Archive for the ‘Washington Post Crossposted’ category

04.04.11 Bag Tax: Thank You, Valerie

April 4, 2011

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Those familiar with my coverage of the local political scene know that I have been a frequent critic of Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), mostly because of her frequent refusal to take public stands on positions until she is sure where the majority is.

Well, this time, I want to thank Valerie, who has spoken out on the Kojo Nnamdi show and elsewhere in support of the proposed five-cent fee on disposal bags in MoCo.

Here is her response to my request to learn where she stood on the issue:


Thank you for sharing your views on proposed Council Bill 8-11, Taxation — Excise Tax — Disposable Carryout Bags. I hesitate to use the word “tax” because the intent of this bill is to create an incentive to change behavior. As I have made very clear when the bill was introduced on March 15, as well as on radio interviews, I am a supporter of this bill. Most recently, I expressed my support when I was a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi show last Friday, March 25.

To me, this is an issue of environmental stewardship. This legislation will create an incentive to use reusable bags, therefore decreasing our reliance on disposable bags, which often end up in our streams and tributaries. I know how important this issue is from my service on the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

I do want to ensure that there is a strong public information and outreach effort. This is important for residents who rely on public transportation and are struggling to make ends meet. Buying bags could be an economic hardship on some residents. My hope is that the County can partner with a corporate sponsor to conduct reusable bag giveaways. I have not seen any details on outreach efforts yet, so I will be monitoring this issue closely as it moves through the hearing process.

Thanks again for writing to me on this issue. Please feel free to attend the public hearing this Thursday night, March 31 at 7:30 p.m,. or submit your testimony to the Council in writing.

Valerie Ervin

Montgomery County Council President


03.16.11 Gay Marriage: Del. Alston’s (Ir)responsibility

March 16, 2011

This is cross-posted with (a somewhat milder version on) the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Maryland State Del. Tiffany T. Alston campaigned in the fall as a supporter of marriage rights for all Marylanders. When legislation was introduced a few weeks ago to make our state a pioneer for this fundamental civil right, Alston didn’t just voice support, she signed on as a co-sponsor. But when the bill came up for a crucial committee vote, Alston simply didn’t show up. Though she continues to proclaim that guaranteeing marriage equality is the right thing to do, she ended up voting against the bill in committee, and her opposition was one reason why the bill never made it to the House floor for a final vote.

What happened to Alston? It’s simple: The African American religious community made her phone ring off the hook. They put on the squeeze and she sold her soul.

This brings up a fundamental dilemma in representative government: Does a legislator owe allegiance to “what’s right” or to the clamor of constituents, when those two principles are in opposition?

On the one hand, I simply don’t believe in the ultimate wisdom (or virtue) of most politicians. I think they should listen carefully to constituents and be guided by them a good deal of the time. On the other hand, enlightened democracy is not about mob rule: Not every question of public policy should be subject to the whims of whoever can whip up the most fervor or contribute the most money.

But here are two reasons why Del. Alston’s behavior was clearly wrong in this case: The minor reason is that she ran publicly as favoring gay marriage. She didn’t spring her position on an unsuspecting electorate as some sort of purposeful subterfuge. The voters knew whom they were electing, which attenuates their right to demand a change of position.

The major reason why Alston is wrong is that civil rights and civil liberties ought never be subject to majority will. Otherwise, would school desegregation or interracial marriage have become the law of the land in the middle of last century?

So, why is it right to follow the hatred and vitriol of constituents when they demand discrimination against one of the last minority groups in this country whom it is still “ok” to hate? Bigotry is bigotry and must be opposed whenever it rears its ugly head.

Two more points:

• Homophobic African Americans who fought to defeat gay marriage should be ashamed of themselves. I have special contempt for oppressed people who — when they gain some measure of power — turn it against others who are oppressed. (Are you listening, Israel?)

• Religion has no place in the formation of public policy. I don’t give a shit what your particular interpretation of your particular holy text suggests to you about the need to persecute someone else. Separation of church and state cannot stop you from hating in your heart, but it ought to prevent you from legislating based on that hatred.

Here’s hoping that Maryland eventually rises above the bigotry. Advocates for equal rights will be back next year and — just as with the train started by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — we may well be detoured, but our eventual victory is assured.

©2011 Keith Berner

03.14.11 Montgomery Schools vs. the Rest of Us

March 14, 2011

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Across the country, the GOP has declared war on education, slashing budgets willy-nilly as if producing responsible, capable citizens had nothing to do with a safe and prosperous future for all of us.

Here are home, the tables are turned. For the second year in a row, Montgomery County education administrators and teachers have declared war on the rest of us. How else can we interpret the legal action taken by educators against the county?

I grew up in a school district whose funding was totally dependent on voter-backed tax levies. By the time I graduated high school in 1978, not a single levy had been defeated in 45 years. I owe an enormous amount to the farsighted taxpayers of my hometown and am an avid supporter of providing whatever it takes to produce quality education for children.

But there has to be a limit, and it comes when — at a time of fiscal crisis, as all public services are being cut to the bone — a school system burns precious capital by essentially suing a bunch of pro-education legislators and declaring themselves sacrosanct from the budget axe. C’mon folks, it’s not like MCPS is on the edge, with poor teachers, underperforming students and crumbling infrastructure. This is a rich county, with a well-funded school system.

Surely, the schools need to work with us, not against us, as we grapple with a budget nightmare none of us wanted.

©2011 Keith Berner

01.22.11 President O’Malley?

January 22, 2011

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Speculation about Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s presidential ambitions (for 2016) hit the front page of The Post this week, as the governor was sworn in for a second term Wednesday. Here’s my quick take in three areas: job competence, electability and your blogger’s view of whether this whole thing is a good idea.

Competence. O’Malley has already demonstrated his ability to run a state government in difficult financial circumstances. He has balanced budgets, consistently gotten his priorities enacted into law, and won solid respect throughout the state. On the other hand, a President O’Malley would no longer have the luxury of a legislature as blue as Maryland’s – one of the most heavily Democratic in the country. How well could he work with and stand up to a Congress that at best would have tiny Democratic majorities and at worst could be overwhelmingly Republican? This is unknowable. Also – a burden for almost any governor campaigning for the presidency – we have no clue about his ability to grasp and manage foreign affairs and defense policy. But he’s a bright guy who could learn quickly.

Electability. I’m skeptical about the chances of any small-state governor’s becoming president today. Though the cases of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are somewhat analogous, they didn’t suffer from what is probably the biggest hurdle for O’Malley to overcome: being from a deep-blue northern state. (Yes, Maryland is south of the Mason-Dixon, but the rest of the country certainly considers it politically northern.) On the other hand, O’Malley’s ability to annihilate popular former governor Robert Ehrlich in November cannot be overlooked. Also, his role as chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association gives him some national prominence to boost his effort.

Good Idea? Marylanders need to be concerned about their governor’s spending the next four years thinking beyond his current job. How exactly would the state benefit from O’Malley’s spending time in Iowa and New Hampshire? How often will the governor make policy decisions geared more toward his future prospects than to local results?

From a progressive viewpoint, it’s hard to be particularly enthusiastic about O’Malley. It’s nice to hear the guy speaking out against the national GOP’s tax giveaways to the ultra-wealthy, supporting green energy, and decrying money spent on foreign wars. But this is the same person who has opposed a more progressive tax code in Maryland, supported giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy in support of religious schools (the infamous BOAST bill), and pushed the environmentally and fiscally disastrous Intercounty Connector. I’ve been so disappointed in him that I almost voted Green in November, but was too scared of an Ehrlich victory to do so.

On the other hand, progressives like me have to remember that we are a distinct minority in this country. An Obama-style centrist is likely the best we can ever hope for in the White House. If we are too pure to accept a Martin O’Malley candidacy, whom are we going to back?

Count me intrigued, if cautious about an O’Malley presidential campaign in 2016.

©2011 Keith Berner

12.13.10 Another Developer Giveaway @ White Flint

December 13, 2010

This is cross-posted with the Washington Posts All Opinions Are Local.

A plan to replace the strip malls of White Flint with higher density development has been in the works for some time. This is a good thing.

As one would expect, the giant development corporations that stand to gain handsomely from their investments in the new construction came to the county hat in hand, pleading poverty. Equally expected in this county where development money flows throughout the political process, the politicos have bought the sob story hook, line and sinker. Prodded by County Executive Ike Leggett, they agreed this month to forgive the industry impact fees that would help pay up front for the necessary county-supplied infrastructure (such as roads). Instead, they agreed to public bond financing of the project, with developers agreeing to a special taxing district to reimburse the cost of the principal sometime down the road.

Then, a proposal to require the developers to repay interest on those bonds went down to defeat, 6-3. The only support for the measure came from Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and George Leventhal (D-At Large). The latter is somewhat of a surprise given his past endorsement of development-industry desires and bodes well for the future. Duchy Trachtenberg (outgoing D-At Large) and Roger Berliner (D-Chevy Chase), erstwhile supporters of common-sense approaches to development, caved to the industry this time.

I wonder two things:

  • What would have been so terrible about calling the developers’ bluff by passing the interest reimbursement measure? If additional sweeteners were indeed required, they could have been revisited later.
  • Where will Hans Riemer (incoming D-At Large) stand when these issues start landing on his plate?

©2010 Keith Berner

11.17.10 Legal Corruption in Montgomery County

November 17, 2010

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

How delicious it was to read about Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson being carted off in handcuffs the other day. It feels so good to see the arrogant get their comeuppance. I have trouble accepting how shady populists keep getting re-elected (four county-wide victories for Johnson). Even before the cops had enough evidence to arrest this guy, his character was apparent. All I needed to know came a couple of years ago when his high spending of county funds on personal pleasures was being looked at and it was found that he had been jetting around in first- and business-class. He responded: “I think the people of Prince George’s County expect me to. I don’t think they expect me to be riding in a seat with four across, and I’m in the middle.” Nice.

So, what does this have to do with Montgomery County? Only the source of the corrupting influence: the development industry. I’m not about to claim that the leaders of my apparently better-governed county are carrying wads of developer cash in their bras or flushing $100,000 checks down the toilet. Nope, the system in MoCo is far more insidious. Here, it’s not (or doesn’t seem to be) about direct cash to politicians in exchange for specific actions. Rather, it’s about the overwhelming amount of the money for political campaigns’ coming from that one industry.

A study of the 2002 county elections by Neighbors for a Better Montgomery showed that county council candidates on the infamous, hyper-development End Gridlock slate were receiving between 56 percent and 72 percent of their campaign funds from developers. In a state with the 44th worst campaign-finance disclosure laws in the country,  politicians don’t have to tell us where they’re getting their money. But it doesn’t take a PhD to guess that when one industry exerts such dominance over elections, it is getting something in exchange.

The-best-political-system-money-can-buy is hardly a local phenomenon. Nationwide, the ultra-wealthy get special service for their cash, something that now appears to be permanently locked in stone following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. But at least on the national level, it isn’t a single industry – without any competition – calling the tune. In MoCo it is.

And the local problem is exacerbated by two newspapers that never met a paving project they didn’t like. The Post and the Montgomery Gazette (which is also owned by The Washington Post Co.) love to go whole hog after the public employee unions for skewing local politics (have you ever seen so many double-size editorials in a year as the The Post has run against the MoCo teachers’ unions?). At the same time, they ignore entirely candidates who don’t toe the developers’ line (Marc Elrich in 2006, Sharon Dooley this year).

The MoCo political culture is corrupt in its own way, and it is aided and abetted by Democrats in Annapolis who prefer pay-to-play over campaign-finance reform and their allies in what passes for a fourth estate. Make no mistake: MoCo is just as corrupt as Prince George’s. The only difference is how the game is played.

©2010 Keith Berner

11.16.10 Roadside Conspiracies in Takoma Park

November 16, 2010

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Two weeks ago, a firestorm broke out in Takoma Park. It seems that the city council was about to vote on (and probably approve) a road swap with the state of Maryland. Under the deal, the state would take over ownership of Route 410 (Ethan Allen Avenue) and repair the very neglected street. In return, the city would take over Route 787 (Flower Avenue) and get almost $700,000 from the state to turn it into a “green street” with traffic-calming measures, new sidewalks and other beautification improvements. So where’s the rub, you might ask?
Well, it turns out that Route 410 is a four-lane thoroughfare outside of TkPk (where it is called East-West Highway), and only two of the lanes are inside the city. Takoma Parkers – especially those living on or near 410 — smelled a rat. Where city council members saw a great way to improve two streets, residents saw a conspiracy to destroy houses and turn the road — which, admittedly, is a bottleneck for those who simply want to get through the city quickly – into a superhighway.

The listservs lit up. Issues of policy and politics were discussed in minute detail. Terms like “eminent domain” and obscure questions of state obligations and malfeasance were examined. As follow local blogger Gilbert has observed at Granola Park, the issue has generated a great deal more heat than light. Since Gilbert has covered the imbroglio extremely well, I have only a few comments to add:

· It is astounding how quickly Takoma Parkers freaked out over something that they didn’t understand, turning the narrative from a good-faith effort to get two streets’ needs taken care of into a nefarious plot by the state and a sellout by the city. The distrust that underlies the explosion of fear is fully justified. The state (not to mention county) is hostile to cities, both under Maryland law and in actual practice. Neither entity could be expected to give a hoot about our little city and what residents think. The fact that 410 in Takoma Park is in fact a bottleneck provides plenty of incentive for Maryland to want to widen it. As for the city, it’s not so much that anyone thought it was selling us out on purpose. Rather, we consider our local government to be utterly incompetent, with plenty of past evidence to support this view (take a look at our ugly community center, which cost far more than was planned, left off the gym that was supposed to be its central purpose and is filled with stairways to nowhere).

· Takoma Park politics is dominated by its historical center. The city will rise up to protect the sanctity of that area (which also happens to house its wealthier residents). Ward 5 (where I live – the part of the city that sticks up like a finger on a map) is a foster child. It is home to the city’s poorest residents and lowest voter turnout, and most Takoma Parkers probably aren’t even aware it belongs to the city. None of the brouhaha about the road swap considered for a moment what might be important to Ward 5, until I raised the issue on local listservs. Everyone was denouncing the deal without a second thought about poor Flower Avenue. (To be fair, once I did raise the issue, a couple of key Takoma Park activists who don’t live in my ward came to our defense.)

So, where does this come out? Apparently, it doesn’t make a whit of difference whether Takoma Park owns its sections of 410: Either way, if the state wanted to widen it, it could theoretically do so. But it would be legally difficult and expensive, and unified opposition within the city could almost certainly stop it. Also worth noting is that it was Takoma Park, not Maryland, that started the negotiations, so it’s not like the state had illicit designs on 410 and tried to lure us into a trap. As for poor Flower Avenue, that gift isn’t free; notwithstanding $700k to carry out improvements, the city would be taking on future unfunded liabilities to maintain it.

At this point, a frightened city council has pulled back from the brink. The state has promised that 410 wouldn’t be widened “in our lifetimes” but won’t put that in writing, because it doesn’t want to set precedent. And we have no idea whether “decoupling” 410 and 787 will kill the deal entirely or breathe new life into it.

Stay tuned for future episodes of “As Takoma Park Turns,” best chronicled on the aforementioned Granola Park blog.

©2010 Keith Berner