Wednesday, January 25, 2006's a gas

Following up on previous “Follow the Money” stories, Larry Carson from the Sun has the low-down on who’s stuffing the county executive candidates’ coffers.

The two front-runners in this year’s race for Howard County executive got about a third of their contributions from builders and other development-related interests, campaign finance reports show, at a time when congestion caused by growth and development is shaping up as a major campaign issue.
I am shocked, shocked, I tell you! My indignation aside, isn’t “congestion caused by growth” a little too narrow to be a major campaign issue. Obviously, growth in general will be an issue, but the debate will likely encompass all of growth’s impacts -- schools, traffic, environment and infrastructure -- not just congestion, which is clearly just a subcategory of a major issue. But I'm arguing semantics. Back to the shocking details.
West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman received about 31 percent of his $161,700 in contributions over the past year from the industry, compared with about 34 percent of the $173,658 raised by fellow County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, a Sun review of the reports showed.
The story then goes on to give each candidate ample space to prove their growth-control bona fides. Despite Merdon’s entirely-motivated-by-politics opposition to the Comp Lite bill from last year, he and Ulman deserve equal credit/blame for development in this county. Furthermore, the fact that both have received a roughly similar percentage of contributions from developers provides nice balance.

All in all, it’s a wash.

Meanwhile, Harry Dunbar, the third announced candidate for county executive, has not taken any money from developers.

I’ll admit that all this money is a bit unseemly. But any attempt to keep developers and their deep pockets out of campaigns would be messy and probably unconstitutional; you can’t just arbitrarily restrict a certain group from participating in the process because you oppose their otherwise legal activities. Granted, candidates can make a statement and choose not to take the money (HA!).

But what if we restrict all groups from funding campaigns?
Common Cause Maryland’s new executive director, Bobbie Walton, said public financing of campaigns is her group’s solution.

“Realistically speaking, the most important function of local government is land-use decisions,” she said, noting that developers often have more money, and it may appear, more influence, than the average citizen.
As much as I’d like to see all campaigns publicly financed, that’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever gonna happen. The system is too entrenched (and long standing).

But what about the belief that builders have more influence than the average citizen? Not surprisingly, a builder has something to say about that.
“I expect to get good government” for contributions, said builder Harry J. “Chip” Lundy Jr. who organized $6,500 in family and corporate gifts to Merdon. For him, that means building the new classrooms and widening the roads needed to solve congestion problems. “Business leaders should participate more in the process,” Lundy said.
I don’t disagree with that last part, unless by participation he only means greasing the wheels, so to speak. What’s wrong with daylight?

Continuing after he probably should have stopped, Lundy adds this little gem:
“The anti-growth - or the public - is just as much of an interest group as the homebuilders. I’m interested in continuing my industry,” Lundy said.
Ah, the Developer’s Lament; it’s been so long since I’ve heard that melancholy song.
But, in this case, Mr. Hubris is actually right. We are the biggest interest group there is, and while as individuals we can’t match the financial prowess of the developers, collectively we can.

However, what’ s more important is that while money may buy some votes and it may help some politicians reach office, it is not (I hope) the sole determinant of elections.

Voters are. And in that respect, we're all equal.


hocoblog said...


Can you please expand on this comment?

"Despite Merdon's entirely-motivated-by-politics opposition to the Comp Lite bill from last year"

I don't see it that way and would appreciate another person's perspective.

Comp Lite was a mess. Apparantly voters agreed with Merdon since they decided to take it to the ballot in November.

Hayduke said...

I was hoping someone would question that...

From what I remember, there were a few highly contentious properties--notably, the one involving the Korean church in Ellicott City--included in the otherwise acceptable Comp Lite bill. These properties weren't enough to derail the whole bill, but they were enough to make a sizeable amount of people upset (many of whom live in Merdon's district).

Because the bill was, on the whole, worthy of passing and the four other councilman were clearly in support of it, Merdon was afforded the opportunity to vote against it without repurcussion. His vote wouldn't affect the outcome (and he knew this), just his political status as a guy who stands up for the people--never mind the people who's rightful claim to rezoning would have been negated had Merdon been successful, which he never really wanted to be in the first place.

So, under the cover of the other councilmen's decisions to do what was the proper thing to do, Merdon was able to do what was best for him politically.

Sure, Comp Lite may have been a mess, but lot's of things are messy while at the same time not wrong.

Of course, I may be reading too much into this. But the fact that all four councilmen voted for a controversial bill while he was able to vote against it without repercussion makes me question his sincerity.

hocoblog said...

Plausible and logical.

Given the voter referendum, which Merdon supported, I still have my doubts.

As the HO CO TIMES put it,

"... there's a scenario where the winner in all of this may just turn out to be residents of and around St. John's Lane in Ellicott City, who led the referendum petition drive. They contend that the late inclusion in Comp Lite of a rezoning request from the Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church illegally shut them out of the process. They marshaled the forces in similarly aggrieved enclaves to bring Comp Lite to the ballot box.

But the church expansion is by far the hottest political hot potato out of the Comp Lite oven, and if the church were to file a piecemeal application, it would then face the hearing process the neighbors say was all they wanted in the first place. Residents would have their day in court and their chance to at least influence what ultimately is built in their neighborhood...."

This also effected the Turf Valley proposals - to the delight of that community.

On Feb 5th (a full month before the Council voted on Comp Lite) Merdon said.

"They (the church) should've presented their plans to the community and they should've presented a traffic-mitigation plan," Merdon said.

"My hope is that once they have their meeting, they can come up with a compromise."

Merdon said he has not yet made up his mind on the rezoning request. "I'm generally supportive of churches wanting to expand, but I'm also sensitive to community concerns about traffic," he said.

As I recall, that was Merdon's position all along.

Hayduke said...

Being on the outside looking (through the lens of the local media, no less), it's hard for us to read the true intentions of politicians. For instance, Ulman, Guzzone, Rakes, and Feaga obviously didn't vote for Comp Lite just to annoy a bunch of residents, but one could likely make such an assertion, regardless of what platitudes these officials uttered.

Such confusion is why I'm not a big fan of politics in general--despite the fact that I spend a considerable amount of time writing about it. Instead of advocating for politicians I like to advocate for solutions. Unfortunately, solutions are controlled by politicians, sending me back to the start.

What to do?