Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I hops in my ride to make a quick run...

If you have delicate sensibilities, I urge you not to Google the lyrics above. Just let them lie.

Anyway, opting for style over substance again, here are a bunch of one line takes on the news of the day.

One local non-profit director is leaving while another is (probably?) staying...but for how long?

Young environmentalists: Sapling-huggers?

Howard Community College is growing. How long until dorms?

Don't they know a tie goes to the runner? Who's running?

How about this: Tax cuts for all?

Finally, I've been trying to put into words my thoughts about the new Planet Earth series on the Discovery Channel, but I can't. I watched the first two episodes Sunday night and they literally left me speechless and, at times, breathless. Although I link to his blog more often than a local blogger should, here is Andrew Sullivan's take on the intersection of the environment, religion and high definition television.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I'll paint a picture all about the colors I've been dreaming of...

Nice day, eh? How about some pictures?

As you can probably tell by the picture on the left, I've been pretty negligent about keeping my picture blog updated. With more sunlight and things to take pictures of -- other than leaf-less trees -- expect that to change.

If you're looking for news, the Examiner has a couple stories about the Columbia Association today: One about whether village managers should be employed by CA or their villages and another about dredging.

Feel free to post thoughts on those issues. Or, talk about the weather. Either's fine.

Monday, March 26, 2007

And the eyes in his head, see the world spinning 'round...

After lamenting the lack of posts from local bloggers on Friday, I'm basically phoning it in today. I guess that makes me a hypocrite. C'est la vie.

To those who want to fight Evil Developers, you should be taking a few pointers from the owner of this house.

Yup, that's a house surrounded by a crater, which is the product of a rather large redevelopment project in Chongqing, China. The owner, Wu Ping, wasn't satisfied with the relocation compensation she was offered and decided to fight the developers and city (in China, there really isn't much difference between the two). Alas, the fight will likely end soon -- the official papers have been filed to have it demolished. Here's the New York Times story.

Speaking of houses, the real estate market is definitely cooling off. Judging by the number of For Sale signs I've seen recently, I'm not surprised. But what does this mean for us? Are we likely to see housing prices drop? More likely, I think, is that prices come down a little, but houses stay on the market much longer. Bad time to sell a house.

Montgomery County builds the state's first green school, and we have some catching up to do. There's an important point in the story about the usefulness of having green buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. If they're not, "green" is basically just marketing.

Finally, if you're a geek for this stuff like I am, then you'll be happy to know that Microsoft's on-line mapping program now has bird's eye views of Howard County. Go ahead, see who's got the nice swimming pool in your neighborhood and make new friends. Special bonus points to the first person to find The Maroon Dragon.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Where have all the cowboys gone...

Even though I really don't like that song and felt like changing the lyrics to something more appropriate, dogma dictates against such things.

What I would have said -- and what you may be thinking yourself -- is: "Where have all the bloggers gone?" Blogging in Howard County, once a cool thing that everyone was doing, appears to have jumped the shark, or at least fallen down on the priority list. Granted, a large percentage of us are involved in one way or another in the Columbia elections, but that's no excuse!

Actually, it kind of is, but still...

Since we're on the topic of cowboys, how about a Friday Round Up?

I don't think anyone can question my commitment to affordable housing, but the more I read about the situation in this county, the more hope I lose. To be sure, there are many advocates dedicated to the cause and the new county housing director seems genuinely concerned about finding solutions. Yet, as I've found myself doing a lot recently, I agree with Tim Sosinski, architect and former co-chair of the affordable housing task force.

"I'm on the edge of disappointed. The level of movement is not impressive," he said. "We're not going to solve this overnight, but the question is, when are we at least going to start?"
To be perfectly honest, I didn't really read this story. I just saw the headline -- "Councilman takes aim at developers" -- and found it peculiar, given that the "councilman" in question is Courtney Watson. Is that really how we're supposed to refer to the three women serving on our council? I seem to recall talking to someone who said the council had agreed on calling themselves "council members" or some such. Any thoughts?

An e-mail arrived from my local village manager today informing me that pre-2001 Honda Civics and Acura Integras are targets of choice for local car thieves. Indeed, according to the county police, last year these two models made up 24 percent of all vehicles stolen. As the owner of one of these models, I suppose it's time to put an alarm system in The Maroon Dragon:

Notice the "flames" on the hood; it's not easy to get the clear coat to chip off in just the right pattern like that. Yeah, you're jealous.

Finally, Oakland Mills has created a website with the pictures and statements of all the candidates for the upcoming election. Scroll down to the bottom to see the candidates for Columbia Council. For those who wondered who I meant when I said "some" the other day, I think that question can be put to bed.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

It's a family affair...

Today, consider me your helpful traffic cop. I'm just pointing you in the right direction.

First, a great piece from the Flier about state delegate Guy Guzzone and his struggle to balance family and politics. Maybe I've been blinded by his tallness, but after working for a summer as an intern in Guy's council office, I think very highly of him. The story is well worth a read.

Second, woo-hoo, my candidacy for Columbia Council finally gets mentioned in a newspaper! It's here, just below the bit about the sex offender sweep. Fine company I keep.

Finally, if, as has been said, the estimates of population growth from BRAC are being inflated to influence public opinions about growth pressures, then what are we to make of this:

The number of jobs that will locate to Anne Arundel's Fort George G. Meade over the next six years is likely to be more than double or triple the total approved in 2005 as part of the Pentagon's base realignment and closure plan, says the Howard County official who helps track the installation's regional impact.

As many as 22,000 jobs may be added to Fort Meade by 2013, though the figure is an early estimate and is subject to change, said Kent D. Menser, executive director of the Howard BRAC office.

The total reflects jobs locating on Fort Meade property and does not include contractor jobs that might locate off the post in the surrounding area, or jobs in fields such as public safety and education that would be generated by the post's growth. The 90-year-old facility, named for a Civil War general, employs the fourth-largest workforce of Army installations in the continental United States.
I've always taken these estimates at face value and will likely continue to do so. But I usually tilt more towards naivety rather than cynicism.

Regardless of the actual magnitude of BRAC, regional growth (or, at least, demand) is going to be around for a while. As much as I like to dream of a world where each woman has 2.1 children (replacement fertility rate), this probably won't happen any time soon. What's more, even if the U.S. population ceases growing immediately (no immigration, no more than replacement fertility), populations will still change on local or regional levels. Although I'm open to arguments to the contrary, I don't see Howard County being a net population loser.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

You spin me right round, baby...

After successfully doing so last year, it appears that some would like to turn the upcoming Columbia election into another referendum on Town Center.

I know that Town Center is a great big polarizing issue, thereby making it an ideal wedge in an election where information is at a premium. Tales can be spun about who’s a part of what conspiracy and who’s in the pockets of developers and all that other BS, but ultimately, shifting the focus to something that’s only tangentially related to the operations of the Columbia Association – a massive, confusing body that collects a hefty amount in “taxes” from us each year – does a disservice to all Columbians, regardless of where they stand on downtown development.

Is there a shortage of venues for citizens to express their ideas about Town Center?

And how much power does CA really have in the Town Center master plan process? How much can it change the outcome? Yes, I know it owns a lot of land in Town Center and the board needs to be cognizant of the impacts of future development on our open space, but how do these facts lead us to the conclusion that Town Center should be the deciding factor in electing CA reps?

I mean, has the board really performed so well over the past year that we can ignore its structural problems in favor of more and more debate about Town Center?

Is it a problem that even people who have served on the board for many years still can’t really define the organization in any meaningful sense?

Or how about the recent actions of the “caucus?” Although they have followed the letter of the law, these members are likely violating its spirit with their private meetings. And the tragic irony is that at least a few of them came to power because of concerns over secret meetings.

Or, what about the rest of our open space? Is the future of Symphony Woods more important than the future of the other thousands of acres of land, much of which is floating away with each rain storm?

And what of the Oakland Mills master plan, something that is truly a product of the citizens but is being ignored and having its progress stifled because it’s seemingly more important to engage in county elections and debate whether tall buildings will destroy our essence.

Yes, I agree that there is much at stake now -- much more than Town Center.

But those wishing to turn this election into another special interest power grab are more than welcome to do so. Many Columbians are weary of the obfuscation and spin, and they, I think, are ready for something new.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be...

I know things have been quiet all around the HoCo-blogsphere. I have no excuse for my lameness. But I'm not going to apologize for it either.

Anyway, the quiet will likely continue until we get something to fuel our fire. What that will be, I can't say. Perhaps the Columbia elections? Perhaps the proposed building height restrictions for Town Center, which have been the subject of intense debate on the Howard County Citizens Association listserve. So, if you're looking for action, I strongly recommend joining the group or at least the e-mail list (which I believe you can join without having to officially become a member).

A few stories that may or may not be of interest to you...

Likely to join the Howard County endangered building list are the Exhibit Center and the Rouse Company building in Town Center. Both, like Merriweather Post Pavilion, were designed by Frank Gehry, who, after his work in Columbia, went on to become a rock star in the architecture world. Now, I know Merriweather has kind of been "saved" and all, but why can't it qualify for the list, too? I'd say it's still just as at risk as the others.

Speaking of old buildings, the county has begun the process of buying Belmont. Lots of details still need to be resolved.

Finally, you mean the need for age-restricted housing might not be as severe as it's made out to be and that this justification is really just a pragmatic work-around for developers who can't build non-age-restricted housing? Really?

“It has nothing to do with the demographics,” said local economist Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of the Sage Policy Group. “It has to do with the fact the homebuilder community needs to build projects, and age-restricted housing tends to generate less opposition.”

The 637 age-restricted housing units built last year accounted for 34 percent of the total units built in Howard, according to the county’s latest annual Development Monitoring System Report, which details development activity from October 2005 to September 2006.
Ah, market distortions: Good for some, bad for others.
This abundance of age-restricted housing also means less available housing for other sectors of the population, particularly young families.

Young families face fewer housing options and rising housing costs, Basu said.

“I don’t think these public policies contribute to the well-being of younger families,” he said.
But a cynic might say "that's the point!" As we saw in the discussion of the senior property tax credit, the importance of a family's well-being is inversely proportional to their impact on the county's bottom line.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I read the news today, oh boy...

A couple bits of good news from the Examiner:

Yay roundabouts! I love roundabouts.

Yay us! I love us and people who give us money. More here (PDF).

Round, round get around...

My first reaction to this idea (and today's story about it) was an incredulous "What?!?" followed by an emphatic "No!" But since I gave up hasty reactions for Lent, I thought about it some more and actually found some merit in the concept.

Joel Broida envisions a day when small battery-powered vehicles will ply Columbia's extensive pathway system and its public roads.

The Town Center resident said he hopes to convince officials of Howard County or the Columbia Association -- or both -- to back a program in which energy- efficient vehicles similar to golf carts would transport residents from their homes to Columbia's village centers.

The program would make it easier for elderly residents who don't own cars to get to stores and other facilities, Broida said.

First, however, CA officials would have to agree to lift the association's rules restricting the use of motorized vehicles on its pathways -- an idea at least two members of CA's 10-member board of directors have greeted with some skepticism.
While, upon further reflection, I still think opening the pathways to motorized vehicles is a very, very bad idea (how long until the first lawsuit?), the concept Broida's pushing -- a personalized shuttle service -- isn't half bad, assuming it uses existing roads. After all, there is certainly a group of residents that need such a service, but I suppose that's why the county already has a similar program.

Now, maybe there's a better system than the HT Ride program -- perhaps involving wider use of smaller, energy-efficient vehicles. While I'd be open to a broader discussion about that, turning our pathways into quasi-roadways strikes me -- non-hastily -- as a non-starter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I said this ain't the way it's supposed to be...

Well, I think we can say with certainty that this whole move-daylight-saving-time-up-a-few-weeks idea is an utter failure. As I said Monday, the extra hour of light in the evening is nice, but my sleep schedule has been thrown so out of whack that I had to take a nap yesterday.

A nap!

I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever take naps. Ever. I just don’t. I got nothing against them, per se; they’re just not my bag. I much prefer getting all my sleep at once (or in two nighttime segments divided only by a quick drink of water or trip to the restroom).

The nap almost made me late for the environmental commission meeting last night, though considering the disoriented state of my brain and hair I probably should have stayed home (but then I wouldn’t have learned that the county has a helpful guide to living with beaver! [PDF]).

I suppose it’s not entirely the fault of daylight savings that I’ve been so tired. Maybe it’s mono. Or the heat, which is simply brutal (I’m serious).

Or, more likely, this is accounting for some of it.

Yes, the Columbia election season is underway and candidates, including myself (though you wouldn’t know it from the newspapers – anti-blogger bias!), are already busy doing anything and everything they can to ensure that the handful of people supporting them is bigger than the handful of people supporting their opponents.

While I’m sure you’ll hear more about my campaign in the coming weeks, I’ll only mention now that I’m looking for volunteers to help spread the word (no need to live in OM or Columbia to sign up).

I’m also trying to come up with a snappy slogan. As much as I’d like to say something meaningful in ten words or less, I’d be much happier with a slogan that reflects the tone of this blog (lighthearted but serious…or is it seriously lighthearted?). Suggestions are welcome in the comments section, and the best one wins the chance of having me use it on official campaign material (note the escape clause in that sentence).

Seriously (again?), if you’re interested in helping or have a mostly-non-funny suggestion for the campaign, send me an e-mail to hocohayduke [@] gmail [dot] com. Please. I need all the help I can get.

Before you get worried, I promise not to turn this into a campaign journal. And, with that in mind, on to some more news…

Well, there’s actually not much in the way of news. This story – about commercial developer Manekin’s new headquarters – provides a good summary of the state of green building in the county.

What I found interesting in the story was that in order to include green features, which will likely yield a LEED-silver certification, Manekin paid an extra $340,000. The building itself cost $9.4 million, meaning that going green added only about 4 percent to the price tag. That’s hardly anything! The premium for hybrid cars is way more than that. With all the savings to be realized by modest increases in upfront costs, why aren’t all buildings in Howard County required to be certified LEED Silver (at least)?

Also, did you know the U.S. Green Building council has been working on a green neighborhood certification? Hmm…

Elsewhere, Columbia Compass is exploring a mysterious phone survey dealing with Columbia development. Lots of conjecture; very little information.

Wordbones finds something he agrees with in the Buisness Monthly. Interesting.

Evan’s soliciting participants for his March Madness pool. If I could just get my bracket filled out…

Oh, and Go Terps!

I agree with Free Market who agrees with the New York Times about terrible factory farming practices. More, including picture, here.

David Wissing, like me and Bill Santos, is involved in the upcoming Columbia election. He’s running for Town Center Village Board. Best of luck!

(Though I won’t really go into why, I disagree with his characterization that my race against Barbara Russell is a Merdon – Ulman rematch. Also, I disagree with putting global warming in quotes. And, for that matter, I disagree with the characterization that I was a “staunch” supporter of Ulman. I prefer blind apologist.)

Finally, The Sun’s Resident Speak Out feature this week asks: “Is there one word that you misspell or see others misspell all the time?”

Yes! Restaraunt? Restaruant? Resturant? Restaurant? It’s one of those, right?

Monday, March 12, 2007

I got a song, it ain't got no melody...

I'm wanting for time and inspiration today, and I'm blaming it on this whole daylight savings time mess. Don't get me wrong, I like the extra hour of light after work. But isn't there a way we could get that without losing an hour? Why don't we have daylight savings time all the time? I'd certainly be less grumpy.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mom and Dad you made me so uptight...

Just a couple of quick, Round Up-like links today. It's been a while, after all.

The first is this piece about the Columbia Association and the upcoming elections. The story itself provides a pretty good summary of why I'm running for the Oakland Mills position (even though I'm not mentioned): basically, the CA board, with its interpersonal spats and tendancy to want to micromanage, is, on balance, a mess and kind of a joke. Here's a pretty good diagnosis from River Hill representative Patrick von Schlag, one of the reasonable ones:

"The position needs someone with extra time on their hands," he said of being a board member. "The board meets way too often and debates things that are not policy issues. The board needs to learn how to be a board and not a debating group."
Yes! Boards of directors should not, because of needless meddling, add another layer of bureaucracy, especially when only a few board members actually have management experience. To make a somewhat trite metaphor, boards should set the course; staff should steer the ship.


A couple weeks ago, the Flier's editorial board questioned the fairness of forcing the already-approved Plaza Tower (legality of that decision, which the courts have yet decide on, aside) to adhere to a yet-to-be-enacted height restriction. It was a pretty straightforward opinion, focused exclusively on the fairness question and not whether height restrictions are good or bad, warranted or not.

Nevertheless, as is the case in these increasingly polarized and non-nuanced times, umbrage was taken at the Flier's careless disregard for "citizens" and is displayed on the paper's letters page today.

You're either with us or against us, indeed.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

You take the good, you take the bad...

A story in today's Examiner has both good and bad facts about the upcoming Columbia elections.

The good: The list of open seats, the date of the election (April 21) and the voter turnout information.

The bad: The filing date for the Oakland Mills election. It was last Friday (March 2); not this Friday.

People try to put us down...

In a post about Barack Obama's recent speech in Selma, Alabama, Matthew Yglesias, a prominent blogger of national affairs, strikes a few chords that seem relevant (and perhaps a little self-serving) to the current situation in Columbia.

Progressives these days have a sometimes angsty relationship with the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. The sense that, ultimately, these movements failed and the Democratic Party came to disaster through its association with them is inescapable. And yet precisely what we don't want to do is mimick the smarmy neoliberals of the 1980s and 1990s, forever full of scorn, forever eager to blame the left for the right's malgovernment, forever looking to get ahead by knifing an ally in the back.

Arguably, Obama's hit on the right way to think about all this. The movements of yore accomplished a great deal and were absolutely right about the biggest issues of their time. But they made some mistakes. Mistakes that are dwarfed by the scale of their accomplishments; but nonetheless mistakes that carried a high price.

Monday, March 05, 2007

And it won't mean a thing in a hundred years...

Just a few Town Center thoughts on this windy Monday...

The more I think about it, the more I realize how wrong it was for us to expect to create a detailed 30-year master plan. I've often said I prefer a values-based vision plan rather than a detailed development plan -- a key philosophical disagreement among citizens -- and think it bears repeating, especially now.

Think about the traffic study. Its findings provide a foundation for all sorts of short-sighted ideas about Town Center's future. And that is as it should be, because how can we expect a traffic study conducted in 2006 based on 2006 assumptions to be relevant 20 or 30 years from now? We don't even know if we'll be driving cars in a few decades.

Rather than envisioning our future, we're predicting it based on current development practices and what we see around us. This type of thinking can and should guide us as we plan for five- to ten-year time frames, but it dooms us if our planning horizon is as distant as the one we're talking about for Town Center.

I've explained some of this in the past, but the discussion on that post centered on affordable housing. So, in light of my leaving the house for the evening shortly, here is what I had to say back in October:

Trying to plan in detail the next 30 years of development for Town Center is full of pitfalls, not to mention the fact that such an exercise completely devalues the preferences of future Columbians. Instead of deciding on every last detail now, we should focus on the short term specifics and keep the long term discussion focused on guiding principles.

The real-world manifestation of this idea is to create a visionary, overarching 30-year plan and develop a series of shorter-term, detailed oriented plans with, say, five- or ten-year time frames to implement this vision.

These shorter plans can house our limits, or, in my preferred scenario, they would include incentives and benchmarks to gauge our progress in meeting the longer-term goals -- like affordable housing, environmental quality, transit and infrastructure improvements. So, instead of prescribing the exact number of units to be built within each period, the plans could create a framework where the intensity of development is linked (within a reasonable extent) to the quality of development and the quality of amenities we receive. To make it fair for everyone, these incentives and benchmarks must carry the force of law.

Reward good behavior and good development with more density. Punish failure to meet stated benchmarks with density reductions. In short, create a market for quality development that actually captures the externalities -- both good and bad -- of growth and ascribes financial value to that which previously lacked it.
One other thing to remember is that there was no detailed plan for Columbia when it was proposed (the famous model of Town Center doesn't count, as if it did, our downtown would look considerably different). There was not a specific limit on the number of units, nor was there a traffic study constraining what could and could not be accomplished. There were, however, specific minimums and maximums on the amount of land that could be used for residential (apartments, single-family homes), commercial, industrial and open space. So, there were constraints but within them also considerable flexibility.

(I know. This is a cheap way to get new content up. But, as I said, I didn't think the discussion back then was as lively as it should be for this topic, which is at the heart of many of the disagreements about Town Center.)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Everything was there except I noticed that it didn't look as big...

Google won't help with that one.

If you haven't noticed (or cared to notice), I've taken to titling posts with song lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are germane to the subject I'm writing about; sometimes not so much. There's no particular reason I started doing this, but now it's the thing I do, so no turning back now, I guess. Think of it as a way to gain insight into my personality, without having to read through boring personal anecdotes about my life.

Speaking of anecdotes...

The Husky and I decided to go for a jaunt in the woods yesterday. It was nice -- thanks for asking.

On our way back, we drove up Ilchester Road in Ellicott City, which wasn't so nice. Ilchester, as many of you know, follows a tributary of the Patapsco River north from Route 103 to an old, burned-out mill and this new pedestrian bridge.

Very nice!

(The Husky isn't much of a fan of this or the other bridge near the Avalon section of Patapsco -- he's not so sure about all the swinging.)

Anyway, on our way back towards Route 103, I noticed an alarming proliferation of fairly-new houses cropping up along Ilchester Road. And though it may come as a surprise to some, seeing this type of development makes my blood boil.

I understand and respect property rights as much as the next market-loving capitalist, and I also love nature as much as the next tree-spiking hippy. But, what I don't understand is why we continue to allow McMansions in places where they are totally out of place and can inflict significant harm to sensitive environmental areas -- for instance, riparian zones -- while places where development is entirely appropriate -- say, parking lots in Town Center -- are growth battle zones. I know there are many, many issues tied up in the Town Center debate and that growth battle zones exist all over the county, but I'm overlooking all that here to highlight the belief, held by at least a few, that growth is growth is growth. Really, it's not.

Given my contradictory (to some) love of markets and nature, creating a program where development rights can be transferred from bad places to good places seems almost too sensible. And it must be, because I almost never hear anyone talk about it.

A few quick thoughts about how it would work: Landowners with existing development rights could sell these rights (thus preserving the value of their land while leaving it undeveloped) to landowners in approved areas who currently lack residential development rights. With such a market, all the goodness of supply and demand would take over and we're (theoretically) left with an optimum outcome.

The approved areas would most likely be Town Center and along Route 1. Units probably would not be sold one-for-one, as a single development unit in the rural west is entirely different from a single unit in Town Center. I would still give the new Town Center a baseline set of residential units to start with. After all, the community art, plazas and other amenities won't pay for themselves, and forcing General Growth to buy development rights cuts into this pool of money.

I've mentioned this before with respect to Doughoregan (what's going on with that, by the way?). Of course, there are myriad issues that would have to be worked out and resistance is likely from numerous fronts. None of this, however, should preclude us from trying or at least discussing it, right?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Please allow me to introduce myself...

As a candidate for the Oakland Mills Columbia Council seat.

It's a free ride when you've already paid…

At the end of a long piece that basically reads like a press release for the Coaltion for Columbia's Downtown comes this four sentence kicker laced with enough irony to set Alanis Morissette straight.

Regardless, Klein expects intense debate over the future of downtown.

The coalition, he says, is working "with a wide variety" of other community groups in the hope that they will speak "with one voice."

"We have felt that one of the issues is that the citizens have other things to do," Klein says. "The developers are more focused, and the citizens are not as effective in getting their voice heard."
Where to begin?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

What's going on...

...with this story?

The Ehrlich administration fast-tracked a minority business application from a group of prominent Republican women, clearing the way for their hastily formed firm to participate in a $110 million information technology contract with the Department of Human Resources, an investigation by The Sun reveals.

The company, called Isis Technology Consulting LLC, was the brainchild of long-time GOP strategist Carol L. Hirschburg. As a subcontractor on the DHR job, the firm had already received some compensation when the deal went sour last month, in large part because Hirschburg wanted a guarantee that her firm would collect nearly $12 million over three years.

A review of state records shows that Isis was certified as a minority business in 30 days instead of 90 to 120 days, the typical waiting time. Isis also was given leeway to bend regulations intended to help "disadvantaged" individuals - those with personal net worth of $1.5 million or less - compete for state contracts.

Isis' preferential treatment has caught the attention of the newly installed administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley. Reacting to The Sun's questions about Isis, John D. Porcari, the acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the minority business program, said he has ordered an audit of all firms that were fast-tracked in recent years, including during the last Democratic administration.

I don't want to draw any hasty conclusions, but something seems fishy about this situation. It definitely bears watching.

Normally, I leave state issues to the newspapers and other bloggers, but this story has a local connection.

...[S]tate records show that two non-minority firms - Syscom and ACS State and Local Solutions Inc. - played direct roles in the formation of Isis.

Hirschburg registered Isis' corporate charter with the state Aug. 26, 2005, the day after Syscom executives Theodore Bayer and Mark Anzmann, the husbands of two Isis team members, met with DHR procurement staff. Also in attendance was Christopher J. Merdon, an ACS executive and former Republican Howard County Council member who ran unsuccessfully for county executive last year.

Merdon chose Isis, and three other minority firms with Republican ties, to team with ACS on the DHR bid, according to state records.

DHR set a 35 percent minority business participation goal for the project. Isis, according to a document submitted by Merdon, was to perform 11 percent of the work, including "DHR website maintenance" and enhancement of one computer system to monitor welfare payments and another, known as "Chessie," to track foster children. Troubled Chessie has cost close to $70 million in state and federal money.

Besides Isis, Merdon selected Gantech Inc., a Rockville firm headed by Hispanic-American Thomas J. Laskowski III, which contributed more than $5,000 to Merdon's failed campaign for county executive, and Maricom Systems Inc., the CEO of which is Maria E. Jackson, an African-American who served on an Ehrlich business advisory committee.

Merdon also tapped the Canton Group, a Baltimore company that is controlled in part by Asian-American Aaron Kazi, a Republican who ran for Harford County executive last year. Kazi's firm performed Web site work for Ehrlich's 2002 gubernatorial campaign as well as for several state agencies under his administration.

Of Merdon's minority firm picks, Isis was the only one without state certification.

As I said, there's not enough information to say with any certainty that impropriety was involved or what this means in the bigger picture.

But what do you think? Are insider deals and favors endemic in our political system, or should we expect better? What about the broader implications of this still-breaking story?