Friday, March 31, 2006

Sorry for all the misfires

Sorry for all the misfires below. The pic never went through. Take my word for it, the beach was nice.

UPDATE: See I told you it was nice. Thanks to Howard County Blog #1 for believing me.


Beach! Ignore the obtrusive verizon ad below.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Headin' out...

The car is packed and the family restless. Gotta be really quick today.

First, I decided to repost my sarcastic, snarky take on last Saturday’s county executive forum, but you have to scroll down to see it. Please remember when reading it that, as much as I try to write seriously, posts like this are a reflection of my complete frustration with what passes for dialogue in politics. Our candidates are both incredibly smart guys. The fact that they seem unable to debate issues and policies is not only annoying, it’s upsetting. Come on, fellas, have some dignity.

Speaking of elections, the Flier’s on top of Columbia’s village elections, which are just a few weeks away. Included are a full list of candidates and discussions of the Wilde Lake and Harpers Choice races. Let’s hope candidates for the village board can actually talk about stuff that, you know, matters.

I’m glad to see that some letter writers had the same reaction to the Flier’s coverage of security threats at county office buildings. In case you didn’t read last week and don’t click the link, we all basically agree that Patuxent Publishing is over blowing things. But you gotta fill the space with something, right?

It may be pie in the sky, but a Metro stop in Town Center would be sweeeeeeet. Thanks to Liz Bobo for pushing to have the stop considered as part of a study of the feasibility of connecting the Green line to BWI. The study is going to cost $1 million. Just imagine what building the rail line will cost. One more really quick thought: There are already rail lines that run pretty far into Columbia, only now they serve as weed beds and speed bumps. Something should be done with them.

Have a great weekend!

Round Up: David Rakes Edition...

It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the goings on following the Rakes announcement. So, here’s you handy guidebook.

The Flier adds something new to the mix in this story. Apparently, health reasons weren’t the only factor in Rakes’ decision to step down. “Politics” played a role as well – hey just because it’s new information doesn’t mean it has to be surprising.

Also in the Flier is a list of Rakes’ “Eight Shining Moments” on the council. If these are his highlights, I’d hate to see the lowlights. No, the Flier didn't name really name it "Eight Shining Moments," but if you got the reference, I probably didn't need to explain that.

There’s no love lost between Howard County Blog #2’s Evan and David Rakes -- although the relationship is probably pertty one-sided. Evan blasts Rakes in this post, repeatedly calling him corrupt and wondering how councilman Chris Merdon can “embrace that corruption.” Evan’s rhetoric is a little over the top for me – Rakes is a bad, ineffective politician, not a corrupt one --but since, as he says in the post, he is a strong supporter of Calvin Ball, perhaps there is some left over resentment from the last election.

David Wissing does some research and reports that the Democrats won’t be able to get rid of Merdon as council chairman. I think he’s right. And I think the Democrats should be happy to have the majority and not do anything to make themselves look greedy or foolish – or something that may come back to bite them on the ass a few years from now.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Loose ends...

After tomorrow, I probably won't post again until Sunday. The Hayduke family needs a little break from everything, so we're heading to a friend's beach house for a few days. If the mood strikes me, I might send along a picture or two or a quick post via the Hayduke Personal Communicator, assuming I don't encounter the same problems I did last time I tried remote blogging.

Anyway, I noticed after I posted about the county executive forum/pissing match that Howard County Blog #1 asked some interesting and worthy questions about Ken Ulman's experience. I applaud his efforts to get the full story. He's asking for your help, so click the link. Go ahead, click it. You know you want to. If you have Firefox, I recommend clicking while holding down the Control key (or for those of you who have seen the light, click while holding the Command key).

Also via HCB1 comes word of a meeting about Doughoregan scheduled for Saturday, April 8 from 10 am to 4 pm at Slayton House in Wilde Lake. More info here.

As I said, I'll definitely have a post up tomorrow, and possibly something a little more lighthearted Friday and Saturday.

UPDATE: I took down a post that I wrote earlier. It was an attempt at humor, but I think it might have drifted too far into snarkville. I'll read it in the morning and see if it satisfies my exceedingly high standards.

More Rakes fallout...

Yesterday I brought up the complications the Howard County Democratic Central Committee may face in appointing a successor to District 2 councilman David Rakes, who just resigned for health reasons. Basically, my point is that since the central committee stays out of primaries, appointing a current candidate for the seat might run afoul of its policies. The Sun has more today.

Heading the list of those who could be appointed to serve out the rest of Rakes' term is Calvin Ball, a 30-year old Democrat who lost the party nomination for the District 2 seat to Rakes four years ago. Ball and one other Democrat, former Sun reporter Adam Sachs, 42, are running for the District 2 seat.

...Ball said he is interested in the appointment, and he said it could "provide continuity to the next council." County party Chairman Tony McGuffin said, "We're going to follow the rules," but he added that Ball is "very popular. He's obviously the front-runner in the campaign."

Sounds like they're setting the table for a Ball appointment, no? It's good to see McGuffin at least throw rules-sticklers like me a bone, but we'll have to wait and see what the ultimate decision is and what justifications are used to support it.

My rules obsession aside, the bigger issue is obviously how this affects the council. With David Rakes' help, the Republicans seized control a few months ago and votes started going their way. However, now that Rakes is gone, so is his reliable vote. Here's what Sun reporter Larry Carson had to say:

Rakes' support was crucial in [councilman Chris] Merdon's December selection as chairman, and Rakes also provided key support for the Republicans in defeating County Executive James N. Robey's proposal for a smoking ban in all county bars and restaurants after two years. A Merdon-backed bill with a four-year enforcement delay was vetoed by an angry Robey.

If Ball or another anti-smoking Democrat is selected to fill out the term, Robey could resubmit his smoking-ban bill, though neither the executive nor Ball would speculate on that yesterday.

The resignation also weakens Merdon's hand in coming deliberations on Robey's last annual budget, starting next month. Robey, a Democrat, has proposed a 3-cent property tax cut, while Merdon favors cutting the local income tax.

I can't imagine there is any way the Democrats will appoint somebody who will not strictly adhere to the party's wishes, which almost certainly means voting with councilmen Ken Ulman and Guy Guzzone on everything. Merdon can't be happy about this.

Further down, the article gets into the muddy territory of why Rakes really left.

But several Republicans speculated that tension with fellow Democrats is why Rakes is leaving.

"My own personal observance is that the administration and his colleagues made life a living hell for him while he was here," said western county Republican Charles C. Feaga. "I have never observed someone so hurt as he was in the State of the County address. I thought they really went after him badly."

...Brian Harlin, chairman of the county Republicans and Rakes' opponent in 2002, focused his ire at west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, who is Merdon's rival this year for county executive.

"I think it's absurd the way Ulman treated Rakes," Harlin said, referring to comments Ulman made last summer after Rakes reversed course and opposed a housing bill he had supported. Ulman said at that time that Rakes did not understand the bill and that "his constituents should be embarrassed for him."

"He can't take it anymore," Harlin said of Rakes. He said the Democrats' credo is, "If you don't do what the Democratic Party tells you, we'll get rid of you."

I don't share the Republican's feigned sympthathy for David Rakes the Politician. I, however, have no doubt that we share honest sympathy for David Rakes the Individual.

But the point is Rakes was making decisions that ran counter to promises he made in his campaign and the desires of his constituents. Further, he barely escaped ethics violations and ran into trouble with the state Board of Elections. And Ulman called him out, as he should.

Nobody ever said politics is friendly.

Politics, shmolitics: Weekday Edition...

Usually the overtly political stories are saved for the Sunday paper, but, I guess, since the event described in this story happened on a Saturday and the juicy political bickering was rampant, the Sun decided to go with it today. Good for me! And you, if you're into this kind of stuff.

Here's the set up:

During a two-hour forum Saturday at St. John Baptist Church, sponsored by the African-Americans in Howard County Political Action Committee, the predictable answers to policy questions were sprinkled with sharp criticisms, with County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a two-term Republican, taking the offense against Democrat Ken Ulman, who fired back. Harry M. Dunbar, a Democrat running a slow-growth campaign, criticized the County Council and the Robey administration for allowing what he calls "uncontrolled growth."
But...there's nothing juicy in there, you say. You're right. It's just the set up. Here's where it gets good.

Merdon, 35, criticized Ulman, 31, a one-term councilman, for inexperience, contrasted with Merdon's two council terms and his job in private industry, which he said involves supervising 100 people.

"What was the largest number of people who report directly to you?" he asked Ulman. Merdon, a vice president at Affiliated Computer Services, said Ulman, an elder-law attorney in Columbia, supervises one person.

Ouch. Merdon's opening salvo gets Ulman right where it matters: executive leadership. Hmm, I wonder how he felt about another lawyer/legislator taking control of the entire state government after having supervised but a small congressional office or two. Probably didn't concern him then, but consistency isn't the point; this is politics, people!

Ulman shot back at Merdon that "in fact, you're a lobbyist."

Ooooooh. Putting your opponent in the same group as Jack Abramoff. Always a good snippy retort.
A question from a Republican in the audience about government failures after Hurricane Katrina and other disasters prompted another biting exchange about experienced leadership.

"You don't want someone fresh out of law school, with very little experience," in charge of public safety, Merdon said of Ulman -- especially with a new County Council and executive taking office in December.

Again with the experience thing. Four more years as a councilman does not, at least in my book, constitute a major difference in experience. But, I'm open to the idea that the period from 1998 to 2002 was a time of dramatic change and upheaval in Howard County, one where boys were forged into men in the fires of the George Howard Building, while between 2002 and 2006 things went perfectly smoothly.
Earlier, Merdon told the African-American group that Democrats have not appointed blacks to high-ranking jobs in the Robey administration.

"Have they done it? No," he said, accusing County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, of promising to appoint blacks but not following through, except for special assistant Herman Charity, who was in the audience.

...Later, Charity said Robey has several African-Americans in high appointed positions, including the county's housing director, a deputy administrative officer, and the assistant budget administrator. The local social services director, chosen by state and county officials, is also African-American.
Maybe there's a magic quota for the amount of diversity one has to have on their staff that only Merdon knows about. It certainly seems like Robey does have high-ranking African Americans in his adminstration. Details, details, they only get in the way of baseless political attacks.

When the candidates got a chance to ask each other a question, Ulman asked Merdon if he has changed his mind about a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Merdon opposed a bill sponsored by Robey and Ulman calling for a total ban in two years. He later favored a ban with a four-year enforcement delay that Ulman opposed and Robey vetoed.

Merdon said he has not changed his mind, but he accused Ulman of voting to sustain Robey's veto purely to exploit the issue for political purposes.

How about saying you were both acting like political sourpusses over the smoking ban? After all, that's the truth.

I suppose I could have taken this article a little more seriously, but the whole thing reads like a playground tiff, which is pretty sad when you think about it. They are both grown men. Perhaps they should start acting like it.

Is that asking too much?


News Round Up...

No time for silly introductions -- there's too much to cover today...

From the Something's Better Than Nothing Department: The vacant grocery store on Route 40 has a new tenant: CarMax. The building, which was built six years ago but never occupied, will likely face the wrecking ball, as car dealerships generally have different space requirements than grocery store. Councilman Chris Merdon wanted to see "restaurants and high-end retailers" on the site. Does he realize this is Route 40 we're talking about? It's not exactly prime real estate for Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn. As I said, something's better than nothing.

More confusion over the Belmont "arrangement": Howard County Blog #1 has a post by an anonymous correspondent (there's more than one of us?) regarding the Belmont development deal. According to the post, developer Chip Lundy's involvement in the deal was well known publicly and "the only place (college president Mary Ellen Duncan) implied it was a "gift" was in front of the Delegation." Although the deal was public information, the specifics were never released, at least until the Sun got a copy of the contract last week. I agree with HCB1's correspondent, however, that the deal, regardless of whether the parties were up front about it, is "sticky." More from the Sun here.

GGP names replacement: Following news yesterday that General Growth vice president Dennis Miller is stepping down, the Sun today reports that a replacement has been named. Former Rouse Company senior vice president Douglas M. Godine will fill Miller's shoes, which should assuage some fears that GGP would bring in somebody who knew absolutely nothing about Columbia. Godine worked for Rouse for 20 years overseeing the company's "leasing, marketing and land sales in Columbia from 1961 to 1978." At least he's got history here. We'll have to wait to pass judgment, however.

Merriweather snags a big one
: Specifically, the HFStival. It's kind of fitting that WHFS, a station that was left for dead last year but has since been born again, is hosting its biggest concert -- indeed, one of the biggest productions in the mid-Atlantic -- at Merriweather Post, which was also once considered dead but has likewise recovered.

Three new parks in Howard County: Good news. Nothing to add.

From the That's Surprising Department: The Howard County Association of Realtors released a study showing that the real estate industry makes significant contributions to the county's economy. In other news, local blogger Hayduke released a study showing that he's always right.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Another resignation story...

On the heels of David Rakes' announcement, comes news, via the Business Monthly's weekly email update (no link to story), that General Growth's vice president in charge of Columbia, Dennis Miller, is stepping down.

Miller, who joined the then-Rouse Co. six years ago, was heavily involved in the recent charrette that was held in Columbia Town Center and was one of the last remaining Rouse connections to the company from when it was sold to GGP 18 months ago.

He said he plans to “take advantage of the opportunity to travel a bit and spend time with my family while I look for the next opportunity,” which he intends to find in the commercial real estate industry.
Miller was often villified by activists for basically doing his job, which was (obviously) to make as much money as possible for General Growth and its shareholders. To be sure, he probably could have done a better job reaching out to the community, which may have resulted in more profits faster, but that's water under the bridge at this point.

What this means for the Town Center master plan, I can't say. My hope is that General Growth promotes someone who is already involved with Columbia, someone who knows the situation and its players well.

And the remnants of The Rouse Company drift further into oblivion.

A round of applause is certainly in order for the Business Monthly, a publication that, unlike Patuxent Publishing, has found a way to "break" news without relying soley on dead trees. Bravo!

Sign up for BizWeekly emails here.

Rakes out...

David Rakes yesterday announced that he is stepping down from the council, effective this Friday, for health reasons. I was not a big fan of Rakes, but my politics doesn’t supersede my humanity. Rakes has obviously devoted a lot of energy and time to this community and I wish him nothing but good health and (finally) some relaxation.

But you don’t come here to read about the retired life of politicians. What are the political implications of Rakes’ decision?

The Democrats must name a successor for Rakes by April 25. Two weeks ago, the obvious choice would have been Calvin Ball, who finished second to Rakes in the primary four years ago, has been an active player in the district for a while, and was the only Democrat officially running for the position. However, with the recent entry of another Democrat into the race, Adam Sachs, things get a little tricky.

It is the policy of the county central committee to stay out of primaries, supporting all party candidates equally. And because incumbency – however short the term – is always a benefit in elections, especially primaries, wouldn’t selecting Ball to replace Rakes represent de facto support of one candidate over another? I say it would, and in that case, I would also say the central committee is betraying one of its own, which is not a fair way to operate.

Although I’m not terribly concerned with what policies the central committee abides by, I am concerned that they actually abide by the policies that are in effect.

Does that make sense? Basically, I don’t so much care what the rules are – just that they are consistently followed. Better?

It is too early for me to take sides in any county race, so don’t try to twist my words into a pro-Sachs position. Like the central committee, I’m trying to treat all candidates equally at this point, but, depending on their actions over the next few weeks, we’ll see how hard the central committee is actually trying.

If it is not fair and against policy for the central committee to appoint Ball to Rakes’ seat, the next logical question is: Who? That I don’t know.

Ideally, the person should be committed to the district, have no interest in serving past December, and, I suppose, should have some understanding county government. What about the longtime but now former councilman, Vernon Gray? I’m not sure if he is still around (I think so) or if he has any desire, but it’s certainly worth a phone call. Other potential replacements might be Columbia councilwoman Barbara Russell, Oakland Mills village board chair Bill Woodcock, or somebody else that I don’t know – perhaps from Jessup or Long Reach.

Any other suggestions?

The one thing you could always say about Rakes was that he kept things interesting right up to this resignation. I don’t know if we will ever have someone like him on the council again, but a content-starved blogger can hope.

(Again, David Wissing beat me to the punch on this.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

In Belmont we trust...

The pitfalls of blogging are numerous and unavoidable, but the biggest has to be the propensity to overreact to stories.

Freed from the constraints of objectivity, bloggers can say whatever they want about pretty much anything. And since blogging is usually a real time activity – that is, posts are written as an immediate response to a particular stimulus (news story) – many thoughts are not run through mental or emotional filters. Immediacy can make things more exciting/interesting to read, but it often raises the tone to the point where reasoned thoughts, positions, and arguments are drowned out by the screaming.

To avoid coming off as a reactionary, I usually read the news in the morning, contemplate what I’m going to write during the day, and write with a clearer, more grounded mind when I get home from work. (Sometimes, however, the fire is still burning when I write.)

If the fear of overreacting is strong, the fear of under reacting is nonexistent. But maybe it shouldn’t be.

After rereading yesterday’s post about Belmont, I think I’m guilty of underplaying what is in reality a very disturbing story. For those of you too “busy” to read the background, here are the Cliffs Notes: Developer Harry “Chip” Lundy gave Howard Community College’s foundation $1 million to help it buy the Belmont Conference Center. In exchange for his generous “gift,” Lundy signed a secret, written agreement with the foundation that called for the development of senior housing on the property. Although the college mentioned senior housing as a possibility in the beginning, there was no mention of any agreement with Lundy. And, indeed, just last month college president Mary Ellen Duncan lied about the nature of Lundy’s “gift.”

Now here’s what I said yesterday.

Although the county is working on a plan to buy the estate from the college, which would eliminate the possibility of further development on the plan, HCC's standing in the community will surely take a hit. Poorly handling the public relations component of it's Belmont plan was one thing, but entering into a secret agreement with a developer -- while publicly maintaining such an agreement didn't exist -- is borderline inexcusable, especially in these times when the perception that developers can get whatever they want by putting money in the right pockets.
Borderline inexcusable? It was borderline inexcusable for me to let them get off such soft language.

It was borderline inexcusable that the college foundation entered into the agreement with Lundy.

It was inexcusable that they failed to disclose this fact to the public from the beginning, even as residents clamored for information and lobbed charges to that effect at the foundation.

It was beyond inexcusable to lie about this when asked by Howard County’s General Assembly delegation last month.

But I’m not concerned about the impact this will have on HCC, which is a tremendous community asset (remember, a college is much more than it’s president, who I think is deserving of denunciation for her handling of this entire situation). I’m also not concerned about Lundy because as a developer, he is already loathed by and makes more money than 90 percent of Howard residents; this won’t really change things for him. I am finally not concerned about how this will affect Belmont itself, as the county is poised to purchase and preserve it anyway.

What I’m concerned about is how this situation will affect the growing perception that secret agreements, between developers and public officials, whether implicit or explicit, are commonplace.

I try to take things at face value. I try to believe that our leaders are doing what they honestly think is best for us and our county – what we elected them to do – and that what they tell us is truthful. I try to believe that developers play by the same rules we do and that they have a long term interest in seeing this county prosper. I try to believe that votes, the will of the people, are more important to electoral success than money.

Then I read a story like this.

Howard County Blog #1 has some thoughts on this as well.

Late to the party...again!

I can't catch a break.

Sitting at my computer this morning, I stumbled upon a new Washington Post blog, County Connections, which will be a home for short dispatches from Post reporters on the happenings in local counties, including Howard. Not wanting to upset the blogging schedule of reading in the morning and posting at night, I decided to wait.

Alas, I waited too long. Like David Wissing, I'm skeptical about the amount of coverage Howard County will receive on this blog, but I am happy to see the Post making better use of the internet and blogs to convey information.

As much as I like to gripe about the lack of attention we get from the Post and the Sun, I don't disagree with their decisions to devote more resources (read: reporters) to other areas. From a business standpoint, they have to cater to their customers, who for the Post live primarily in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties and for the Sun live in Baltimore City and County.

Our geography -- directly between Baltimore and DC -- is usually touted as a benefit. But with respect to coverage by the city news organization, it is definitely not a benefit. We do not belong to a single metropolitan area -- if such distinctions can even still be made -- and thus don't receive the full attention of a single metropolitan news source.

But, whatever, that's why we have blogs.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Politics, shmolitics: Calling all Candidates...

I absolutely love it when shoo-ins for reelection have to face a little competition. You know, just to make them work a little and, more importantly, keep them honest. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to read this.

West Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, and Republican state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman cruised to re-election four years ago, so secure in their respective party strongholds that no one bothered to challenge them.

Things have changed.

Despite her cozy single-member District 12B, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, Bobo has an opponent this year: Chris Feldwick, 34, a Clary's Forest resident and first-time candidate who manages a jewelry store at The Mall in Columbia.

...In the western Howard and southern Carroll County district in which Allan H. Kittleman is filling the term of his father, who died in 2004, voter registration isn't so lopsided. About 45 percent of the voters in District 9 are Republicans, and they have a 6,000-voter edge over the district's Democrats.

But Rich Corkran, 59, of Ellicott City, a 37-year teacher now at Hammond High School, said he is planning to challenge Kittleman, a former county councilman who was appointed to the term after Robert Kittleman's death.

Of course, Bobo and Kittleman are still going to win, though both did seem to welcome the challenge.

In other Shmolitical news, one of the Republican candidates for county council in District 2 has dropped out.

Republican Patrick P. Black has withdrawn from the race to run for the party central committee after meeting with county party Chairman Brian Harlin and others, he said.

"I am giving my support to the other candidate," he said. "She's been in the community a lot longer and has the support of the community."

That's the kind of party discipline we know, love, and expect from Republicans. Although a Republican has about as much of a chance of winning in that district as the Terps do of winning the NCAA basketball championship this year, there decision to run the candidate who has lived in the county longer is the right one.

And finally, Councilman Chris Merdon has dropped his quest to have a separate website for the county council. You may remember (or not) that Merdon felt Robey was using the website for his own political purposes, while the council's cyber-voice was being silenced.

David Wissing, who got up earlier this morning than me, already covered the issue to the extent that it needs to be (which is to say, not much).

Anyway, I went again this morning to the (county web) site and right now they have tabs at the top of the County Government homepage with both the County Executive and County Council having equal footing. It takes two clicks from the front page to go to the County Executive and Two clicks to go to the County Council. Hopefully that makes everyone happy and we can stop complaining about the County Government website…

Yes, we can stop complaining about the website, but I'm sure, just around the bend, there is something equally insignificant for use to whine about.

Earlier in the post, Wissing asks who actually goes to the county website. Well, I do, quite frequently. I go there for all sorts of reasons, but mostly to look up information for this blog. However, my favorite feature is the mapping section, where you can easily create all sorts of interactive, information-rich maps; it's a great way to waste a couple hours and learn a few things while you're doing it.

Trust who?

Things just got a little worse for Howard Community College this week.

In the long battle over the historic Belmont estate in Elkridge, the element of trust, or the lack of it, has been a major issue for community members opposing Howard Community College's plans for the property.

They got more fuel for their suspicions last week.

Despite previous assertions by college President Mary Ellen Duncan that builder Harry L. "Chip" Lundy contributed $1 million to the deal as a gift, Duncan and Lundy said this week it actually was part of a written agreement to develop senior housing at the 18th-century estate.

Duncan testified before the county's General Assembly delegation Feb. 8 that Lundy, a former college board member, gave the $1 million freely as a gift, with no strings attached, and had not asked for his money back.

Although the county is working on a plan to buy the estate from the college, which would eliminate the possibility of further development on the plan, HCC's standing in the community will surely take a hit. Poorly handling the public relations component of it's Belmont plan was one thing, but entering into a secret agreement with a developer -- while publicly maintaining such an agreement didn't exist -- is borderline inexcusable, especially in these times when the perception that developers can get whatever they want by putting money in the right pockets.

Rightly or wrongly, Duncan is likely to be the target of most of the criticism. Indeed, some elected officials have already made statements condemning the college's actions.

"I was less than charmed that we were misled," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican. "I was not happy. I have been a supporter [of the college], and I went to bat for them on this issue, and it doesn't make me feel good that I was misled."

Bates criticized the Robey plan to buy Belmont as being "more a reaction than a plan."

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller also was unhappy with Duncan.

"I am irritated that we had the hearing down here, and she misrepresented what was going on," he said. "I can see why the people were agitated."

"It's very troubling," added Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat.

(You have to love Bates -- no situation is beyond party politics for her.)

I don't know what, if any, the actual repercussions of this revelation will be. If the story has legs, as they say, it could turn into more than just egg on the face for the college.

Meanwhile, opponents of HCC's Belmont plan, at least, have the right perspective on this.
Cathy Hudson, president of the Save Belmont Coalition, said she would rather move forward and not dwell on the past.

"I don't understand why they kept it hidden," she said of the development plans.

Friday, March 24, 2006

I can't resist...

Following up on yesterday's post, I guess we now know who's the wheat and who's the chaff.

I look forward to seeing JJ back on the Duke bench in a few years in Coach K's cadre of assistants (after his failed attempt at pro ball).

If you're really bored tonight (or just looking for cheap laughs), you can read some of JJ's poetry here.

Imaginary tradeoffs...

A column by Doug Miller in the Flier this week questions the costs of trying to preserve Doughoregan Manor.

However, there has to be a point at which we say that the price of preservation outweighs the benefits. We've all enjoyed visits to historic places, let their ghosts wriggle inside us and imagined ourselves in another time. Those field trips do connect us to the past as nothing else can.

But while we should never lose sight of history, neither should we let our link to it override concrete needs of today and tomorrow.

In addition to the $24 million county officials propose to pay for the development rights to Doughoregan, the deal would also cost the county several thousand dollars each year in property taxes lost to a credit that comes with agricultural-preservation status.

How many new classrooms, how many road repairs, how many sewer-system renovations will we postpone to make this deal happen?

Good points. Too bad the tradeoffs he mentions aren't relevant.

Howard County and the state have specific pools of money -- with dedicated sources of funding -- set aside specifically for agricultural preservation and land acquisition. Classrooms, roads, sewers and such are paid for with bonds or other dedicated sources. We're not sacrificing these necessary items by paying more for the development rights at Doughoregan.

He is right that we would be losing "several thousand" in property taxes if Doughoregan enters our agricultural preservation program. If that's really a concern, however, letting the Carrolls develop the property would be the best solution for the county, as it would be a major tax revenue boost. But that's just silly. With a $1 billion budget, several thousand could fall out of the county's pocket and we wouldn't notice.

By spending so much on Doughoregan, we might be sacrificing the ability to preserve other parcels of land, but are there other parcels that are anywhere near as worthy as this? I would say no. Also worth considering is the fact that our agricultural preservation program hasn't had any takers since 2002. With apologies to Syd Thrift, it's almost like we're offering landowners confederate money at this point.

Finally, Miller has valid concerns about the lack of public access to the site, especially given it's historical value to the county -- and nation for that matter. But do we require other owners of preserved land to invite the neighbors over for a tour of the house and grounds? I'm pretty sure the answer is no. So, why should we treat the Carrolls any different? After all, even though Doughoregan might be the catalyst for changes to the county's agricultural preservation program, the changes will apply to all landowners equally.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thursday Round Up: Sweet Sixteen Edition

That's right, kiddies. Now is the time in college basketball when we separate the wheat from the chaff, whatever that means. Though I am not yet entirely out of my tournament pools, I, like the Orioles and the playoffs this year, probably shouldn't invest too much hope into something that is only "mathematically feasible."

So, what are we rounding up today? Let's start off with some good news.

Howard County is lucky to have some dedicated individuals looking out for the safety and welfare of everyone, such as Karen Dausch, a local paramedic. A couple weeks ago, Dausch witnessed a single car accident while driving home to Lincoln, Del. (That's right, she works in Howard County and lives in Delaware -- I hope she has satellite radio). Anyway, the car came to rest upside down in a pond of waste deep water, and Dausch, acting on instinct and training, jumped out of her car, pried open the stuck door with a crowbar, and pulled the driver to safety. The driver was flown to shock trauma but is expected to make a full recovery, no doubt in large part because of Dausch's heroic actions.

Speaking of public safety, the Flier this week has taken a strong interest in the security of our government buildings. A long story and some accompanying pieces describe the security measures in place at the county's main office building in Ellicott City. These measures include...well, during night meetings there's an unarmed guard who sits by the door. And, that's about it.

Personally, I don't think security at the George Howard building is really that big of a concern -- it is, after all, right next door to the police station. Nonetheless, a slow news week means it will be talked about -- at least until something else happens. While the Flier may have misgivings about the lack of metal detectors and armed guards, our elected officials don't seem too concerned.

"I'm very satisfied with the level of security here," County Council chairman Christopher Merdon said during an interview in his council office, on the first floor of the Howard Building.

"I don't support any additional security measures," added Merdon, a Republican from Ellicott City, who is running for county executive this year.

County Councilman Kenneth Ulman, a Democrat from west Columbia, agreed.

"I've never felt uncomfortable here. I've never felt unsafe," Ulman said this week, shortly before an evening meeting in the building.

Since Merdon and Ulman are two likely targets of any security threat -- whereas the Flier's editorial board is probably safe in their offices -- I was initially inclined to agree with them. But, after reading this quote, I'm definitely on their side.

Merdon said he prefers to keep the Howard building as open as possible to citizens.

"I'm confident we can handle any situation during a meeting," he said.

Take heed would-be security threats. If you mess with the peaceful proceedings of our county government, you run the risk of having your situation handled by Mr. Merdon and the League of Legislators, and I think we all know what he means by "handle." Mild-mannered councilmen by day, ass-kicking, vigilante councilmen by night.

To you, my good sirs, I say: YEEHAW!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Mixed news for low-income housing...

First, the bad: A program that helps low-income families avoid eviction is almost broke.

As Howard County readies plans for a new homeless shelter and the third church-based winter shelter program ends, anti-poverty officials say they are running out of emergency housing funds.

James B. Smith, director of the quasi-governmental Community Action Council, said his agency spent all $138,410 allotted for eviction prevention and nearly all of another $13,488 from private donations intended to help the working poor survive unanticipated bills that could result in eviction.

The agency received an additional $20,000 from the Howard County government and the Horizon Foundation several weeks ago, but Smith said that likely will run out before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Getting additional money probably won't be a problem -- at least it shouldn't be. With budgetary surpluses and the relatively low level of funding required to keep this program solvent, I'm sure we can scrounge together a few thousands dollars to provide this obviously necessary service for the next few months.

But that's not the problem. The problem is this program's popularity. The fact that it is out of money speaks to how much these emergency grants are really needed, and how much this need is growing. Fortunately, the county is expanding it's homeless shelter, but with increases in the cost of living vastly outpacing wage growth, this year's funding shortfall is likely to be repeated again in coming years.

Now, the good news.
To help lower-income working families, construction is starting on an $11 million, 84-unit apartment complex off U.S. 1 in Elkridge - the first new, subsidized units in the county in years.

Called Port Capital Village, the eight-building complex will offer two- and three-bedroom units for rents ranging from $528 to $975 a month, based on income. The units are intended for families earning between $20,000 and $45,000 a year.

Although this project will create more affordable housing opportunities, the overall impact it will have on the increasingly difficult situation is minimal, especially considering these are the first new units built in several years.

Because it is impossible for me to give unconditional praise to anything, I'd rather see affordable housing integrated in larger, mixed income communities/developments, instead of concentrating them in certain areas. Many residents of the Route 1 corridor see themselves -- rightly or wrongly -- as having to bear the brunt of our affordable housing development. The last thing we need to do is foster stigmas for particular ZIP Codes.

Finally, I want to thank Sun reporter Larry Carson (or his editors) for all of his writing on low-income housing. Both of the stories I linked to today were written by Carson, and though I know this is probably his beat anyway, the amount of coverage he gives to this issue is a real benefit to advocates as it keeps affordable housing on the minds of those who don't care as much, which is one way to perhaps make them care more.

Buying Belmont...

It looks like Howard Community College's attempt to turn the Belmont Conference center into something of a satellite campus is just about kaput

Howard County Executive James N. Robey is moving to take over Belmont, the historic Elkridge estate that has become a hotly contested issue between nearby residents and Howard Community College.

The move comes after months of contention over management by the college of the 68-acre, 18th-century property and increasing pressure from nearby residents and preservationists to remove the property from the college's control.

Robey spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said the executive will use money for parkland acquisition in his forthcoming capital budget to buy Belmont, and transfer control of $2 million planned for renovation of the barn and carriage house to county recreation and parks officials.

"It is incumbent upon us to find an acceptable way to both preserve the integrity of the estate and further incorporate this valuable resource into the fabric of our community," Robey said in a statement.

Neighbors and preservationists are no doubt happy with the news. And HCC should be, as well. After having bungled the public relations aspects, the situation for HCC was becoming untenable. This gives it an easy out and the rest of us some assurance that the property will maintain its historic and natural qualities.

We hardly knew ya...

It's the end of the line for the Lake Elkhorn Festival, which is unfortunate. Activities like this helped turn Columbia into an actual community. Festivals, parades, city birthday parties are all part of our (brief) history and serve to remind us of the spirit and energy of the "pioneers."

Though there are plans for something to take the festival's place, it just won't be the same.

Your last chance to attend the festival will be on September 16, 2006 -- unless, of course, it rains, which may be a cruelly fitting end for the institution.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A long way to go...

I'm going to try my best to keep this post reasonable in length, but, as I'm just sitting down to write it, I make no promises.

As you probably don't know, there's been an ongoing legal battle in Baltimore over where to relocate thousands of the city's public housing residents, almost all of whom live near or below the poverty line. It all began 11 years ago with a class action lawsuit that "charged that the city and the federal government had failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing they set up in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby relegating public housing tenets to the city's most distressed neighborhoods."

Last January, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development "violated federal fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to provide opportunities for black public housing families to live outside poor, segregated city neighborhoods." Which brings us to the present.

Lawyers for Baltimore public housing residents are asking a federal judge to order the creation of 3,000 new low-income housing units and an additional 3,750 housing vouchers, mostly in well-off suburban neighborhoods with good schools and access to jobs.

The request comes 14 months after the judge found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of city public housing.

It asks the federal agency to provide tenants with 675 new "housing opportunities a year over the next decade to reduce the effects of decades of discriminatory actions."

Whether the judge accepts the proposal or crafts his own solution to the discrimination he has found, the case highlights one of the Baltimore region's most vexing and contentious issues - how to dilute the concentration of poverty in the city.
There is no doubt that poverty breeds poverty, and housing alone is not enough. Although I am a strong support of working for positive neighborhood change, the reality is that it takes many years, generations even, before the cycle can be broken. In the meantime, we must ask ourselves if it is best to leave families in distressed neighborhoods or provide them a relatively easy exit to somewhere else, somewhere where opportunities are greater. On the one hand, you need residents to bring about change, but on the other, you risk sacrificing the futures of many waiting for changes that may not come. There is no easy answer, but certainly those who want a change -- but need help doing so -- should be given that chance.

However, they often don't get that chance because of policies like HUD's and Baltimore's that essentially force these families to stay put. And the argument for this institutionalized segregation is always the same -- there's nowhere else for them to go.

The proposed order is drawing opposition and skepticism from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and some suburban leaders, and it is being vigorously contested by lawyers for HUD, who say it is "entirely uncalled for" and "simply not practical."

..."We want to be as clear as possible that we don't consider those neighborhoods to be communities of opportunity where these families should live," said Andrew W. Freeman, a private civil rights lawyer who is working on the case with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We want them to move to places that can make a huge difference to these families and no noticeable difference to the neighborhoods where they live."

Nonetheless, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith is concerned about the effects of a judicial mandate.

"Moving poverty from one jurisdiction to another simply makes no sense," Smith said in a statement.

"It has already proven to be failed public policy, and I am not sure why we would revisit that issue. Although Baltimore County is not part of this lawsuit, we will be ready to fight any program that negatively impacts families in Baltimore County."

O'Malley denounced what he called the "old bigotry that the city is by its nature a bad place."

"I think the ACLU would serve their clients and the cause of justice and fairness better if they directed their energies toward creating work force housing inside the city ... rather than pushing our people into the suburbs," O'Malley said.
Wow. Where to start? How about O'Malley's point about creating work force housing inside the city. Yes, there are more housing options for people of all incomes inside the city. Nobody's contesting that. But decent housing and safe neighborhoods hard to find if you are living in poverty (the current poverty rate for a family of four is less than $20,000). And many of these families clearly want a fresh start somewhere else. They want more employment opportunities. They want better schools. They want safer streets. And they know they often can't find all that they are looking for in the city. Which is precisely why we have housing assistance programs that allow for mobility, that allow them more choices for where they want to live.

But do these choices matter? According to housing expert James Smith (he is the Baltimore County Executive in his spare time), no. Do families benefit from moving out of poverty-stricken neighborhoods and into the suburbs? Let's see what a real expert has to say.
Results of the Gautreaux program show that residential integration can further the aims of improving employment, education, and social integration of low-income blacks. The suburban move greatly improved adults' employment rates, and many adults got jobs for the first time in their lives. The suburban move also improved youth's education and employment prospects. Compared with city movers, the children who moved to the suburbs are more likely to be (1) in school, (2) in college-track classes, (3) in four-year colleges, (4) in jobs, and (5) in jobs with benefits and better pay. The suburban move also led to social integration, friendships, and interaction with white neighbors in the suburbs.
That is from Changing the Geography of Opportunity by Expanding Residential Choice: Lessons from the Gautreaux Program by James E. Rosenbaum, a study of an almost identical situation 30 years ago in Chicago.

Now that we've settled the debate over whether families actually benefit from dispersion, what other "issues" do officials from the communities opportunities have with accepting public housing families? Here's what our head honcho had to say.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey "would be comfortable welcoming individuals for a program set up that way," said spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. But she added that the county's high cost of housing "does not make it practical for the program here."
Since it's a federally funded program, cost shouldn't be much of a factor. After all, our federal budget is pushing $1 trillion, surely there's enough in there to subsidize rents for a few thousand families who have been subjected to federally sanctioned discrimination, right?
But in court papers filed Friday, lawyers for HUD said the proposal would impermissibly interfere with the agency's discretion over its programs and improperly force it to threaten a cut-off of funds to suburban jurisdictions that have been found to violate any laws.

HUD's lawyers also contend the court cannot order the agency to spend additional money that would be needed to create the housing called for in the proposed remedy.

"While plaintiffs do not acknowledge this point, their proposed remedy would clearly require enormous sums of money to implement," they wrote.
This is the biggest load of BS I've read today -- and I read a lot of BS on daily basis. Of course it's going to cost money. The federal government actively discriminated against thousands of its own citizens, which is, among other things, illegal. Making things right isn't going to happen for free.

There's a final wrinkle in this case that is worth looking at. In the past, plaintiffs in similar cases have reached agreements with HUD for appropriate remedies. Negotiating, however, is a thing of the past (administration).
Florence Roisman, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law who specializes in the study of housing discrimination, said HUD's stance in these cases has changed over the past several years.

"In the Clinton administration, HUD was settling these cases," she said. "HUD acknowledged it had acted unlawfully and did things to relieve that. With the change in administrations, HUD now is not acknowledging it was responsible for segregation. HUD is digging in its heels."
I'm exasperated at this point and don't want to turn this into a political issue. Because it's not. It's a matter a justice. That HUD has changed its position on whether its responsible for the segregation is about as low and slimy as you can get. It's enough to make even a liberal hate government.

Since this is a blog about Howard County, I should probably tie all of this in to our community in some way that's productive. Well, we talk about affordable housing all the time in Howard County. We talk about the need for all types of housing to serve all types of residents. We talk about the benefits of living in a decent home in a strong community with great schools and a tight social fabric. But mostly, we're talking about "moderate" and "middle" income families who make decent money but just can't seem to afford their way past our gates. We don't really talk about poverty and low-income housing.

But we should.

Providing housing for families living in poverty is the first step out of the endemic despair and hopelessness of their current situation. But first we have to allow them to take that first step, which won't happen if our leaders don't even bother addressing the issue with more than platitudes.

Any discussion of housing for the very poor in Howard County is likely to generate significant fear and, unfortunately, veiled bigotry. The reasoning is that by opening our community to "those people" we'll open the floodgates, and all of the ills of distressed neighborhoods -- crime, drugs, etc -- will come rushing in. Anyone who puts any stock into this shows a remarkable and upsetting lack of faith in our community.

The fact is that Howard County is one of the strongest communities in the region. We are not above "real" problems, but we have foundation that makes us better equipped to deal with these issues than many other jurisdictions. We pride ourselves on diversity and on the strength that it brings. And those of us who buy into the whole Columbia "vision" know that we have an obligation to foster a community that is welcoming, accepting, and promotes the general welfare of all its residents.

So, it looks like this is a pretty straightforward situation. We have a community of opportunity, albeit one that is becoming more exclusive and less welcoming. Meanwhile, there are thousands of families who need nothing more than a chance and a change. Seems like a good match, no?

"There can be only one clear objective of a civilization: to grow better human beings, to stimulate and evoke their gifts, strengthen the fulfillments of the individual in his sense of self and his relationship to mankind."
--James Rouse

Moving pains...

Moving is never fun -- well, unless you just won the lottery, are ditching all your old stuff, and hopping on a plane for Fiji. But the next time you're forced to pack everything up and relocate, at least you can be thankful that you don't have to actually move your entire house.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Yes, it's that easy...

I got an email today from the most recently announced Democratic candidate for the District 2 county council seat, Adam Sachs. I suppose this isn't really anything special to most of you, but it is one of only a very small number of times when a candidate has actually reached out to Hayduke -- and it's certainly the first time a candidate has included a press release and bio with the message.

As a public service to my highly-influential group of readers, here are the main issues Sachs would like to address if elected to the council (with my dime store take included):

  • Reducing crime around the older village centers -- namely, Oakland Mills and Long Reach. My take: Sounds good.
  • Producing more affordable housing. My take: I'm on board, now let's see if he does a better job at this than David Rakes.
  • Creating a vibrant Town Center. My take: Um, vibrant has become a bit of a loaded word, but I'm otherwise in support of this.
  • Enacting a smoking ban. My take: I surrendered on this one a long time ago. Just get it over with.
That's a pretty safe line up of issues, but this is, after all, politics, where safe is usually rewarded. Although I generally support Sachs' positions, I'm not ready to commit to any candidates yet (well, maybe one or two -- but I'm not saying who). More than anything, I'm just glad to see a crowded field. Nothing tells you more about candidates than how they deal with a primary.

A word to the other candidates: Anyone who reaches out to me gets one free softball post. Those who don't introduce themselves get the (73-mph) heater on the first pitch. Consider yourself warned.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday Round Up: Busted Brackets edition...


The Sun released its highly-anticipated annual Hometown Howard Guide today. If you don't know enough about Howard County -- which I'm guessing is not the case if you're reading this blog -- you can read one of many generic pieces on "restaurants, attractions, recreation spots and cultural activities in the county, together with features on education, people, religion, landmarks and trends in the area."

Going through the entire list of stories is obviously too much for me to do now. So here is a few of the more interesting ones.

There are more, but that should keep you occupied for now. Now, on to the real news.

From this week's Politics, Shmolitics we learn about an increasingly crowded race for the District 2 county council seat; two more candidates -- one Democrat and one Republican -- have announced their intentions to run, bringing the total number of hopefuls to four -- two from each side of the aisle. We're still awaiting word from incumbent councilman David Rakes, who, regardless of if he announces something, is likely to change his mind several times before the actual election.

Also in Politics, Shmolitics (for background on the name, see here) is a discussion of a recent fundraiser for county executive and state senate candidate James Robey. Although the event netted over $100,000 for the candidate, that's not what I'm concerned about.
Robey unveiled a big banner advertising his "Team 13" ticket, an alliance with incumbent Dels. Shane E. Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner and County Councilman Guy Guzzone in the heavily Democratic legislative District 13 in which he is running.
I'm probably about as superstitious as the next person -- which is to say, not very -- but calling your slate of candidates "Team 13" strikes me as tempting the wrong kind of fate. I know they're campaigning to represent District 13, but do they really need to make large banners and otherwise draw attention to the cursed number?

In other news, Larry Carson writes what appears to be an article for the Hometown Guide about growth and its implications in the upcoming elections. There isn't really anything new in the story, but I thought this point, which closes the article, is worth repeating...
Courtney Watson, a school board member and former APFO committee member who is running for County Council, said people frustrated with growth are responding to the cumulative effects of development over time, not just to what's happening now or in the last few years.
Because of our tight growth control measures in this county, much of the development that is occurring now was approved many years ago. Just as the development being approved now won't be built for several years because all of the housing allocations available for the next couple of years are spoken for -- and the backlog keeps growing. Those who say we do a poor job of controlling the rate of growth in this county are either dishonest or uninformed or both.

Growth is not something we can just control through county-level action; obviously, we can, to some extent, manage growth, but preventing it and all the assorted "bad" stuff that comes with it is beyond the power of our government and elected leaders, even if we rezoned the entire county to "NG: No Growth." In order to find the best way to manage it, however, we have to drop the utopian ideal of a static (rather, stagnant) community.

Two bits on Doughoregan: A history lesson and a look at the future, but nothing new.

Finally, probably as part of the Hometown Guide, The Sun published the Maryland State Assessment test scores for all of Howard's schools. I'm sure the formatting in the print edition is much better than what online readers get. For instance, see elementary, middle and high school scores and try to make sense of them.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Baseball warm up...

I watched a few games of the World Baseball Classic. Before it started, I was actually pretty excited, but after the US team lost to Canada (Canada!), I knew we were in for trouble.

Although the US was knocked out yesterday, I'm happy to see Roger Clemens career is finally over. Anyone who pitches for the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees deserves nothing but scorn from O's fans.

Good news for Route 1

I think most of us can agree that Route 1 could use a sprucing up. And to that end, the county has worked hard over the past few years developing a Route 1 revitalization plan and new zoning codes that would make it easier to develop mixed use projects -- which are a good thing.

Despite these efforts, not much has actually been done, but this is a step in the right direction.

The revitalization of U.S. 1, long sought but years away from being realized, will receive a major boost this summer with the first retail-residential development along the historic corridor.

The multimillion-dollar project will address two critical needs: Infusing U.S. 1 with small retail shops and providing housing for workers in relatively modest-paying jobs.

As part of the joint venture with the county, Orchard Development Corp. will build an L-shaped, five-story complex in North Laurel.

The 3 1/2 -acre site contains an old home and an abandoned and decaying motel. Those will be replaced with retail shops on the first floor and 80 one-and-two bedroom apartments on the upper levels.

Mixed use, affordable housing, infill redevelopment...sounds like Town Center. Well, not quite, but it does sound like a decent project, even if the county is helping to fund it.

To jumpstart the project, the county is expected to issue up to $6.5 million in tax-exempt development bonds.

...The Howard County Housing Commission acquired the site for $2.15 million. Orchard will develop, build and manage the project, but after 20 years, the county will have the option of purchasing the residential units, and in 65 years, the entire project will revert to the county, said Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The financing is strange, but that doesn't mean it's bad.
Although the county will issue the bonds, it will "have no financial liability. The county is never on the hook," said Robert L. Doory Jr., a principal at the Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge P.C., the county's bond counsel.

"All of that keeps the project affordable," Armiger said. "If it weren't for all of those, it would be a much higher rent, market rate."

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the county's Economic Development Authority, said the hope of providing "affordable housing" in the county is unrealistic without subsidies because of soaring land costs and market demand for higher-end units.

"It can't happen unsubsidized, that's for sure," Story said. "The market is up here, and that's the demand. Without public intervention, it's probably not going to happen."

They're right, especially considering the apartments will house families with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000.

In other Route 1 news, over 70 acres were just rezoned to make possible another mixed use project along the corridor.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

It's not unusual...

For me to drift into personal stuff on this blog. It is, after all, my blog and I'll do what I want with it (within the bounds of local, state, and federal law, that is).

But rather than bore you with all the details, I'll just say that today is not really a day for writing. A bad week turned worse, and since stoic Papa Hayduke has always warned against doing things under the influence of anger and despair, I'll let someone else do the writing. In this case, the Sage of Baltimore:

"A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."
(Fortunately, I won't be reflecting over an open casket any time soon -- that was this week last year.)

I struggle everyday to control my cynicism -- it being the philosophy of those without faith, without hope and without passion, those scorned one time too many by injustice, and those who, frankly, just don't give a shit.

I'm beginning to think I'm wasting my time.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Be careful what you wish for...

This message today goes out to Councilman Chris Merdon, who thinks County Executive James Robey has overly politicized the county's website and silenced our hapless legislators.

Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon wants a separate Web site to more prominently display the council's news and activities rather than continue as part of the larger general government site.

In raising the suggestion, Merdon complained that County Executive James N. Robey is using the county's Web site to promote himself politically, a charge Robey rejected.

Merdon was particularly upset, he said, about a news release Robey posted last week describing his reasons for vetoing a council-approved bill to cut the local property assessment cap from 5 percent to 4 percent.

"This was a political article about vetoing the tax cut instead of an article about a majority of the County Council passing a tax cut," Merdon said at a monthly council administrative meeting Monday. Merdon was part of the three-member majority who approved the bill.

"He [Robey] used the Web site to push his administration's agenda, not the county government's. We are an equal branch of government," Merdon said.

Well, the council already has a web page that it controls, and each council member, including Merdon, also has a their own individual page, where they are free to say whatever the heck they want.

I'm not sure if Merdon's really making a big deal out of this or if The Sun just needed something to write about. Frankly, I don't care either way. As Robey said, it's just posturing.

But, in the interest of fairness, here's what Merdon's opponent, Ken Ulman, had to say.
"I've never heard Chris criticize Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] for all of his TV and radio spots on the taxpayers' dime. If anyone wants to look for [political] promotion, they should look at that," Ulman said.
Sounds about right.

Congratulations, Joey Haavik...

For winning the Howard County Library Spelling Bee. The winning word: Zoroastrian.

Now, who can tell me in comments the name of the well-known song that bears the prophet Zoroaster's name (in Avestan)?

Special bonus points for answering why we even bother to remember Zoroastrianism.

No cheating (Googling).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Loaded statement...

Writing in this month's Business Monthly, Dennis Lane has an interesting take on community, the differences between elicit City and Columbia, and how we plan for growth. Although the entire piece is worth reading, I want to highlight the closing paragraphs just to see if I can stir up any controversy.

I think that Columbia and Howard County would be best served by allowing those with the training and the skills necessary to design the future downtown Columbia to do so. Ask any engineer what happens when you attempt to design something by committee and you will understand my point.

It has been said that a camel is really a horse that was designed by committee. If history is any guide, county planners only need look back 235 years and seven miles down the road for direction.
To a large extent, I agree with him. As I've tried to make clear in the past, I think the community-driven aspects of the Town Center master plan -- the charred portion -- was essential to crafting a collective vision for the future of our community. Translating this vision into a workable plan, however, requires a level of planning expertise that few of us possess.

To be sure, we need to verify that our vision is being properly interpreted, but we also need to trust that those doing all the work at this stage are doing so with integrity and honesty.

Yikes, I sounded like Reagan there; I'm losing my edge.

Monday, March 13, 2006

When solutions become problems...

The Sun yesterday wrote about a programmatic shift in the effort to provide more affordable housing for Howard County's lower income families. While the focus has thus far been on providing homeownership opportunities -- through an entirely ineffective program -- the Department of Housing and Community Development has come to the conclusion that homes are just too damn expensive and we should instead create a de facto Second Class.

Inflation has made low-income housing an impossibility, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, and attendant costs such as higher property taxes and community association and condominium fees are crippling the county's efforts to provide moderate housing for families in the $35,000 to $60,000 income range.

Vaughan said that although home ownership always has been a program goal, the high prices may force taking another route. "The best way to keep housing affordable is to make it rental. We may want to do more rental," he said.
Saying the housing department is to blame for the creation of a second, non-home-owning class of citizens is probably a little strong, but Vaughn is essentially raising the white flag because...well, it's just too hard to build affordable homes.

(I fully support the creation of more rental housing for families of modest means -- some people simply can't or don't want to own their own homes, and that's fine. But that doesn't mean we give up on trying to find homes for moderate income families that want to own a little slice of heaven, er, Howard.)

In only a few years, Howard County's affordable housing program has been a resounding failure. And the article, probably unwittingly, explains why.
General Growth Properties Inc. is planning to add an apartment house to fulfill its voluntary obligation for moderate-income units. The county wants the one- and two-bedroom apartments to be for any age occupants, including some young families, while General Growth Vice President Dennis Miller wants to house only seniors.
Too many senior houses, not enough for families? We're getting warmer.
But the county has no legal power over General Growth because the moderate units are a voluntary, self-imposed program of the builders. Neither Emerson nor the nearby Maple Lawn mixed-use project have enough density (homes per acre) to trigger the county's moderate-income housing law.
Exempting the two largest developments in the past decade from affordable housing requirements? Now we're onto something.
Another case in point is one moderate-income townhouse in Cherrytree Park, where a woman who bought a unit in August 2004 sold it back to the housing commission last month to move to Virginia - and made a $112,000 profit - roughly a 50 percent return, according to Vaughan. Inflation drove the price of homes at Cherrytree from $240,000 to $470,000. That means that although the first buyer paid $118,700 for the house, the next one must pay $220,000 or more.
Failing to establish any real price controls and mechanisms to ensure that affordable houses stay affordable? Yes, that's a good way to ensure you never catch up with needs. But wait, there's more.
Vaughan told the board he is seeking County Council legislation that would reduce property tax bills for moderate-income home buyers. Instead of owing taxes on the full value of the house, buyers would pay only for the percentage of the building they own - usually 51 to 60 percent. The nonprofit county housing commission owns the remaining portion.
Forcing moderate income buyers who participate in the program to pay the full taxes on something they own only half of? Although it's not the main reason why our program is a complete and utter failure, it's the dumbest part of any otherwise dumb policy. How did this ever seem right/fair.

All of this would be excusable if this was a ground breaking approach to affordable housing. But it's not. Not even close. Montgomery County, among many, many others, has had a similar program for over 30 years (a few years less than 30 when Howard developed it's program). Surely there was enough information about what works and what doesn't. It's too bad nobody, apparently, bothered to actually look into that.

Housing stuff, continued...

This was going to be a part of the above post, but it grew to be far too long. So, here it is:

Meanwhile, in another story from yesterday, the Sun puts on it's analytical shoes and cuts it up in an anecdotal piece -- disguised as "statistics" -- comparing housing prices and income. The story tells of several families who make decent money but still can't afford to buy anything anywhere (well, anywhere that can still get a nice house in Salisbury...but why?). There's even a fancy graphic meant to show how out of whack housing prices and incomes are.

Of course, none of this is really new. Most people, whether they're trying to buy a home or not, probably know that it's a tough market to get into, especially for first time buyers. I don't want to fault the Sun for just keeping this on people's radar and more importantly for showing that it's "regular" people -- not "those" people -- who need affordable housing.

What I do fault the Sun for, however, is bad statistics. Unless they've just mislabeled their graphic, which you can see here, the entire analysis is based on averages, which are just about useless when it comes to comparing things like home values and incomes. As most of you probably know, averages can be highly skewed by extreme data points -- for instance, a family that earns $10 million a year or lives in a $10 million house will inflate the averages for their community.

With no limit on the high end and a very clear limit on the bottom end (zero), average income statistics for a place will never paint a truly accurate picture; they will always be too high. Which is why you almost always here things in terms of median -- or the middle point of the distribution; that is, 50 percent of people earn less than median income and 50 percent earn more. Median is much less response to outliers.

To see the bad statistics in action, go look at the chart and compare Allegany and Garrett Counties. Allegany has a higher average income, but the average home price in Garrett is three times that of Allegany. Why? My guess is this has something to do with the expensive houses around Deep Creek Lake.

Now, take a look at the 2000 Census data for each county. Median house value for Allegany was $71,100 and for Garrett it was $86,400. Suddenly, things make a little more sense.

As I said, I'm glad the Sun decided to do the "research" and write the story. I just wish they knew what they were doing.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Homes for all...

I'm saving this one for tomorrow. It's too nice outside to spend the whole day writing. And a post on this story is going to take a while to write.

If you're reading this and it's still light outside (and not raining), stop. Now. Go outside. Take a walk with the family. Play with your kids. Work on your garden. Ride a bike. Take a tour of Town Center and envision what could be. Explore the open spaces. Practice your golf swing. Cook something on the grill. Claw your way out of hibernation. Take some pictures of budding plants. Listen to birds and frogs. Meet your neighbors. Sit on your deck and blog. Wash your car. Go fishing. Shoot some hoops. Climb a tree. Build a dog house. Destroy your knees playing tennis and/or jogging. Start the long journey back to being in "bathing suit" shape. Ponder the movements of air masses, frontal boundaries, and other weather phenomena that made this weekend great (and have the potential to make the end of this coming week..well, not so great [cold and snow might be involved]).

There is no greater satisfaction than that which comes from being a little sore and tired on Monday morning from a weekend spent doing something.

(Note to self: remember to set the TiVo to record the NASCAR race).

Yeah, I'm a commie, pinko, tree-hugging, car-hating, peace-loving, enemy-appeasing, gun-controlling, intellectual elitist liberal who watches NASCAR. You got something you want to say?

Either you're a part of the problem or you're a part of the solution...What's your contribution to life

Long title, long post. Howard County Blog #2 offers a few suggestions for overcoming some of the topographical impediments to a walkable Town Center. I support making Wincopin a through street running parallel to the lake, which Evan doesn't, but his ideas about buildings that connect us from higher ground to lower ground seem pretty good, even if his proposed solution is a little heavy-handed. Alas, finding a balance between the need for detail and the need for flexibility is tricky.

(Tricky? That's the best analysis you can offer? Sounds like a cop-out.)

It is.

Politics, shmolitics...

The warm weather has lowered my level of maturity considerably.

Although it's not labeled as such, there is a regular feature on Sundays in the Sun that rounds up all the overtly political stuff from the week before (I have no idea why they don't follow my lead and simply label everything that could possible turn into a recurring feature).

Anyway, to make things easier on me, I'm going to title this weekly article Politics, Shmolitics. Sure, it's not very original, but it gets the point across.

Today in Politics, Shmolitics, David Rakes -- after showing up unnannouced and uninvited to the Columbia Democratic Club candidate forum on Wednesday -- continues his march towards irrelevancy.

Rakes seemed intent on showing that he is not intimidated by party critics.

"He's a fine, fine young man," Rakes said, gesturing at Calvin Ball, a declared candidate for Rakes' seat. Rakes defeated Ball in the primary election in 2002.

"I beat him up good four years ago, and if I run again, I'll beat him up again," Rakes said as Ball sat, grim-faced.

Later, when candidates facing contested primaries were asked by a club member if they would support Democratic nominees even if they lost the primary, Ball vowed that he would, but Rakes took a roundabout route before answering.

"I'm a leader," Rakes said. "A leader does what has to be done when it needs doing."

After discussing other things, he seemed to return to the query by saying, "To answer your question, yes, indeed."

Okay, I'll admit that it would be great to keep him around just to hear what he's going to say next. Not that I want him in a position that requires him to make decisions affecting the future of this county, though. Perhaps he can start a blog, or he can guest-blog here at Howard County's Third or Fourth Most Popular Weblog On Local Issues.

Back to the story. As a public service, the Sun reminds us who to thank when our energy bills practically double this year.

Who among Howard's current elected officials voted for electricity deregulation in 1999?

Not Democratic Dels. Elizabeth Bobo or Frank F. Turner, who opposed the bill. Del. Shane E. Pendergrass was absent.

Voting for the bill on final reader was Del. James E. Malone Jr. and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, also Democrats.

All five of Howard's elected Republicans at the time supported the bill.

Remember, the best way to thank a politician is not by writing a letter or sending a card. Use November 7, 2006 wisely.

Finally, practically the entire second half of Politics, Shmolitics is devoted to a "tax policy debate." But quoting a bunch of politicians spewing partisan attacks does not constitute a "debate;" that's a pissing match. If you want a real debate, stick with the bloggers.

CA gets it right...barely...

Yes, CA board members, people lose faith in public institutions that, on "freedom of speech" grounds, insist on having closed meetings.

The Columbia Association board voted Thursday night against a proposal by Miles Coff- man, the board's representative for Hickory Ridge. The amendment, which failed in a tie vote, would have allowed association staffers to continue discussions in the partnership meetings but would have required them to routinely present updated reports to the board and the public.

Columbia's downtown partnership meetings are brainstorming sessions among county officials, association staff and General Growth Properties Inc. about the redevelopment of Town Center.

Coffman said that one reason he proposed the amendment last month was to ensure that officials in the sessions have the freedom to speak at will. His concern was that residents and the media might take comments out of context.

It's a shame that a technicality (a tie vote) was required to squash this stupid proposal. To board members: haven't you done enough in the past couple of years to discredit yourselves? Why even consider doing this after the massive flap created when you had semi-closed door discussions about a new headquarters building just a few months ago?

If for nothing other than again calling out those who fail to understand that their constituents -- those that actually "own" the Columbia Association (for god's sake) -- want to know what is being done with their money, here is Howard County Blog #2's list of the CA members who voted for more behind the scenes dealing.

And remember, Columbia elections are just a few weeks away...

Suffrage for all...

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about a few developments in Town Center where residents are required to pay CPRA fees but aren't allowed to vote in village elections? No? Well, then, go here.

Their plight did not fall on deaf ears, thankfully. Delegate Liz Bobo has introduced emergency legislation that would complete the annexation processes for these developments, thereby allowing residents to vote or correcting the lien payments without representation (I don't think it's really accurate to say "taxation" in this case -- but I'm a pedant).

If approved by the General Assembly and signed by Bobby Gov the legislation would take effect immediately, meaning residents would be able to vote in the April 22 elections. Here's to a speedy and efficient legislative process.

What matters most...

A while ago, The Sun started a weekly feature called "Resident Speakout!" that solicits letters from the community on different topics. With targeted questions often meant to prompt controversy, it seems like a ploy to get more people writing.

The topics that are discussed in Speakout are often of significant interest and importance to the county -- affordable housing, county budget and tax policies, rural preservation, etc. There are often intelligent, thoughtful responses to these questions, though the number of writers is usually small. Certainly, these level of participation with these topics is nothing compared to the response generated this week when the question was about the prospect of The Biggest Grocery Store Ever coming to our little town.

It is all a matter of priorities, I guess.