Monday, April 30, 2007

We're moving right next door to you...

It's going to be a slow week around here... starting today with this lonely, solitary link.

The New York Times catches on to what we've known for a while: Local blogs are cool.

And also a sign of gentrification.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Start the projection machine...

I may be pulling back the family curtain a little too far on this one, but something tells me no one will mind.

Charlie Obert's Barn, a documentary about a barn (naturally), will screen next week at the Maryland Film Festival. OK, so it's not just about a barn, but if you want to know more, see a description here or Dan Rodricks's column here.

What does the story of a barn being moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland's eastern shore have to do with this blog? Uh, nothing.

But, my brother composed the film's score. Yay, Toph!

If you're interested in going, here are the show times:

May 4, 2:00 pm, University of Baltimore Student Center
May 5, 9:00 pm, MICA Brown Center

Click the first link above for information on how to buy tickets.

This old engine makes it on time...

This post should have gone up last night after my peaceful arrival home from a day trip to Newark, New Jersey. But my arrival was not peaceful. I had left my car parked in the BWI train station garage with its lights on. The battery, obviously, was dead. I cannot be held responsible for things that happen before 7 am.

I’m having trouble finding words to begin this post, and gliding past the windows of this Metroliner, the scenery of central New Jersey isn’t helping.

Oooh. This is a nice town.

Sorry, I’m easily distracted and there is little I enjoy more than watching landscapes roll by.

Anyway, I don’t want to write about trains or windows or Jersey. I want to write about newspapers. Yippee!

As a former community reporter and a current citizen journalist, I’m keenly aware of the important role community newspapers, like those produced by Patuxent Publishing, play in local affairs. Indeed, I’ve talked about this from practically day one of this blog.

In our media saturated society, news tends to find you. Coverage of national and even state issues is practically everywhere: television, radio, print and online. When it comes to community affairs, however, a local paper is pretty much your only source.

But while local rags share news, they also promote civic engagement and enhance democracy by providing a forum for discussion and a springboard for local groups to advocate and organize. Much of the success of Save Merriweather was due to the fact that local papers provided a microphone and a measure of legitimacy to what was really just a couple of guys asking questions.

At their best, local papers are vital components of a healthy community. The problem is: They aren’t always at their best, as in the case of the recent Columbia elections.

(For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the Columbia Flier, which we “need” more than the Sun, the Post or the Examiner.)

If I may, here is my list of grievances surrounding the Flier’s election coverage:

  1. Only one real story for each Columbia Council race.
  2. No coverage of candidate forums.
  3. No coverage of village board races.
  4. Endorsements issued only days before the elections – long after most ballots were mailed in – and based on answers to a set of five questions without actually meeting any of the candidates.
By devoting so little time to the races, reporters were forced to cram too much information into each story (background, experience, positions, and proposals). Compounding this shortcoming is the fact that every story needs a hook, which basically reduces each race to a sound bite competition.

In CA elections especially, there is a chronic information deficit. The races don’t involve political parties. Few candidates have websites. And there’s only one debate. Most voters aren’t even aware of who’s running (or even that there’s an election).

I’m sure we can lay some of the blame on residential apathy. While that’s a whole ‘nother story, it is in some way related to media coverage. After all, if you can’t get the local paper to care enough to adequately cover a race, what do you expect of under-informed residents? (I don't think protections for a free press were listed first in the Bill of Rights on accident.)

Now, I’m not trying to blame my loss on the Flier. And I’m not just writing so I can whine about the media, even though such whining is what made blogs what they are today. Rather, I’d like to offer a suggestion.

Underlying this discussion is the reality of limited resources. The Flier, after all, is a free paper and it’s supported almost entirely by advertising revenue. To be sure, space in all newspapers is at a premium, but this is particularly true in those supported by ads.

Nevertheless, in my reporting days, I was the only writer for a paper covering a town of 5,000 residents (I also did some county government and schools reporting and our total distribution covered a region of about 15,000). Meanwhile, the Flier devotes one, perhaps two reporters specifically to Columbia (county and schools are covered by others), a city of over 90,000. The ratios are a little off, no?

(Disclosure: My coverage of a local election may have been extensive [at least one story each week over the course of the two-month campaign], but it was not perfect. However, that, too, is a whole ‘nother story.)

On the face of it, more reporters focused on Columbia seems like a reasonable approach to filling the information holes. But that’s a very old way of doing things, and times they are a-changin’, baby.

Blog triumphialists like to say bloggers are going to take over the media. Gone will be the days of centralized news reporting and dissemination. They’re wrong. Mostly.

Many blogs lean heavily on news organizations to provide them with source material to write about, hence the beauty of the hyperlink. While reporting requirements on things like presidential campaigns, foreign wars and natural disasters are likely too onerous for one (or even a small collection) of bloggers to cover, village board meetings, candidate forums and other community events certainly aren’t.

Of course, the capability of doing something does not automatically lead to the desire to do it. Otherwise, I’d be going to and writing about a lot more meetings. If, on the other hand, I was getting paid…

But this isn’t about me making more money (well, maybe it kind of is). It’s about incentivizing a pool of latent resources (the writers among us) to act for the benefit the community, the Flier and most importantly, themselves.

So, after all that, here’s the pitch. The Flier should pay freelance writers to cover local meetings and issues that would otherwise be ignored. Don’t bother printing all of these stories in the paper (only the good/important ones), but post them online with links to relevant resources (i.e. agendas, meeting minutes, etc.). Because most readers still like words on dead trees, perhaps they could include snippets of the online stories from the past week in the print edition.

I’m guessing for the cost of a single additional reporter, the Flier could post five or six more stories a week. Plus, they wouldn’t have to pay for benefits. Win-win!

Since I don’t have any clout at the Flier (obviously), I’m basically just throwing out an idea here. Maybe I’m crazy and my ideas doomed to fail (or worse, be ignored).

But what else am I supposed to do on a train bound for Baltimore?

(Woo-Hoo! Philly!)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Y'all don't know what it's like...

Who says miscreants aren't politically active?

Howard County police are offering a $500 reward for information that would help convict vandals who damaged six vehicles -- including one belonging to County Executive Ken Ulman and his wife, Jaki -- parked outside Wilde Lake High School for a Columbia Celebration of the Arts event in the school's Jim Rouse Theatre on Saturday night .

...The Ulmans' minivan is their personal vehicle, not the county-owned hybrid SUV the executive drives. The van had recently been repaired after a January incident at River Hill Village Center in which a grocery shopping cart was pushed into the vehicle, scraping it.
Twice this year his car has been scratched in a parking lot, and I'm supposed to believe it's just "vandals." Right.

You have to appreciate the moxie of these attackers, however. While some lob insults and innuendo at Ulman only from the safety of their keyboards, these guys are out there hitting this suburban dad where it counts: His minivan.

We don't need no water let the [roof] burn…

A burning debate:

Republican Greg Fox's goal was clear yesterday as the new Howard County Council held its first budget review - find a way to eliminate an increase in the fire property tax proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman.

"Howard County doesn't have to pay the fire tax" increase, Fox said after the session.

Howard's fire tax is a separate property tax of 10.55 cents per $100 of assessed value for western county residents not served by public water lines, and 12.55 cents for eastern county residents who have piped water and a higher level of service. The proposed increase would create one countywide rate of 13.55 cents.

Ulman said the projects the money would help pay for should reduce fire insurance rates for western county residents, compensating for the tax increase. The higher tax rates should produce $4.4 million, budget officials said, though an additional $3.3 million in surplus fire tax funds are included in the capital budget for Fire Department projects.

Until now, all revenue from the tax have been used to pay fire department operating costs and not for capital projects such as new firetrucks or stations.

Ulman included $7.7 million in his capital proposal for fire service to pay for things including a $1 million ladder truck, several new tankers, $1.7 million for the first stage of a program to begin burying 30,000-gallon water tanks throughout the western county and $2.1 million to help pay for new or enlarged fire stations.
Is it fair that different parts of the county pay different fire tax rates? Sure, the lack of public water out west can be a limiting factor when fighting a fire, but is that really sufficient justification for them to pay less, especially when those of us in the east already pay separately for water?

I'll abstain from official comment on this one and instead leave it up to the local fire department experts to fill in the blanks.

Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace...

I wrote something about this story, but on the advice of my advisers, I'm not posting it. I was much too snarky in the post and don't want to sound like a sore loser, which I'm not.

OK, maybe just a snippet:

Barbara L. Russell, an Oakland Mills incumbent who defeated Ian Kennedy to earn an eighth term on the board, said downtown development was a major campaign issue in many races.

"It's clear that those of us that supported a reasonable amount of development, not the development that the developers and the county have supported in the past, are the candidates that won."

She said in the next session, she plans to focus on housing issues, including affordability, in Columbia and throughout the county.

As I said many, many times during the campaign, I wish the focus was on Oakland Mills or at least matters directly impacted by the Columbia Association.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's alright we told you what to dream...

General Growth must have turned up the signal beaming to my implanted micro chip, because after reading this story, I'm left feeling excited about its forthcoming plan for downtown.

While many of the details are left out -- probably because the plan isn't finished and won't be released until at least August -- there is enough meat to get a sense of the ideas being tossed around in the former Rouse HQ.

Assuming GGP does not change its mind, and that is not anticipated, the basic structure of its plan would include:

• Seeking zoning changes to authorize construction of 5,500 housing units.

• 3 million square feet of commercial offices.

• Construction of 750,000 square feet for retail.

• Development of the lakefront and the crescent, the area next to Merriweather Post Pavilion and the single largest parcel of undeveloped land downtown.

The plan, first expected this month, probably will not be released until August, Godine said. Even then, he said, some aspects of the company's plan might not be final.

Godine said the plan also will include "position papers" on several issues that have generated strong community interest. Among them will be work-force housing, traffic, arts and culture, environmentally responsible, or "green," buildings, open spaces, pedestrian access, the environment and nature.

Of particular interest, especially to wonks like me, are the position papers.

As the county's Town Center plan drifts closer in spirit to its catch-all comprise plan for the Smith Farm, GGP, unencumbered by outside special interests, is poised to breathe some visionary air into the discussion.

Now, I could be wrong. The plan could be the sum of all nightmares. But I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. It's clear they are aware of citizens concerns (nobody is that out of touch), but just as importantly, they've brought in outside experts to help build the vision (a new Working Group?). Moreover, I recently heard that the company is committed to being a leader -- not just a follower -- in sustainability. (I wonder if they've seen the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Neighborhood Development standards?)

Of course, a great plan does not equal carte blanche. So, here's my obligatory drumbeat for an implementation process that includes strict guidelines, benchmarks, incentives and deadlines, which you have heard before.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I just keep moving on...

Forgive me (in advance) if this post rambles. I don't have a coherent narrative about the Columbia elections yet, just a bunch of disjointed thoughts.

I guess it makes sense to start with the good. Although it's often said (and likely rarely meant), the campaign was an entirely positive experience. I met many wonderful people and learned much about my community and myself. When I said I was inspired by the energy, creativity and dedication of my neighbors, I meant it, and I'm looking forward to working with them in the future (yes, I'm going to stay involved in OM… no, I don't know if I'll run for Columbia Council again).

Also, turnout in Oakland Mills was great. Nearly 500 households voted, compared to less than 300 last year. As someone reminded me Saturday, democracy thrives on challengers. So, yes, democracy is still alive in Oakland Mils.

As for why I lost, here is perhaps the main reason why:

Years in OM:

Russell: 35+
Kennedy: 1

Honorable mention: The Tower.

Speaking of The Tower, I have a collection of thoughts about it that I want to share, but I'm having trouble with the words today. I will say two brief things, however.

I don't understand environmentalists who would rather see more growth in the west than a 22-story building in Town Center (and for purposes of this election, I think this counts as an "either/or" scenario). What about you?

That it was front page news throughout the campaign and I could not say, while maintaining my integrity, that I opposed it outright probably hurt me.

I guess that's all I have in me for now. I don't mean to sound like a wimp, but thinking too much about the election is emotionally draining and probably a bit unhealthy.

The positive comments to my "loser" post on Saturday were very much appreciated.

Although I plan to write a couple more recap posts, I want to focus on what's next (well, first I need to focus on catching up on everything I neglected over the last two months, but after that…). I've never had a problem filling up my time.

Finally, I really do owe a great debt to everyone who helped me in the campaign. Were it not for them, a small army in fact, I probably wouldn't have done a quarter as well as I did. I'll be thanking everyone individually when I get the chance, but for now, let this serve as a blanket show of appreciation. I have some great friends (some old, some new) and thinking about all they did for me is truly humbling.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Even the losers keep a little bit of pride...

That's me: A loser with a little bit of pride.

More later. For now, rest.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Under some dirty words on a dirty wall...

Passing the buck to other bloggers...

Freemarket's your man for posts on Howard County finances.

Wow. That's a great post by Hometown Columbia's guest blogger, Cherie Beck, who went to the planning board hearing Tuesday and left, apparently, inspired. And in case you didn't see them, Jessie and David Wissing also posted thoughts about hearing.

The unobtrusvie tones on the news tonight...

The Flier today released its endorsements and I wasn't among the chosen five. Which, depending on who you believe, is either a good thing or a bad thing (see David Wissing's historical take here). I guess we'll find out on Saturday.

Looking on the bright side, there are several unqualified good things (for me, anyway) in today's edition. For instance, a nice letter of support from Oakland Mills village board vice-chair Karen Gray, as well as a strongly worded endorsement from The African American Coalition of Howard County (scroll down a bit) -- both of which I'm very grateful for. Also, OM village chair Bill Woodcock's support of my candidacy was newsworthy enough to merit a blurb (again, scroll down).

So, you take the good, you take the bad...(I'm sorry).

Of course, I have a few gripes about the endorsements and the process used to reach them. But I think I'll save these for later, when I have more time to write and after I've had a chance to distance myself from the campaign. So, Sunday, probably. See my comment on Wissing's post for a sneak preview.

For now, feel free to share your thoughts on the endorsements, their importance, or the Columbia elections in general. Or anything else you feel like talking about. (For instance, why is tonight's episode of The Office another repeat? Seriously. We get one new show after a month of reruns and then more reruns. It's maddening.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Waiting for you to call me up...

Tonight at 7 pm, the Planning Board will be taking testimony on the proposed height limits in Town Center. If you can't make, they'll be accepting written testimony until Friday. More info here (PDF).

Also tonight, the Wilde Lake candidates forum is going down at Slayton House at 7:30 pm.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Down in the hole...

A true Tower compromise?

I'll just say I'm not enthusiastic about the details, especially the above-ground parking, but at this point I'm only reacting to words and a story, not drawings and a proposal.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I always fee like somebody's watching me...

(Insert excuse for cop-out here)

There are a few interesting pieces in the Flier this week -- for instance, the Planning Department's recommendation on height limits, the county taking over Guilford Gardens, and the letters to the editors (none of which are from Oakland Mills, by the way). But, see above.

(Feel free to pretend you're me in the comments and make up lame excuses for why I'm not living up to my blogging standards.)

Anyway, before we get to the meat of this post, a quick announcement about my career as a rock star. The band I've played with for the last three years, Bittersweet, decided that I was a drain on their coolness and kicked me out. Actually, that's not the case -- I'm a little to busy to play as much as they want to play and I don't want to hold them back. My last show with Bittersweet will be tomorrow night at Sonoma's in Owen Brown. Although I can guarantee this won't be the last time I pretend to be a musician (stay tuned for details!), this is it for a little while.

And, with that, here's a cool picture of an owl I snapped last week.

Owls aren't my specialty -- that'd be dirunal birds of prey -- so I can't identify this one. But I'm sure someone out there knows, right?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I belong in the service of the Queen...

Rain, be damned! We're hula-hooping today.

Despite a fair amount of concern, it looks like the weather won't be too bad for my campaign event tonight. Now, if only we can get it to hold off for Saturday, too.

Anyway, I'll spare you a blow-by-blow recap of last night's candidates forum and instead just tell you that I thought it went well. I suppose I'm not the best person to ask about my performance, however.

The only real news to share about the forum is the proposal my opponent, Barbara Russell, offered. I was surprised with how many people I talked to today had already heard the news, so bear with me if you already know the details.

Basically, she'd like to see public water and sewer service extended to western Howard County in order to alleviate development pressure in the east. This would allow higher density development in the west, which could help meet the county-wide need for (affordable) housing without having to squeeze more into developed areas, like Columbia.

She calls it a "new paradigm," a characterization I disagree with. It sounds to me like sprawl, which is the very paradigm New Towns like Columbia were supposed to replace.

But I'm more interested in your thoughts, both on the merits of the idea and it's applicability to the Oakland Mills race. When commenting, if you don't mind, post whether you live inside or outside of the county water service area. I don't mean to pry. Rather, I'm interested in seeing how opinions are affected by location.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Try to see it my way...

I wasn't planning on writing for the blog today, but since tomorrow is the Oakland Mills candidates forum and Wednesday's for hula hooping, I figured I should at least post a couple links to yesterday's stories.

The campaigns for 2010 have already begun in Howard County. Personally, I've come to the pragmatic conclusion that money in politics is what it is: necessary, but largely inconsequential (I have enough faith in voters to see through the sheen of expensive campaigns). However, given that politicians are going to raise money, I'd rather they spread out their fundraising over four years than squeeze it into the final year, which often leads to them neglecting their duties as elected officials.

Meanwhile, the Ulmans get a couple of nice press clippings for their refrigerators thanks to The Sun (liberal media alert!).

Finally, a business alliance is joining the Town Center fray. Can we work it out?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I'm tired of feeling tension...

The Columbia Flier today began it's full-tilt coverage of the Columbia Elections, which included a nice, long piece about my race. Although the article gets it mostly right, there's one thing that I really can't let stand.

As I've made clear, I don't think Town Center should be the defining issue in this or any other Columbia Council race. But I realize that each time I mention it -- even when brought up by someone else, like a reporter -- I'm basically shooting my strategy in the foot. My desire to keep Town Center out the race isn't because I think I'm "weak" on that issue. I just think there are many more important things we need to be talking about, particularly in Oakland Mills.

Anyway, here's the excerpt that I take issue with:

Kennedy said he is taking on Russell because he does not think she is a strong enough advocate for the concerns and ideas of Oakland Mills community residents.

He said the "tipping point" in his decision to run against Russell was a letter to the editor she wrote in the Feb. 8 Columbia Flier, which Kennedy said discredited the resident group Bring Back the Vision's support of 20-story buildings.

In the letter, Russell explained her view that Columbia planner James Rouse's original vision for downtown did not include 20-story buildings as some residents have supported.

"We all live here, and we all deserve to have a say in what we want in downtown," Kennedy said.

Russell, who knew James Rouse and saw design plans for Columbia that he presented to the county, said she was simply responding to comments made in a Feb. 1 Flier article.

"I don't think I displayed an attitude of any kind," she said. "All I was saying is the person who was describing Jim Rouse's vision was doing so inaccurately."

I don't particularly care if my opponent wants to attack and discredit another group, especially one I'm not involved with. The reason her letter was a tipping point in my decision to run for Columbia Council was its arrogance, which is also on display in her quote here.

The implied premise of the letter -- which is also evident in several letters this week -- is that the validity of one's views about Columbia and Town Center is predicated on length of stay in Columbia or proximity to James Rouse or both. Nobody, except Rouse himself, can claim to "know" what his ultimate vision for Columbia was and to think otherwise is foolish and strikingly non-democratic.

More generally, the object of our discussion about Town Center should not be to determine what James Rouse would do if he were still alive. Rather, it should be what do we, the people of Columbia, those grown in this garden, want. Rouse created a mission-driven city with high-minded principles and values, none of which are being debated (it's their interpretation vis-a-vis Town Center, silly). For many years, he steered the ship, but now the responsibility is ours. It's time to stop looking over our shoulder hoping he'll swoop in to save us from crashing into an iceberg.

More than anything, Rouse was focused on the future and looking forward. And in that respect, spending so much time debating the meaning of the past is truly how we fail to honor his legacy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

If you walk away, walk away...

I was worried that I'd be left off the distribution list, but to my surprise, I came home today and found "A Personal Note from Barbara Russell" waiting for me. Because criticizing others' campaign materials seems a little too petty even for this blog, I'll refrain from commenting.

I will say, however, that if the election were decided by the quality of the campaign literature, I would win hands down. This, of course, has nothing to do with me. I owe it all to my talented friends, mainly this one, who is a fantastic designer, if a crummy Spades player (hee hee).

Anyway, on to the news. Just a few follow up pieces today, one of which is surely to land me in hot water.

First, remember the house in the crater? Well, it's gone. Seems you can only fight an overbearing "democracy" for so long.

Second, the confusing saga of Isis continues, including an investigation into campaign contributions given to former Howard County Council Chairman Chris Merdon. Here's my non-committal previous post on this subject and here's the ensuing fire storm. Look, I understand that my editorial decisions reflect my biases and by choosing to mention this story I'm being somewhat partisan. Regardless, to say this story isn't relevant to HoCo, as some have tried, is simply foolish, especially considering the amount of comments I had when last I mentioned it. So, let's try this time to focus less on personal biases and more on whether anything in this story actually merits concern.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I don't care if I ever get back...

Once again the Greatest Day of the Year is upon us. Cooler Day. Since the Orioles' game just started, I won't waste time waxing nostalgic about this special day, but if you're really interested in why today is what it is, here's last year's post with a link to the source of its official name.

So, it seems skateboarding has become an issue in Dorsey's Search. Riders, parents of riders, and poseurs, you can rest assured that, if elected to the Columbia Council, I will be a strong advocate for skateboarding, a sport I hold dear to my heart.

Though it may not sound like it, I'm pretty serious about this. I grew up skateboarding... a lot (and still think about picking it back up from time to time). I never got really good at it, but I enjoyed doing it immensely and still think it's a great "free" (parent-less) activity for kids and teenagers. And I think to some extent, the fact that kids can skate without needing parents -- for rides, coaching, fees, etc. -- is what makes it appealing. Which is why the answer to the problems in Dorsey Search is not entirely more skate parks, but rather, a less heavy-handed approach to street skating. While we need to be cognizant of liability and safety concerns, we can't let them dictate everything we do.

Mark your calendars! Two events to take note of:

The Oakland Mills Candidates Forum is Tuesday, April 10 at 8 pm at The Other Barn in -- surprise -- the Oakland Mills Village Center. Even if you don't live in my village, you should come. Fun will be had by all (maybe).

For a guaranteed good time, check this out. It's "Hula Hoopers for Ian Kennedy" at the Blue Cow Cafe in Thunder Hill on Wednesday, April 11. Most campaign events are, let's be honest, lame. This one won't be. Come by, hula with a hoop, enjoy a nice spring evening and the Blue Cow fare, and have your picture taken with the Best Dog in the World. We'll be there from 6:00 - 7:30 pm.

Finally, a simple request. I'm looking for a new dentist. It seems the dentists I've had were either really good and really expensive or cheap and just OK. I'm looking for someone in between. Suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Just hop on the bus, Gus...

After a lengthy public process, changes to the Howard Transit bus system take effect tomorrow (April 2). After a quick look at some of the new routes, I'm optimistic about the prospects of a more viable transit network, especially because of the effort placed on reducing wait times and expanding service to heretofore undeserved areas (for instance, Jeffers Hill).

From a strictly selfish standpoint, I'm glad to see travel time between the Mall and Oakland Mills has been cut in half during rush hours, thanks in part to the elimination (on one route) of the Columbia Medical Plan stop, which I half-seriously, half-flippantly concluded in a previous post was a "pointless stop."

In honor of the changes and addition of new routes, Howard County is reducing fares to $0.25 on April 2 and April 3. They're also giving free peanut to each rider! Sounds like as good an excuse as any to hop on the bus.

A list of routes and timetables is available here.