Tag Archives: Baltimore

O’Malley’s Folly

By Barry Rascovar

BALTIMORE CITY has a white elephant on its hands, a $301 million, deep-in-debt convention hotel it owns because of the folly of its former mayor, Martin O’Malley.

Back when the city was desperately trying to boost its sagging convention business, then-Mayor O’Malley and his economic development team insisted the answer was a convention hotel directly linked to the meeting facility.

He was right, but his method for getting the Hilton Baltimore built has put his City Hall successors in a frightful financial bind that will only worsen with time.

The Lure of the Buck

O’Malley and his inner circle got sucked into the misguided belief that Baltimore could reap a badly needed bonanza by owning the convention hotel itself.

Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley

They fell for the preposterous estimate by one developer group that the city could earn a profit of $300 million over 30 years by owning the hotel, and that Baltimore then could sell the facility for $400 million more.

It was buncombe, as H.L. Mencken might say.

Anyone with a whiff of skepticism could smell the hype and spot the puffery of such an outlandish prediction.

Yet it left the then-mayor salivating for a big payoff for his struggling city.

It was a high-risk gamble that required extensive deal-making with doubting City Council members to gain approval on a 9-6 vote.

And then things fell apart.

What Went Wrong?

The Great Recession wiped out all those rosy forecasts for the convention hotel.

This was predictable.

A convention expert from Texas pointed out that cities too often fall into the trap of believing a headquarters hotel will simultaneously increase convention center business and generate enough revenue to pay off bonds.

It rarely works that way.

Pie-in-the-sky economic projections for convention hotels fail to take one pivotal factor into account, he said – the virtual certainty of a sharp economic downturn once or twice a decade that devastates hotel business.

Red Ink Every Year

Hilton Baltimore lost $17 million in its first, partial year during the Great Recession. It lost in the vicinity of $11 million in each of the last two years as the economy continued to struggle.

Hilton Baltimore

Hilton Baltimore

All told, the hotel’s losses top $50 million.

The city will owe $18.5 million on the Hilton Baltimore’s debt next year and $28 million by 2039. The hotel’s revenue last year, not counting expenses, was only $17.4 million.

And if Baltimore decided to get out of the hotel-ownership business, a consultant says it would lose as much a $90 million in a sale.

Thank you, Martin O’Malley.

Was There Another Choice?

Early in the convention hotel discussion, O’Malley said, “We want to do this with as little exposure as possible for the citizens of Baltimore.”

Indeed, there were other options besides city ownership.

One of the three bidders, the prestigious Portman architectural group from Atlanta, offered three different alternatives, including private financing.

But the lure of a giant windfall for Baltimore city proved too powerful.

O’Malley should have listened to one of the wisest voices on the City Council, the veteran urban advocate, Mary Pat Clarke, whose husband is a developer.

Mary Pat Clarke

Mary Pat Clarke

“Should we really be in the hotel business?” Clarke wanted to know.

“Let [private investors] take the risk.”

Another insightful councilman (now a state delegate), Keiffer Mitchell Jr., noted:

“The city should not be in the business of owning a hotel. We have a hard enough time trying to manage our housing stock and our school system. This is one more headache we don’t need.”

Baltimore’s Dilemma

In a premonition of what was to come, Clarke worried that once the hotel starts losing money, “we would really be cutting into revenues the city expects to use for other uses.”

So now Baltimore is stuck with an antiseptic, view-blocking albatross of a convention hotel that diverts millions in city tax revenue away from schools, housing and neighborhood services.

But the person primarily responsible for this debacle is nowhere in sight.

He lives in Annapolis, across from the State House, and spends his days campaigning for national office.

Baltimore’s on-going convention hotel mess is no longer on his agenda.

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Gansler, Cardin, Obamacare and More

Odds and Ends

By Barry Rascovar

October 31 — THESE ARE THE the times that try Doug Gansler’s soul. Has anyone ever had a bumpier stretch in recent Maryland political history?

The attorney general has been mocked, frequently, on national TV programs for his lame explanation of his appearance at, and hands-off attitude toward, a raucous high school graduation beach blowout this summer.

That followed his argumentative responses to State Police complaints that Gansler is a reckless, back-seat driver oblivious to traffic laws and speeding tickets.

Well, here’s some good news: Gansler’s lack of identity with most Maryland voters (72 percent either didn’t recognize his name or were neutral toward him in the latest Gonzales poll) is a thing of the past.

EVERYONE knows Doug Gansler today.

Jay Leno jokes about him. Local radio talk shows conducted saturation bombing. The story’s gone international.

Gansler explaining himself

Gansler explaining himself

Of course this means Gansler’s negatives have soared, too. Only four percent in the Gonzales poll said they had an unfavorable impression of Gansler. That number is sure to skyrocket.

Here’s the really good news for Maryland’s twice-elected attorney general: Believe it or not, we are still eight long months from the Democratic primary. That’s a couple of lifetimes in politics.

If Gansler can regain his equilibrium and develop a cogent and sensible response to his recent gaffes, we may yet have a closely contested election for governor next year.

*     *     *     *     *

IT WON’T BE easy, though, for Gansler to put this controversy behind him. The media is in a feeding frenzy.

 It’s “get Gansler” time.

The Baltimore Sun delivered a hatchet job on Sunday that sought to compare Gansler’s moments of poor judgment with criminality by other elected officials.

In its print edition, the front-page headline read, “Weathering a political storm.” It was an even-handed account of how officials recover from political gaffes. But the comparisons made in the article, and especially the photos placed next to the front-page text, equated the attorney general’s modest mishaps to far more serious misdeeds that sent Marvin Mandel, Marion Barry and Dale Anderson to prison and Bill Clinton to the brink of impeachment.

Since when is failure to break up a high school graduation beach party a criminal offense?

How does violating traffic laws equate with Mandel’s criminal corruption conviction, Barry’s drug conviction or Anderson’s jail time for corrupt activities while in office?

None of them ever ran for higher office after their scandals, as Gansler is now doing. That’s another unfair comparison.

Clinton’s sex scandal does raise troubling character issues, but comparing that national moment of political angst to Gansler’s situation is ludicrous — and laughable.

Still, the damage has been done.

Just to rub it in, Sunday Sun editors also ran a 1,400-word critique on the way visual television imagery is responsible for Gansler’s pounding.

It was an interesting but way-too-long essay. And, of course, the editors couldn’t resist re-running that condemnatory photo of Gansler at the teen beach party. Another Sun “gotcha” moment.

Lost in the editors’ haste to pile on was The Sun’s October 24 editorial on the Gansler brouhaha — a measured, carefully nuanced analysis about difficult choices parents have to make while raising teenagers. It was a far cry from the tabloid journalism the newspaper’s editors presented to its readers on Sunday.

*     *     *     *     *

QUICK QUIZ: Who is leading the race for Maryland attorney general?

According to the latest Gonzales poll, the winner, by a mile, is that old, reliable favorite — “Undecided”.

Gonzales Polling CompanyThe results show that few voters even know who’s running for A.G.

The only reason Del. Jon Cardin polled 25 percent was due to his well-known uncle, the U.S. Senator from Maryland. Still, “Undecided” beat Jon Cardin in the poll by nearly 2-to-1.

It’s a good thing the office in question isn’t much more than a glorified law firm serving state agencies.

Voters aren’t likely to learn a lot about the candidates running for attorney general by the June 24 primary. It’s not a pressing matter for them. Besides, the gubernatorial candidates will dominate media attention and saturate the state with commercials.

Thus voters could end up picking an attorney general based on “the name’s the same” or the candidate who appears on the most local endorsement tickets.

It’s unlikely the outcome will be decided by deep voter knowledge of the A.G. candidates.

*     *     *     *     *

AN INSURANCE FRIEND reminds me that all the buzz about the number of Obamacare sign-ups since October 1 is highly misleading and meaningless.

As anyone in the insurance game will tell you, a new client doesn’t count until that individual writes a check to cover the first month’s invoice.

This won’t occur until close to the sign-up deadlines under the Affordable Care Act — late December and late March.

Until then, ignore the sign-up propaganda emanating from the White House, the State House and Republicans saboteurs. Two months from now we’ll know a lot more about the success or failure of this dreadfully managed rollout.

*     *     *     *     *

ISN’T IT IRONIC that no one is protesting as Baltimore City is about to spend at least $83 million on “smart” meters to help the city accurately bill residents for water usage?

When BGE and PEPCO sought to install similar “smart” meters to measure precise, real-time electric use, alarmist groups protested before the Public Service Commission about alleged health hazards from the meters’ wireless signals.

Smart Meter Protest in California

Smart Meter Protest in California

Those strident protests persuaded the PSC — despite the lack of scientific evidence — to impose needless smart-meter restraints on the utilities that will cost tens of millions of dollars.

As the Tea Party and smart-meter protesters have learned, it pays to yell at the top of your lungs.

Baltimore City officials are getting off lucky.

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Gansler, Craig Stumble in MD Governor’s Race

Red-Light Runner vs. Environment-Killer

By Barry Rascovar

October 20, 2013 — EARLY STUMBLES IN Maryland governor’s race are expected. Sometimes, though, those slips have lasting consequences. Already, both Attorney General Doug Gansler and Harford County Executive David Craig have shot themselves in their political feet — wounds that might prove fatal.

Gansler’s trip-ups could be symptoms of a larger problem.

When the story broke that he’d been acting like an impatient cowboy in his state-owned car — sirens blaring, charging through red lights and far exceeding the speed limit — he lashed out at the Maryland State Police and accused the governor of leaking news about critical State Police incident reports to help Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Gov. Martin O’Malley had kept this an internal matter for two years until John Wagner of the Washington Post made a public information request for documents that show how Gansler’s hyper-active personality extended to ordering troopers to ignore traffic and safety laws simply because he was in a hurry.

The reports — by at least seven different troopers — are highly unflattering.

Gansler needed to apologize, promise to end his back-seat driving commands and move on.

Instead, he launched a PR effort to downplay and discredit the State Police documents. Bad move.

Then he blamed Brown and O’Malley for planting the story for political purposes. Second bad move.

Next, he partially apologized only to go on TV and blast “henchmen” in the State Police for trying to destroy him politically. Terrible move.

Unprecedented Response

It set off a volcanic reaction within the State Police and an unprecedented 500-word broadside denying Gansler’s assertions and strongly defending the troopers for doing their jobs. The statement vociferously rejected Gansler insinuations the Maryland State Police had entered the gubernatorial political fray.

Gansler repeatedly mishandled his responses.

He allowed the controversy to overshadow his selection of Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County as his running mate. Moreover, it left the strong impression he may not be ready for prime time as governor.

Doug Gansler is a fast-talking, quick-paced lawyer who got in trouble. and was reprimanded in 2003, by the state’s highest court for mouthing off inappropriately about court rulings he didn’t like while Montgomery County state’s attorney.

He’s an aggressive campaigner (and an aggressive lacrosse player, too) who appears equally aggressive on the highway — and in his public comments.

That may not be the sort of person voters want in the governor’s mansion.

Would he run political red lights as chief executive, trample on protocol and offend legislators to get his way?

Would he act impetuously on important issues instead of following the rules of the road in the State House?

O’Malley’s Role Questioned

Gansler may be right that O’Malley and his minions leaked word of the State Police reports — though it is more likely a veteran reporter like Wagner got word of Gansler’s misbehavior from an angry state trooper or a Brown ally with State Police connections.

More curious is the lengthy State Police statement criticizing Gansler. The name of Marcus Brown, the State Police superintendent and an O’Malley appointee, appears nowhere on this document. The superintendent was conspicuously missing from this food fight.

It’s also next to impossible to release such a harsh statement without first gaining approval from the governor. The timing of the release — right before Gansler’s event introducing Ivey as his running mate — is equally suspect.

In public, O’Malley kept above the fray, simply praising the state troopers and the leader of the executive protection unit for providing quality security.

Gansler sees all this as more evidence of “dirty politics” and “dirty tricks” similar to an earlier episode where a video suddenly surfaced showing Gansler dismissing Brown as a do-nothing lieutenant governor.

But without concrete evidence to support his claims, Gansler is left with egg on his face yet again.

He’s gotten into a pitched battle he can’t win. The longer he continues to deny and denounce, the longer and deeper the damage.

There’s plenty of time for his wounds to heal. But there’s also a chance these self-inflicted injuries could fester if Gansler isn’t careful.

Turning to the GOP Race

David Craig’s early mistakes could be equally serious.

He’s got a dual problem: Winning a Republican primary against far more conservative  candidates in an era of successful Tea Party challenges in GOP primaries across the country, and then presenting a moderate face in the general election.

Swing hard right in June, march toward the center in November.

Harford Co. Exec. David Craig

Harford Co. Executive David Craig

Craig is seeking to out-conservative his primary foes but he may already have created such a right-wing image that he’s killed his general election chances.

He’s been the favorite to win the primary. But the growing influence of Tea Party activists and ideological purists may have made him leery of being viewed as a soft-spoken moderate conservative.

So he has strayed farther and farther to the right in his statements, especially on the environment.

To date, Craig has called for eliminating state-mandated charges on impermeable surfaces (the so-called “rain tax”); repealing one of the key environmental statutes protecting the Chesapeake Bay, the Critical Areas Law; wiping out a law banning increases in stormwater runoff, and abolishing a law setting limits on farm fertilizer and waste runoffs.

He’s also called for tighter time limits on those receiving food stamps and other benefits. And late last week he said the state should defy the federal government and ignore Washington’s Common Core standards for raising education performance in public schools.

In one-on-one conversations, Craig sounds a lot more reasonable and moderate. He’s not abandoning the Chesapeake Bay, he says. He simply wants programs that are effective in cleaning up this vital estuary. He comes across as a pragmatist, which has defined much of his public career.

The trouble is that in issuing harsh right-wing statements on environmental, health and education issues, Craig cannot retract them after the June primary.

Democratic Response

No Democratic or independent voter who cares about the environment is going to forget that Craig called for abolishing the pivotal Critical Areas Law. To them, that’s equivalent to trashing the Chesapeake Bay.

Democratic politicians will tar Craig for being an anti-environmentalist. He’ll be portrayed as an antiquarian seeking to erase a half-century of progressive legislation in Maryland.

None of what Craig proposes is realistic. A heavily Democratic legislature wouldn’t tolerate the notions he is advancing. He’s seriously harmed his electability.

The irony is that we still don’t know the strength of Tea Party politics in Maryland GOP primaries. It could be loud but localized. If that’s the case, Craig is needlessly pandering to the absolutists while losing any chance of pulling off a November miracle.

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Who Does the Truth Hurt — Gansler or Brown?

By Barry Rascovar / August 19, 2013

THAT OLD ADAGE, “the truth hurts,” could prove a double-edged rapier for Maryland’s main gubernatorial contenders, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Yes, Gansler was too blunt in addressing a group of volunteer supporters. He dared voice what many have been saying privately — that Brown’s sparkling resume masks the fact he has only a smattering of substantive accomplishments.

Attorney General Doug GanslerAnd yes, Gansler blurted out what is all too clear but rarely discussed so openly — that Brown hopes to win election by touting the fact he would be Maryland’s first black governor.

As the attorney general put it, such a “first” is a “laudable goal” but “you need a second sentence” that describes what you’ve done to earn it.

Brown’s Response

Brown’s camp Immediately sought to sensationalize Gansler’s comments. A Brown spokesman said the attorney general was “out of control,” that he should not “attack other Democrats,” that Gansler is “the only one talking about race,”  that Gansler had “belittled the record of a war veteran who served in Iraq.”

Oh, please. Cue the national anthem.

Apparently it would be unpatriotic, un-Democratic, and downright racist to vote for someone with loose lips like Gansler.

While this attack-dog rhetoric makes for a neat propaganda pitch, the truth isn’t nearly so one-sided.

Brown’s campaign promotes the fact he’d be the first black Maryland governor. (Although with a Swiss mother and a Jamaican father it is a stretch to call him an African American.) His followers are trying to rally black voters to his cause by making that very claim. On Friday, the candidate himself even encouraged black county officials to support their own kind.

It’s no small point, either, with up to a third of the Democratic primary vote likely to come from African Americans.

Segmenting the Vote

Brown is quite openly targeting the state’s large African American vote centered in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. To deny that obvious strategy is to deceive Marylanders of your true intentions.

There’s nothing wrong in segmenting the voting populace that way. Gansler is seeking support from the state’s Jewish voters and lawyers. Del. Heather Mizeur is going after the gay and lesbian vote. (This would be another “first” for Maryland.) It is a time-honored tradition — you solicit backing from demographic groups where there is a personal affinity.

Lt. Gov. Anthony BrownAt this early stage, we don’t know what else Brown will add to his demographic strategy. He’s been mute on his campaign platform other than continuing O’Malley’s liberal social spending policies. He’s yet to outline what he’d do differently or how he’d pay for new initiatives.

But we do know Brown’s main objective is to win a lopsided vote from Maryland’s blacks. That is his key to victory.

So when Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, an ardent Brown supporter, goes overboard and accuses Gansler of “playing the race card,” she had better re-examine how Brown is running his own campaign. The lieutenant governor already is playing that game.

What Has He Done?

Gansler’s second point — Brown’s thin list of achievements next to his own — is what he wants to impress on voters.

Brown’s tenure in the House of Delegates wasn’t marked by great personal accomplishments. His nearly seven years as lieutenant governor have witnessed lock-step loyalty to O’Malley’s programs, continuous speech-making and a few items he claims credit for. It’s not a gourmet menu he offers voters.

Even Brown’s military service has been greatly magnified.

While stationed in Iraq for a year as a colonel in the Army Reserves, Brown wasn’t battling armed Shiite dissidents. Instead, he was shuttled by armored caravan from the heavily fortified U.S. headquarters in the Green Zone to a government-protected building where he  educated Iraqi lawyers on how to run a democratic justice system.

It was important work that seriously disrupted his home life and required enormous personal sacrifice. But this alone doesn’t qualify anyone to be Maryland governor.

The Fallout, Pro and Con

Will Gansler’s “gaff,” as newsies are calling it, damage his gubernatorial chances?

Yes and no.

He has given the Brown camp juicy ammunition that will help pump up enthusiasm for Brown in African American communities. Gansler’s words will be repeated often during Brown’s get-out-the-vote drive next year.

On the other hand, whoever leaked the tape of Gansler’s remarks may have done him an enormous favor.

Gansler is now talking openly about looking beyond a candidate’s race, ethnic origin or sexual orientation to the issues. It’s now mandatory he prove to voters his record in public service (as attorney general and state’s attorney for Montgomery County) is superior to Brown’s.

It may come with the added necessity of going negative — telling Democratic voters what Brown hasn’t done during his two terms as lieutenant governor.

Gansler already is seeking to put Brown on the defensive by asking what the lieutenant governor would do about Maryland’s prison crisis. Thanks to Gansler’s “gaff,” the campaign for governor could develop a sharpened focus sooner than anyone expected. It also guarantees next year’s gubernatorial debates will be humdingers.

Politicians as Truth-Tellers

What the attorney general told his volunteers was refreshing in its directness and honesty. He didn’t demean his opponent or call him names. (Listen to the tapes.) He simply made a statement about Brown’s record and campaign strategy.

Such truth-telling can be a hit with voters. Just ask New Jersey’s outspoken governor, Chris Christie, perhaps the most popular Republican in America. Look at the notoriety Vice President Joe Biden receives when he lapses into political candor.

And remember this state’s fascination and love affair with William Donald Schaefer when as governor and mayor he said what was on his mind, even if it wasn’t politically correct.

Remember, too, that we’re still in the “dog days of August,” many, many months removed from the time when voters look seriously at the candidates.

But we now can say that the first “shot across the bow” in Maryland’s gubernatorial campaign has been fired.

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Legislating From the Bench in MD — Not This Time

Court of Appeals Sustains Contributory Negligence Doctrine 

BY BARRY RASCOVAR / JULY 16, 2013

IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a grand finale for Maryland’s top jurist, Robert Bell — a sweeping re-ordering of this state’s ancient negligence standards by wiping out the common law doctrine known as contributory negligence.

Retired Chief Judge Bob Bell

Retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell

But a funny thing happened on the way to Bell’s retirement as Chief Judge of Maryland’s Court of Appeals: He couldn’t get his colleagues to go along with him. Instead, as often was the case during Bell’s tenure on the state’s highest court, he found himself in a distinct minority.

By a 5-2 vote, the court upheld Maryland’s contributory negligence doctrine employing the same logic as did Bell’s predecessor, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, 30 years ago.

In Maryland, and a handful of other states, if you contribute to your own injury, don’t bother suing others for negligence. It’s a common law standard that dates to 1848 in Maryland, 1809 in England and possibly all the way back to 1606.

Under this doctrine, personal responsibility is deemed paramount. It’s a quaint libertarian view in a 21st century world that increasingly tries to insulate individuals from any and all harm while blaming others — especially those with deep pockets — for our own stupidity or irresponsibility.

Bell dearly wanted to discard contributory negligence. He even formed a special judicial panel to study the matter and report back to him. Those findings didn’t go Bell’s way. The group’s conclusion: This is a complicated matter best left to the General Assembly.

But the chief judge wasn’t deterred. When a test case came along, he made sure the high court grabbed it.

IF ONLY . . .

In an ideal world, a comparative negligence standard would make total sense. Juries would impartially analyze legal arguments and decide how much the plaintiff was at fault for an injury and how much the defendant was at fault.

But juries often render emotional decisions based on the tragic plight of the defendant, heartbreaking tales of loved ones and fire-and-brimstone arguments from plaintiff lawyers urging jurors to hold Big Bad Business to account.

Opening up Maryland to comparative-fault standards would create a huge financial bonanza for litigators and a veritable tsunami of lawsuits swamping Maryland courts.

It also would present an enormous danger to the financial viability of many Maryland businesses, including the state’s medical industry. The number and size of malpractice lawsuits could go through the roof. If you think finding an obstetrician in Baltimore City — a jurisdiction notorious for outsized jury verdicts against doctors — is difficult today, imagine what it would be like if litigators started suing every doctor in sight for the most minor of medical problems patients encounter. If doctors think their malpractice insurance is high now, just wait.

Contributory negligence was embraced in this country in the early 1800s in part to guard against such predatory practices by litigators. Legislators feared that juries, egged on by plaintiff lawyers demanding huge damage awards, would award sums that could kill the nation’s newly developing industries.

That same fear, in a slightly different form, still haunts state lawmakers in Annapolis — and a majority of the state’s highest court.

SEPARATION OF POWERS

The larger issue facing the high court was whether to legislate from the bench.

The panel agreed it had the power to revise a common law rule like contributory negligence. That the jurists refused to do so is a tribute to the majority’s determination not to extend its authority beyond the traditional dividing line separating judicial and legislative branches.

Five of the seven judges concluded: This is a complex, deeply intertwined legal doctrine that can only be altered after considering a kaleidoscope of ramifications affecting the entire gamut of tort liability and insurance law. That’s the role of the legislature, not the courts.

Judge John C. Eldridge, who wrote the majority opinion, even used Bob Bell’s own words against him. He quoted from a 2008 ruling in which the Chief Judge had written, “It is well settled” that when the General Assembly makes clear its wishes on public issues, “the Court will decline to enter the public policy debate” — even if the issues involve a common law doctrine.

It is doubtful these jurists would have wasted so much time and energy debating this matter had not Bell insisted.

In the end, a substantial majority merely re-stated Bob Murphy’s 30-year-old logic for maintaining the legislature’s right to determine the fate of contributory negligence. Any other conclusion, Eldridge noted, “would be totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-standing jurisprudence.”

In Dissent

 ‘A dinosaur roams yet the landscape of Maryland’

Three cheers for Court of Appeals Judge Glenn Harrell for adding some levity to the dry and often ponderous writings of the state’s highest court.

Harrell passionately believes the state’s doctrine of contributory negligence needs to be deep-sixed. It is unfair and out of date, he says. He prefers a pure comparative negligence standard.

The problem is that he was virtually alone in making this argument. Only retiring Chief Judge Bob Bell sided with him.

Appeals Court Judge Glenn Harrell

Appeal Court Judge Glenn Harrell

Harrell, though, didn’t go quietly. He stated his arguments at great length — nearly three times longer than Eldridge’s majority opinion and nine times the length of a supplemental majority opinion by Judge Clayton Greene (with three co-signers).

What’s eye-catching about Harrell’s rant — he’s not a happy camper — is the judge’s opening salvo, which is dripping with mockery, humor and irony.

Here it is:

     “Paleontologists and geologists inform us that Earth’s Cretaceous period (including in what is present day Maryland) ended approximately 65 million years ago with an asteroid striking Earth (the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event), wiping-out, in a relatively short period of geologic time, most plant and animal species, including dinosaurs. As to the last premise, they are wrong. A dinosaur roams yet the landscape of Maryland (and Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina and the District of Columbia), feeding on the claims of persons injured by the negligence of another, but who contributed proximately in some way to the occasion of his or her injuries, however slight their culpability. The name of that dinosaur is the doctrine of contributory negligence. With the force of a modern asteroid strike, this Court should render, in the present case, this dinosaur extinct. It chooses not to do so. Accordingly, I dissent.

     “My dissent does not take the form of a tit-for-tat trading of thrusts and parries with the Majority opinion. Rather, I write for a future majority of this Court, which, I have no doubt, will relegate the fossilized doctrine of contributory negligence to a judicial tar pit at some point.”

 Yes, Harrell was outvoted on the state’s highest court. But at least for two paragraphs he was entertaining.

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Smart Growth, Dumb State (Guess Which One)

owings mills metro centreBy Barry Rascovar / June 19, 2013

THE STATE OF Maryland boasts mightily about its Transit Oriented Development (TOD) programs. Just don’t bother looking for much in the way of tangible results.

“Maryland has great TOD potential” brags the state on its transportation website. Dig a little deeper, though, and it turns into wishful thinking, not boots-on-the-ground achievements.

TODs are the ultimate in Smart Growth.

They turn transit stations into job-centered areas of dense, walkable neighborhoods in both cities and suburbs. Other towns, like Seattle and Denver, offer examples of how to do it. (For more on the potential of “transit villages” in Maryland, see my 2006 Goldseker Foundation report – “Five Years, Fifty Thousand Jobs,” page 13.)

The Baltimore-Washington region, unfortunately, offers examples of how to draw up great plans and watch them fall apart or gather dust.

That thought came to mind at a ribbon-cutting Monday for the state’s one true TOD – Owings Mills Metro Centre.

Brand New Neighborhood

What you see along Grand Central Avenue (see photo above) is a long row of apartment buildings on one side of a broad boulevard and a six-story, library-community college building on the other side flanked by a massive garage — soon to be doubled in size — and an office high-rise under construction.

All of this sits beside the Metro station that connects to downtown Baltimore and Johns Hopkins Hospital. On the east side of the tracks is a huge parking lot. This eventually will become part of the mixed-use TOD.

A brand-new neighborhood is being created where none existed before.

The rail station, library and community college are the draws. A short walk up the hill is a multiplex cinema, townhouses and an aging mall that, if reimagined properly, could extend the scope of this TOD. Just down the road is a large retail development in progress, centered around a Wegmans supermarket.

This TOD will boast a residential population of 2,500 with many more office workers populating the area during the work week. Shops and restaurants will occupy ground floor space. Over 11,000 community college students a year are expected to take day and night courses at the new Community College of Baltimore County campus, sharing facilities with the already popular library branch (the largest in the county at 54,000 square feet).

Persistence Pays Off

What made this a reality was the unwavering commitment of county officials, from Dutch Ruppersberger to Jim Smith to Kevin Kamenetz. They not only funded key infrastructure, they stuck to the vision of making the Owings Mills TOD primarily a residential community.

Instead of transplanting a state agency to a transit station – the state’s feeble stab at the New Carrollton TOD in Prince George’s County – Baltimore County insisted on a library and a community college. These are the sort of amenities people want to live near.

(Had officials taken the same approach at the stalled and deeply flawed State Center TOD in Baltimore – by turning the property into a large mid-town residential neighborhood with appealing attractions – there might have been only token opposition.)

The path to the Owings Mills ribbon cutting wasn’t easy. It proved long (well over a decade) and arduous, especially during the dark days of the Great Recession.

But the county persisted. Officials continued their dialogue with developer Howard Brown until the economics worked.

You can see the future emerging at the Owings Mills Metro. It’s what every TOD should look like.

It’s just a shame Maryland has been so slow catching on to what works, and doesn’t work, in making this valuable Smart Growth tool a success.

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Treatment, Not Jail, for Md.’s Troubled Youth

Silver OakBy Barry Rascovar / June 15, 2013

LET’S NOT MAKE A MOUNTAIN out of the Maryland Board of Public Work’s decision to allow a Carroll County facility for troubled juvenile teens (photo on left) to exceed an artificial cap on population set by the state for such treatment centers.

It was a practical, common-sense action that places the welfare of these disturbed teens ahead of a rigid, inflexible capacity limitation set by Maryland legislators — a limit that actually hurts the very youths this restriction was designed to help.

Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who repeatedly expressed reservations at last week’s meeting about doubling Silver Oak Academy’s population, rightly concluded, “You can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Yes, it’s been shown in other states that smaller treatment centers for young delinquents are more effective in helping them face up to their problems. A 48-bed center is the ideal, but governments rarely face ideal situations.

Right now, there are 43 youth offenders sitting in detention cells awaiting court-ordered placement. No beds are available in any state treatment center. That is the worst possible outcome for these troubled kids.

Why does this chronic situation keep occurring? Because local political leaders block state attempts to locate such facilities in their communities, so that the kids are close to their families. It’s the old “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude, which overrides society’s obligation to do what’s best for difficult-to-handle youngsters.

Opposition from politicians in Southern Maryland and in Baltimore City has stymied efforts to site juvenile care centers (52 city locations failed to pass the NIMBY test) . So 43 kids languish in detention cells, becoming victims of a broken system. The harm done to them is something Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed says, “I can’t tolerate.”

His interim answer: allowing Silver Oak Academy in Keymar to slowly take in 48 more residents. In essence, the operators will run a mirror-image, companion 48-bed center on the property.

Staffing ratios won’t change. Every step taken by the private operator will be closely followed by the attorney general’s juvenile justice monitor (who preferred an expansion of only 24 beds), the Public Defender’s office and by internal department watchdogs.

This isn’t as Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County put it, a “giant step backward.” More accurately, it is a reality check.

Last winter, legislative budget analysts assessed the overcrowding situation and concluded doubling Silver Oak’s capacity “would provide some immediate relief.” It noted that due to repeated local rejection of suggested juvenile  treatment center sites, the state “is multiple years away from having additional. . . capacity available.”

To date, Silver Oak Academy has gotten high marks. There is no indication this will change with 48 extra teens at the facility.

In this instance, the state’s first duty is to get the teens who shouldn’t be there out of detention jails. If that means ignoring an artificial 48-bed limit in the short-term so be it. Treatment should always trump incarceration for young offenders who may yet become model citizens.

 

Baltimore’s Ethically Challenged Mayors

Mayor Rawlings-BlakeBy Barry Rascovar / June 12, 2013

NO. NO. NO. NOT AGAIN! Another Baltimore mayor who doesn’t know right from wrong? Say it ain’t so.

First it was Mayor Sheila Dixon, who got romantically involved with a developer, Ron Lipscomb, who kept winning city contracts. He became the man to partner with for any developer wanting to lock in a big city project. That shameful liaison eventually led to Dixon’s resignation and plea bargain for misusing gift cards meant for the poor.

Now it is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her family living it up with the city’s top lobbyist and her family at the lobbyist’s Delaware beach house. The mayor paid Lisa Harris Jones $400 for the Memorial Day weekend jaunt, so in her eyes that makes it copacetic.

She’s missing the big picture. Here’s the most powerful official in Baltimore spending a weekend with the city’s most prolific lobbyist at the lobbyist’s seaside digs. This is just after the mayor attended the lobbyist’s Las Vegas wedding (to her equally well-connected lobbyist-partner on the state and city scene, Sean Malone). (For a profile of Harris Jones Malone, see Mark Reutter’s wonderful piece in Baltimore Brew, http://www.baltimorebrew.com/2013/06/12/lisa-harris-jones-a-portrait-of-the-mayors-lobbyist-friend/)

The cash register will be ringing and ringing for the Malones. What businessman or developer is going to use anyone else to get the inside track on city deals?

The appearance of impropriety is so sharp and stunning. How could Rawlings-Blake not see it? Especially after Dixon’s lack of concern with appearances — and the result.

So far, Rawlings-Blake has done a good job improving ethics at City Hall. But she doesn’t understand that being mayor sometimes means separating yourself from close, longtime friends while you are in office. Otherwise, people might get the wrong idea.

That’s certainly the case this time.

Maryland’s Political Prison Puzzle

Corrections Dept.By Barry Rascovar / June 11, 2013

THERE IS NO WAY Gov. Martin O’Malley can make Maryland’s prison embarrassment disappear. Lord knows he’d like to. If he’s serious about running for President, O’Malley must explain why he was so slow to respond to the growing influence of street gangs within state prisons over the past seven years.

He can’t blame this one on his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich. The problem started to build back then but there were clear signs early in O’Malley’s first term gangs had become dangerously powerful inside prison walls.

He can’t blame all his tardiness on the FBI, which took two long years to finish its investigation at the Baltimore City jail. Yes, that stymied efforts to remove suspect prisoners and guards. But there were plenty of other steps — much-needed additional training, rotation of guards not under investigation and a review of the leadership team’s skills, abilities and honesty.

An outside audit earlier this year revealed a shocking lack of attention by the O’Malley administration to the basics: filthy cells, no standard security checks, antiquated security gates and guards ignorant of an inmate’s rights. Part of this is due to budget cuts during the Great Recession and the chronic under-funding of prison programs by government.

However, the audit also revealed a top-heavy, inefficient management structure. How could O’Malley’s highly touted State Stat gurus miss this? Why wasn’t this costly, ineffective administrative excess done away with during the state’s deep recession?

It’s a dilemma for the governor and a headache for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who may have made a mistake with his early announcement of candidacy to succeed O’Malley.

Brown is in the uncomfortable posture of explaining the prison scandal on his watch. Attorney General Doug Gansler’s shot across O’Malley’s bow in asking for an independent inquiry is just the beginning of the political broadsides.

Yet O’Malley has got a right to be angry at the way federal investigators trumpeted their indictments. Instead of holding a joint press conference and sharing credit with state leaders, who had requested the investigation after all, the FBI and U.S. Attorney for Maryland decided to grandstand. They left the clear impression O’Malley and his underlings were asleep at the switch.

That may win federal officials in Maryland gold stars from their Washington bosses but it soured future relations with Annapolis.

Digging out of this mess won’t be easy, as House Speaker Mike Busch noted. One legislative hearing is the beginning of public discussions, not the end.

There are serious mid-level management weaknesses. Those can be corrected by prisions secretary Gary Maynard. He can institute tough new security measures to eliminate most contraband cell phones and drugs. Downsizing the prison bureaucracy is essential. A little money from the governor can make the Baltimore jail cleaner and safer.

Getting rid of dishonest guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center is a must but it brings up an equally serious problem: how to replace them? The pool of guard applicants in Baltimore City who are drug-free and have clean records is small, especially among males. Most applicants come from the same neighborhoods as the inmates. That’s not a healthy situation.

Female applicants in Baltimore City, meanwhile, tend to have self-confidence problems and are susceptible to the amorous sweet-talk of manipulative inmates. Recruiting better guard applicants won’t be easy and won’t happen quickly.

O’Malley erred several times by not personally taking control of the situation and setting the record straight as to who started this investigation, his earlier steps to attack the gang issue and his determination to continue the effort. He could have done this after he returned from his economic development trip to Israel or at last week’s legislative hearing.

Instead, he chose to govern through press releases. It didn’t work.

On this one he needs to lead the crusade. If not, he’ll be dogged by prison scandal questions at every campaign stop across the country — and his preferred successor will be bogged down trying to explain what went so wrong that it left Maryland in an embarrassing national spotlight.

 

 

Maryland’s Nullification Craze

Sheriff CorleyBy Barry Rascovar / June 6, 2013

LET’S SEE IF I’ve got this straight:

—Garrett County’s elected sheriff (see photo) says he won’t enforce Maryland’s new gun registration law because he believes it is unconstitutional. In three other rural counties, elected leaders pass resolutions proclaiming defiance and denouncing the law.

—Baltimore’s City Council unanimously approves a bill requiring city building contractors to hire locally, even though the city solicitor says this is such a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution it is “legally indefensible.”

—Frederick County’s commissioners mock the state’s stormwater remediation fee — the so-called “rain tax” — by setting a penny-a-year charge on residents, thus netting $487 for watershed improvements. It’s their way of “complying” with the law.

In each case, rebellion is afoot, a form of modern-day nullification.

No court has ever upheld the legal theory of nullification, which essentially says if you don’t like a law you simply declare it null and void — the ultimate in libertarian individualism.

Under the guise of nullification, some Maryland politicians recently took it upon themselves to interpret the law the way they want it.

Sheriff Rob Corley announced he would decide for himself when he’ll enforce the state’s new gun law. The 14-year veteran of isolated Garrett County’s police department declared the law unconstitutional — apparently based on the fine legal training he received as an undergraduate at West Virginia’s Fairmont State College.

This raises the obvious question: What laws will Corley enforce? Does he get to pick and choose? Who made him arbiter?

The good news is Corley will play no role in carrying out the new gun registration law. The Maryland State Police can handle this chore without the sheriff’s offer of non-assistance, thank you.

The bad news is that citizens of Garrett County must be wondering what kind of sheriff they elected. He’s only going to enforce some of the laws? Since he’s the sheriff he must think he can make things up as he goes along. So much for a state legislature, governor and the courts.

Meanwhile in Baltimore City the nullification farce took a different tack. Instead of obeying the U.S. Constitution, City Council President Jack Young and his equally hapless colleagues passed a local hiring ordinance that snubs the Supreme Court. So what if this law is unconstitutional? We want a local hiring mandate!

Not one member had the integrity to disagree with this farce. Even the mayor ducked: She said the bill would become law without her signature. What a portrait of courage!

To rub in the insult, Council President Young submitted a bill seeking an “independent” legal adviser for the council. He didn’t like the city Law Department’s ruling so he wants to hire his own lawyer, whose job will depend on pleasing the Council president. Nice way to squander taxpayer dollars.

Finally in Frederick County, the tea party commissioners came as close as they dared to declare the “rain tax” null and void. One dissenting commissioner compared passage of a penny-a-year fee to a child throwing “a tantrum on the floor in the middle of a department store.”

That’s par for the course for the ring-leader, Commissioner Blaine Young, who wants to be governor. It was widely viewed as a political stunt, one of many by Young. Yet if this defiance persists Frederick is still obligated to finance $112 million worth of watershed cleanup. $487 a year won’t cut it. One day the cleanup bill will come due — only it will be much more expensive by then.

So nullification lives on in Maryland, from both the far left and the far right, in the urban core and the Appalachian mountains. The land of the free and the home of the brave!