Archive for November 2010
Since I write a blog that focuses on the County from the perspective of a resident in District 9, I could not resist the opportunity to talk about the recent assault charges filed against Democrat Marilynn Bland, our very own County Council representative. To many of us in District 9, the allegations are unsurprising and entirely believable. It corresponds with everything we already know about how she treats others, and lines up with her character and reputation. The only question to be resolved, at this point, is whether she will have to be accountable for her actions. Based on what has happened in the past, she’ll continue to get a “slap on the wrist” and it shouldn’t hurt her too much.
Yesterday’s report of charges against Ms. Bland got me thinking, however, about the good, bad, and ugly news for all of us. The silver lining for District 9 is that she will no longer be representing us on Council, where she was known to advocate for developers, ignore constituents, and walk out of Council meetings when she was challenged about her actions. I personally experienced how she treats constituents shortly after I moved to Prince George’s County, when I attended a Women’s Democratic Club meeting and had the opportunity to meet her. I introduced myself and informed her that I was a new resident who was eager to make a positive contribution where I lived. She quickly handed me her card, told me to call her office, and brushed me aside. I called her office and e-mailed her directly several times, but never received any response. Over time, I learned that I shouldn’t have been insulted by the lack of response from her office, because that was how she treated many of her constituents in District 9.
When I worked on the campaign trail this past summer, most residents grimaced when we talked about Bland’s representation on Council, because she also has a proven track record of unethical behavior, like charging her family’s Disneyland trip on a government credit card, allegedly plagiarizing parts of her thesis to obtain her doctorate degree, and being named as part of a pay-to-play scheme carried out by County Council members just a few months ago. Though many believe she may also be tied to the corruption investigation in which the Johnsons were arrested on November 12, I just do not believe Bland is smart enough to be trusted with a significant role in a widespread scheme of this magnitude.
The bad news for all of us is that she will continue representing us as the new Clerk of the Circuit Court. Despite lacking clear qualifications for the job, voters elected her to carry out important county responsibilities. There is no doubt in my mind that she will use her position to continue abusing her power as an elected official. I’m not sure what kind of damage she can do, but I’m sure she’ll find a way to exert influence and misuse the privileges of her office, as she has always done.
The ugly news for all of us is that a person like Marilynn Bland who has consistently served under the shadow of corrupt behavior and questionable ethics is probably just biding her time as Clerk of the Circuit Court until she can run for higher office, such at the State Senate seat that Mike Miller currently holds but says he will retire from in 2014. No matter what she’s done to alienate people in her district, they voted for her to serve two terms on the School Board, two terms on County Council, and now serving countywide as Clerk. More than 5,000 District 9 residents voted for her in 2006. Will the 5,000 Bland voters please stand up? I haven’t met any of you yet! More voters cast their ballot for other Council candidates than for Bland in 2006, but as long as she can count on her people to get out the vote for her in the district, and split up all other voters among the opposition, she’ll be our “public” servant for the long haul. We need to come together to stop it, but that will require a vast grassroots effort to inform and engage the voters, and I’m not sure we are at the point where this is “mission possible.”
The silence is practically deafening. Everybody wants to talk about getting rid of corruption in Prince George’s County on the campaign trail, but now that we’re dealing with what may turn out to be the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the County, none of our incoming elected officials want to say a word. In today’s Washington Post story, County Council members claim privately that it’s because they want to present a unified front, but the story aptly points out that right now they have not responded collectively to anything at all. To make matters worse, I expected County Executive-elect Rushern Baker to take a strong stand on the matter, because he had campaigned on a platform of making the County government more ethical, accountable, and transparent. He gave me no confidence that he will be able to accomplish this goal, because he did nothing to directly address corruption or express any definitive opinion on whether Leslie Johnson should take office next month.
I think we can all agree that we hoped for better from our future leaders of the County. While many of us are still in shock and pained by the reputation of the County that we now carry on our shoulders, I believe we would have felt better if our leaders had taken a courageous stand and firmly stated that corruption will no longer be tolerated. In my mind, Baker could help himself by imploring Leslie Johnson to step aside from Council so the County can move forward without the distraction of her ongoing indictment, which will undoubtedly overshadow the business of Prince George’s County. I must say that although I did not support Mel Franklin for Council, I have to congratulate him for being brave enough to take a public stand by stating for the record (via TBD) that Johnson should step down. Good for him, other Council members should take note.
Mr. Baker has not directly addressed the corruption charges, probably for several reasons. He may not want to spend political capital on this issue if Johnson takes office and becomes a colleague. Baker may also underestimate how much this issue will affect every other pressing issue he needs to address. He simply cannot make Prince George’s County great for economic development, education, and public safety if he avoids dealing with the corruption that plagues the County’s image. I think Baker, along with many others, are also anxious about how additional arrests could potentially implicate supporters, colleagues, and friends. Baker should be legitimately concerned about that, because I believe additional surprises are coming. I will not be shocked if other elected officials are involved in the corruption, and they may likely be those we are least likely to suspect. Quite frankly, if people like Marilynn Bland are caught using a County credit card inappropriately, I doubt they could pull off a pay-to-play scheme this elaborate and cover it up so effectively for so long.
Finally, I think everybody knows that Mr. Baker has some unfortunate alliances of his own that compromise his ethical platform. I love quotes, and I think this one says it best: “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” This rings true for Baker, who campaigned on a platform of reform and change, but stacked his transition committee with former politicians, entrenched allies, and generous supporters who may be seeking favorable treatment with the new administration. The real test for Baker is how he will deal with David Hillman, who contributed thousands to Baker’s campaign and is a key member of his transition team. Will Baker owe Hillman a return on his investment? Could he already be feeling the pressure from Hillman? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and like many of you, I will have to wait and see as the process unfolds.
Buried under the recent scandal of Jack and Leslie Johnson’s arrest in Prince George’s County is another stunning story of public servants forgetting who they should serve. Yesterday, Fox News released a story about a lengthy investigation they conducted regarding reported abuses within the Human Relations Commission in Prince George’s County. It’s unfortunate that to my knowledge, only one news outlet has covered this story so far, because I think it deserves a wider audience.
Fox News reported that James Grier, Deputy Director of the Human Relations Commission, was caught by their cameras marketing real estate while he was technically on the clock for Prince George’s County government, and while driving a county vehicle. And that’s not all. Several employees reported that Jamilah Adams, the Executive Director appointed by Jack Johnson, rarely came to work and on three days that Fox News visited her home, her county vehicle remained at her home and she never left her residence to go to the office.
I have some insider knowledge of the work of the Human Relations Commission, and these allegations are not surprising to me. The agency was dysfunctional long before Ms. Adams and Mr. Grier took over, and Peggy Magee was certainly no better at the job than Ms. Adams. For the record, however, I must state that the employees who conducted investigations of discrimination complaints, and the volunteer commissioners who hold hearings to make judgments on appeals, do commendable work to ensure that the residents of Prince George’s County are treated in a just manner.
The reprehensible behavior of these county leaders reveals why the appointments process should be reviewed. While Magee’s appointment raised concern among Council members, her appointment was still approved and her performance was never evaluated, as far as I know. Ms. Adams may have been more qualified for the job, as she previously worked as a County attorney and was appointed to her position by Johnson after Magee was elected Clerk of the Circuit Court. Ms. Adams kept busy this summer as an active volunteer for the campaign of Angela Alsobrooks, States’ Attorney-elect, so maybe that’s part of the explanation about why she allegedly couldn’t make it to work very often over the past few months. To my knowledge, Mr. Grier had limited or no legal background, which I believe is essential when you are investigating discrimination complaints.
In all of these cases, appointing highly-qualified, ethical individuals to these positions could have helped avoid the problem. However, the County needs to address accountability issues more thoroughly too, by conducting thorough performance evaluations and reviews of County leaders’ work so that they may have uncovered the problem before the media exposed it. A trustworthy grievance process within the County could have also allowed employees to report and resolve it internally instead of feeling like they had no other choice but to expose the problem through a news tip to the media. The political patronage of the appointments process, combined with ineffective human resources policies to address internal issues, partially led to the demise of these two public servants.
As a public servant, I am disheartened that those like Ms. Adams and Mr. Grier have once again tarnished the reputation of thousands just like me, who possess extensive education, a wealth of experience, and a spirit of dedication that we bring to the workplace every day. I take immense pride in my work, and know that I make a valuable contribution to the community where I serve. I hope this is another case that County Executive-elect Baker will carefully consider as he makes important decisions about who will be appointed to critical leadership positions, so that he does truly lead us on the “path to greatness.”
As the old saying goes, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” While I would not characterize Leslie Johnson as evil at this point, the fact that she is being publicly ridiculed for stashing nearly $80,000 in her bra and flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet is making a mockery of Prince George’s County not only here in the region, but across the country. Her actions have sparked a lot of discussion about whether she should take the oath of office on December 6. I am not a resident of District 6, but I would presume that many who live there are not pleased she will be their new Council representative in less than three weeks.
What is even more disturbing to me, however, is the fact that much of the discussion has focused on whether she can “legally” take office. I think it is outrageous that we must even consider how to prohibit her from becoming the next Councilwoman through legal action. If Ms. Johnson had any personal integrity, she would be so humiliated by her own behavior that she would take immediate action to step aside now so that another person could be chosen by the voters to represent them.
Unfortunately, we live in an era where corruption amongst our elected officials is nothing new, and the public has not put enough pressure on them to resign. The power of the legal system may not be on our side, but the power of our public voice is on our side. Start putting up signs asking her to step aside, hold a protest in front of her house, or set up a press conference where thousands of Prince Georgians make it known that they will no longer quietly stand by as our public officials malign our image and our great residents feel ashamed of their elected officials and the reputation of our county. We need to step up to the plate! I live by the mantra that those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it. I know there are many who feel just like I do. The time is now, who is with me?
Whenever a new friend or colleague asks me where I live, I always hesitate for a moment before reluctantly admitting that I live in Prince George’s County. I quickly defend my choice by saying that I live in the southern part, and that I could “throw a rock into Charles County.” When questioned about why I live where I do, I find myself explaining how it offered a quiet neighborhood, an affordable home in a housing market where buying in Virginia seemed impossible at the time, and a fairly short commute into Virginia and Washington, DC.
At the time we moved here, we had lived in Virginia for several years and I honestly never thought I would move to Maryland. When I began house hunting, reality set in and I quickly realized that on the salary of two public servants, we could never afford a home that could eventually house our children and, potentially, our aging parents too. When we discovered a home we loved in a nice, middle-class suburb in southern Prince George’s, we jumped on the opportunity to buy. We didn’t thoroughly consider the quality of the schools, crime (which didn’t seem likely where we lived), and the county’s image in other people’s eyes. We just did what seemed reasonable at the time. I do not regret the decision, because I still believe we live in a tight, close-knit community and our neighbors really care about and look out for each other.
Seven years later, while I worry about schools, crime, and sprawl, my concern about the County’s image is still what bothers me the most. Jack Johnson’s arrest yesterday simply proves what many people have been saying for years – that our elected officials are corrupt and are more concerned about their own personal gain than serving the people who live here. While I feel ashamed about that image, and I believe others share my view, we keep electing individuals who validate that assumption. I think the past eight years have probably been the worst for the county, with our former school superintendent now residing in a federal prison, a state Senator facing bribery charges, and our county executive and a future Council representative caught red-handed in corrupt behavior. Let’s not forget the Council members who also clearly seemed to be involved in a pay-to-play scheme earlier this year.
In the midst of yesterday’s crisis, I received my invitation to Mr. Johnson’s “going-away” party. While I have never been Mr. Johnson’s biggest fan, I was appointed and agreed to serve on a county commission for several years. I volunteered my time to fight for the rights of people who had no voice here, and I helped them to overcome the obstacles they faced. I am proud of my service, and honored to serve because I never felt it was about being one of Johnson’s appointees but rather, something I was called to do to help our residents. I presume that as a result of my service as a commissioner, I was invited to come and (I quote here) “honor the leadership and legacy of Mr. Johnson” as he left office. Given what happened yesterday, I doubt I need to RSVP for that event now, but it’s humiliating to think about the context in which I received the invitation.
Mr. Johnson’s arrest exemplifies why I got involved in a local campaign for the first time earlier this year, because my core mission was to try and overturn that status quo. I wanted to elect people who would truly serve us, and not themselves. I felt that our current cast of characters, especially Mr. Johnson and our Council representative, Ms. Bland, enjoyed the “prestige” of their elected office but did nothing to actually represent the people who lived here. I was tired of being ashamed for the county’s image and that of my elected officials. I wanted to be proud of the people who represented me. I was very motivated to get rid of the corruption and cronyism that has tarnished the image of this county during the entire seven years that I have lived here. I am hopeful that we can get there, but overcoming the county’s negative image just got a lot harder for our incoming politicians after yesterday’s news. We all need to pull together as residents and make sure that during the next four years, we are aggressive in holding our elected officials accountable for their actions, and send the message that this behavior will no longer be tolerated in Prince George’s County.
On October 26, the County Council voted on many major development issues that will quite literally shape the future of economic development in Prince George’s County. Unfortunately, like many others, I did not have an opportunity to express my opinion to them, on the record, because they are busy making these decisions during the middle of the day, on a Tuesday. Like a majority of residents, I work outside the County during the day, and would have to take my own personal leave to attend.
If Prince George’s County wants to change its image of making decisions behind closed doors and with the limited input of Council and County Executive “cronies” then they should start meeting publicly at a time when most of the public can actually come and participate. I’ve attended only two Council meetings, both of which required me to appear in person to be confirmed for a position on a County Commission. At both of these meetings, there were only a dozen or so others attending, and empty seats filled the room where Council representatives were making decisions that affect the lives of nearly one million residents.
I asked District 9 Councilman-elect Mel Franklin about what he plans to do to address my concern, and here’s what he said: “I am planning to propose the change in Council meetings to Tuesday evenings. It may cause my District 9 meetings to shift to the 4th Monday or 4th Wednesday, but that would be worth it.” I need your help to hold him to his promise, and to also let your Council representatives in other Districts know that you would like them to vote to change the time of the Council meetings too.
I also had the opportunity to ask Mr. Franklin about what he plans to do in regard to the outrageous County Council salaries that are paid for the part-time work they do. He provided the following commentary: “I vehemently opposed allowing the salary increase to happen in a year. It’s out of touch and tone-deaf policy. The problem is that the Council isn’t permitted to alter its own salary, only that of the next Council, which prevents me from making the suggested change for the upcoming 4 year-term. I am looking into whether it is state law that prevents legislative bodies in Maryland from altering their own salaries to see if it can be modified to at least allow legislative bodies to alter their own salaries downward only.”
If anyone can help him answer this question about state law, please e-mail him at email@example.com, and share it with others. This doesn’t make sense to me at all, and probably not to the average voter either.
With all the recent flap about the mysterious robocall initiated by a consultant of the Ehrlich campaign, I’m actually happy about one potential outcome of this mess. In the future, voters will hopefully send a clear message to our candidates that their robocalls are not wanted and no longer trusted as a tool of campaigning.
During the District 9 Council race, I received multiple robocalls from Sydney Harrison and Mel Franklin, who were the two biggest spenders in the race to become the next Council representative. They told me who endorsed them and why they were the best candidates. Mel provided a testimonial from a local teacher, and Sydney had his own son call to tell me he was a great father. While that’s all nice to know, neither of them bothered to knock on my door, visit my homeowners association, or attend any local meetings on issues that concerned me.
If you take every person’s vote very seriously, I think voters deserve a candidate that personally explains their platform and is already well known for their advocacy in the community. Robocalls are a low-cost way to introduce a candidate to residents, especially when they don’t have any proven track record in the community and are merely depending upon money and name recognition to win the race.
Because the First Amendment protects political speech, political calls are specifically excluded from the Federal Do Not Call Registry. It is a quite convenient loophole that allows candidates to pester voters with dozens of campaign messages, regardless of whether the phone calls are legitimately or deceptively made. Fortunately, you can opt out of receiving robocalls by registering your phone number with the National Political Do Not Contact Registry website, www.StopPoliticalCalls.org. The National Political Do Not Contact Registry fills a void in the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call (DNC) registry.
Furthermore, voters can collectively send a message to candidates who use these patronizing phone calls that assume the electorate is too uninformed to research their choices. Get out and vote, and choose a candidate who has actually achieved recognition not by their name, but by what they have already accomplished for their community.