in this case on the part of the village board, which I think has egregiously overstepped its role in calling for the closure of this shop. It should be working more closely with the police to develop crime prevention strategies (the article did not mention if the police department has a stance on this issue, nor did it mention if the village board has attempted to work through them).

At least their hearts are in the right place.

Time for some accountability

How about that snow, eh?

Although restraint has never been their strong suit, the local Weathermen seemed to keep this last storm into perspective, never really overstating things and, as you'll see, getting close to right.

We've all complained about how bad weather forecasts can be, but how bad are they really? No one seems to keep track of these things, except anecdotally (which doesn't pass muster in my camp--I need data).

Until now.

Welcome to the first installment of Hayduke's Weatherman Accountability feature. We'll run down the various predictions of the local "meterologists" and see how close they actually come to getting it right. I'll keep a running tally of the winner each week, and with any luck (and some good snow storms) we'll finally get some accountability in a field where it has long been lacking.

The predictions are from 11 pm on Thursday (before the snow started falling). I chose this time , basically, to give them the best chance of succeeding--and I figured this would be the last time most people paid attention to the weather; I, however, was busy monitoring it throughout the night at Hayduke's Weather Command Center.

Also, unless indicated, the predictions are for the Columbia area.

Baltimore Stations

  • WMAR-2 (ABC): 3” – 6” (provided by WeatherBug)
  • WBAL- 11 (NBC): 3” – 6” north of 95; 1" – 3" south of 95
  • WJZ -13 (CBS): 3” – 6”
  • WBFF-45 (Fox): 3” – 5” (provided by Accuweather)
Washington Stations
  • WRC-4 (NBC): 5” – 8”; 3"- 6" D.C. (see first map at the bottom)*
  • WTTG-5: 3” – 6”
  • WJLA-7: 3” – 6” (see second map at the bottom)*
  • WUSA-9: 1” – 4” Metro; 5” – 8” Frederick North;
National Forecasts
Accuweather: 3" - 5"
Weather Channel: 4" - 6"
National Weather Service: 4" - 6"

Now, how much did we actually get? Here's a hastily drawn map of the totals (hey, I'm a writer--it's the best I could do), and here's a link to the real one with cool little pop up windows.

As you can (maybe) see, Columbia's lawns Friday morning were covered with a little less than 3" of wet snow and sleet, which was the bottom limit of most predictions; admittedly, the sleet pushed down the accumulations, though almost all the Weathermen accounted for this. On the whole, though, pretty good.

But really, if we want to split hairs (and we do!), I'm saying most of these guys got it wrong. I say this in part because of a long standing grudge I have with them. See, they always hedge their bets on the high side, fearing that if something silly happens with one of these storms (it slows down, extra moisture comes in from the ocean/Gulf, whatever) it might drop more snow than expected. And if they, god forbid, underestimate a storm...well, I just can't let myself think about that. Unfortunately, the high predictions feed our mass hysteria over snow, which is past the point of lamentable and is instead just funny.

Anyway, I'm not letting them get away with such tactics this year. The map of totals above is pretty clean, by which I mean the "zones" of accumulations are well-defined and could have been predicted.

(Full disclosure: I'm totally just guessing on the "could have been predicted" stuff, though I'm guessing with common sense, which counts for something.)

The confidence intervals listed in the above forecasts don't match the zones very well; notably, Bob Ryan was pretty far off this time, not what you expect from a veteran like Bob. The only one with a "good" match, at least in my mind, was Topper and the Gang at WUSA-TV 9 in D.C. The prediction of 1 "- 4" metro was almost perfect and the 5" - 8" for Frederick and north wasn't bad.

Thus, after Storm 1**, Channel 9 is in the lead (this is sure to make Hayduke's friend, a Topper and Digital Doppler 9000 stalwart, a happy man). I'll give the rest a partial victory for skirting accuracy, except for Bob Ryan, who just didn't get it this time.

Feel free to debate your favorite forecaster's side in the comments.

*These are the only maps I could download online.
**I know this technically wasn't the first storm, but I just came up with the idea for this post last night. Plus, it's my blog and I can be arbitrary if I want.

UPDATE: Abbzug thinks the forecasters intentionally over-predict snowfall totals to drive up ratings for the local newscasts. I, however, respectfully disagree, thinking these fine men and women have more integrity than that.