Archive for December 2010
I have spent the past couple of days examining the financial contributions to Franklin’s campaign to determine where political influence might be greatest in District 9. One of the reassuring components of Franklin’s campaign finance reports is that a significant portion of the funds he spent on his election came directly from his own pocketbook. Late in 2009, he kickstarted his campaign treasury with a $50,000 loan, then over the next nine months, contributed nearly $10,000 more from his own checking account to his campaign. Franklin’s friends and family from other parts of Prince George’s County and out-of-state also lent their support, with more than $10,000 in contributions. When added together, this money represents more than half of what he spent on his election to the District 9 Council seat. It’s comforting to know that this makes Franklin more accountable to himself in the long term, than any other contributor to his campaign.
Councilman Franklin also made a promise not to take contributions from developers, and in the aftermath of the Johnson scandal, that was a very wise choice. His decisions on future development in District 9 will not be clouded by developer contributions to his campaign coffers. Political action committees will want to see a return on their $31,000 investment to his campaign, as interest groups ranging from teachers to firefighters and service workers supplemented their endorsements with cash contributions. Although not reflected in his own campaign reports, Franklin also clearly received the benefit of name recognition from being promoted on at least three mailings and two ballots sent by the District 27A team. Hopefully, his alliance with Senator Thomas “Mike” V. Miller, Delegate Joe Vallario, and Delegate Proctor will strengthen our voice for new schools, improved transit, and a new police station in District 9 during Franklin’s term.
Contributions from individual donors made up only a very small part of Franklin’s total campaign funds, but in analyzing the source and location of donors, I found that Accokeek made an important statement of its own. Accokeek is the place that I call home in District 9, and it is a small, unincorporated area at the southern edge of Prince George’s County. Accokeek residents represent less than 10% of the population in District 9. However, their influence on the Council race was much greater this year, and it could shape the way Councilman Mel Franklin pays attention to this part of the district in his coming term.
Most people who are familiar with Accokeek will associate the center of town with the intersection of 228 and 210. One stoplight prior to this intersection, you will find a shopping center anchored by Bloom, the popular B&J Carryout, a gas station, and some fairly unattractive landscape surrounding the rest of it. It’s hardly the standard for picture-perfect development, but most natives would rather see it stay the way that it is than to make it available for new development. One of Accokeek’s most sorely needed resources, a new school to eliminate overcrowding in current public schools, is just about as likely as any new shopping choices at this point, because there simply isn’t any state funding to build new schools. A renovation and rebuilding effort at Accokeek Academy is the best we can hope for.
For those unfamiliar with the makeup of Accokeek, you may want to visit the census map to get a clear picture of who lives there. East of 210, Census Tract 801301 shows that 75% of residents are African-American. This area includes many of the newer developments in Accokeek, such as the Preserve, St. James, Horizon Estates, Manning Preserve, Mannington, Summerwood, and Simmons Acres. West of 210, Census Tract 801302 shows that only 29% of residents are African-American, and the majority, 58%, are white. This tract represents an older, rural and historic area of Accokeek, known as the Moyaone Reserve. It has strict limits on development due to ecological protections that exist there, and it is an attractive retreat for those seeking solace from the growing suburbs that surround it. This distinction among the residents who live in Accokeek also plays an important role in how they view the future of the community.
Looking at all of Franklin’s campaign finance reports, you’ll see the following breakdown of small donor contributions:
- Accokeek – $4,650
- Upper Marlboro – $2,390 (one donor contributed $1,500 of that total)
- Clinton – $1,285
- Rest of District 9 (Brandywine, Cheltenham, Baden, Aquasco) – $655
Accokeek contributed 62% of the total donor contributions from residents in District 9. Of Accokeek’s total of $4,650, 68% came directly from residents living in the Moyaone Reserve. Of the 160 homeowners living there, 32 gave directly to Franklin’s campaign. I am not sure any other Council member received that number of direct contributions from any neighborhood in the County.
So what do we want in Accokeek, and what specifically does the Moyaone want Councilman Franklin to deliver? Well, first, we want attention from the political establishment. Councilwoman Bland was known to not only ignore her Accokeek constituents, but to approve development that was opposed by the community. Her actions were definitely not well received by residents in the Moyaone Reserve, who want to preserve the rural character of Accokeek. Kelly Canavan, President of the Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Community Council and resident of rural Accokeek, has made it her full-time job to sue any developer that encroaches on the rural character of the region or poses any type of threat to the environment.
Second, the Moyaone is worried about some of the basic services that the rest of us take for granted. They cannot access their water supply from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and must rely upon their own wells for water. Their wells are up against a water table that is rapidly shrinking due to the high number of new, adjacent housing developments, and need the government’s help to ensure that their water table is protected both from polluters and increasing demand from new residents.
Moyaone residents also want access to broadband Internet, which may not come easily because of their rural location. I always thought it was weird that so many residents took their laptops to the Moyaone Community Pool, until I realized that the community had to contribute their own funds to provide a wireless network at the community pool. The entire Moyaone community now depends upon this one wireless network to stay connected to the outside world. They want to preserve their rural character while maintaining 21st century access to technology, and the government will have to invest in the infrastructure to provide them with broadband because it is simply not profitable for the private sector to make the investment.
So what does the other half of Accokeek, its newer residents, want from their Councilman? Based upon the contributors I identified, I would guess they want a better return on services for their very expensive investment in new homes. Many of them paid more than a half million dollars for their sprawling colonial estate homes, and they don’t want crumbling schools, slow emergency responders, and major traffic on 210 to get to work. They want to see their high taxes deliver for them, rather than being redistributed to Upper Marlboro, Bowie, and beyond.
While the contributions from Accokeek residents doesn’t represent much more than a very successful bake sale and car wash for Councilman Franklin’s campaign, it does make an important political statement about their position in comparison to others around District 9 who made donations. They want attention, they expect responsiveness, and they want Councilman Franklin to deliver for them.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has appointed former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former county judge William Missouri to oversee the creation of an Inspector General’s Office in Prince George’s County. The Office would be responsible for investigating claims of unethical behavior and rooting out corruption in County government.
While it has been publicly reported that they are looking to Montgomery County’s model for an Inspector General’s Office, established back in 1997, I believe they should look to a more contemporary model that has worked extremely well in a local government suffering from some similar problems to Prince George’s County. Although the City of Newark, New Jersey has much deeper challenges in overcoming crime and rehabilitating the City, when Mayor Cory Booker took charge in 2006, he was facing one uniquely related problem to our County Executive: he followed Mayor Sharpe James, who left office under a cloud of suspicion for corrupt behavior after serving 20 years in office. Mayor James had long been suspected of corrupt behavior in office and was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the FBI before being charged with any crime. Nearly two years after leaving office, Mayor James was convicted of five counts of fraud for selling nine City lots to a girlfriend, who resold them for hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. Does this story sound familiar to you? Prince George’s County is now dealing with the same challenge as we move past the administration of Jack B. Johnson.
Like County Executive Baker, Mayor Booker also had an ambitious, 100-day plan for immediately moving Newark forward, particularly in areas of rooting out corruption and reducing crime. In 2007, he established an Office of the Inspector General to carry out ethics reform throughout the City and investigate complaints of fraud and misconduct. The Inspector General also ensured that the Mayor, Municipal Council and all department heads received mandatory ethics training. Since being established on August 2007, the Office of the Inspector General has had the following accomplishments:
- Indictments: 19, which all closed out with guilty pleas
- Money saved from salaries due to suspensions, terminations, and resignations: $2.5 million
- Projected savings from investigations: $1.6 million
- Closed Investigations: 271
- City employees arrested: 91
- Cases handled administratively: 40
In another controversial move, Mayor Booker appointed Garry McCarthy, former Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the New York City Police Department, as the director of the Newark Police Department. Crime was the biggest problem facing the City, with gangs and drug dealers threatening public safety at every turn. McCarthy’s appointment was not popular with Newark’s Chief of Police, who often clashed with McCarthy’s decisions and eventually resigned in 2009. The position of Chief of Police was then abolished for good, as many, including Mayor Booker, believed that the Chief was more concerned about meeting union demands than fighting crime on behalf of residents. Could that be part of our County’s problem too? That’s for you to decide, but whatever the case may be, Mayor Booker’s appointment of McCarthy has turned out to be a good one, as crime has dropped significantly in the City of Newark, and the City currently leads the nation in violent crime reduction. Mayor Booker and Director McCarthy regularly accompany resident-led night patrols that include members of the clergy, concerned parents, and even senior citizens, who volunteer to visit the City’s most dangerous neighborhoods, confront criminals and get them off the streets of Newark. Can you imagine leadership like that in our county? The statistics prove that Booker’s strategy is working. As of July 26, 2009, murders are down 42% overall, rapes are down 41% overall and robberies are down 12% since 2008. For more on this story, I encourage you to tune in to the second season of a great documentary about the City of Newark, Brick City, which premieres on the Sundance Channel on January 30, 2011.
Mayor Booker clearly understands that you really can’t achieve ethics reform unless your government operates in total transparency. That is another quality I admire about him. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and you’ll see how he seems to operate 24 hours a day online. Right now you can follow @corybooker on Twitter to see how he is responding to resident requests (following a major snowstorm) by delivering diapers, shoveling snow, and helping a resident get to the hospital for a chemo treatment. How would that change people’s view of our government if our County leaders demonstrated that kind of initiative and dedication? By comparison, @rushernbaker has not said anything on Twitter since November 12 and the County’s @PrinceGeorgesMd Twitter account is informative but does not incorporate any creativity or responsiveness to residents in its tweets. It seems like they are floundering, at best, and lack the social media savvy needed to gain visibility and followers. Twitter is the antithesis of bureaucratic messaging, and if Baker’s communications team wants to improve, they are going to need to figure out how online transparency operates. I’ll give them a little more time on that front.
In wrapping up this rather lengthy blog entry, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Rushern Baker has to search far and wide for a model of ethics reform that can work. Make a short trip to Newark, NJ, and spend a day with Mayor Cory Booker. They actually have something in common, because they both lost an election for the highest office in their jurisdiction before they won. Mayor Booker lost a close race in 2002, and County Executive Baker lost in 2002 and 2006. In between election cycles, they both led community nonprofit organizations, though in my opinion, Mayor Booker’s Newark Now nonprofit has achieved far more to improve the lives of Newark residents than the Community Teachers Institute has in Prince George’s County. I believe that Mayor Booker’s proven track record of delivering results is one of the many reasons Mark Zuckerberg invested some of Facebook’s millions in improving Newark’s public schools at a time when more state cuts to education funding are inevitable. Imagine if we had those resources invested in our county instead?
The bottom line is that it takes the right kind of leader to achieve some of things that our county really needs, especially in regard to ethical reform. County Executive Baker does not need to recreate the wheel with commissions and task forces, because the right model is already out there. However, what might be difficult for Baker to do is reach out and find fresh faces who can turn the county in another direction. That will be a challenge for him, as he has already shown a tendency to rely only upon those who have stuck by him through two losing elections until he was finally victorious in 2010. Just take one look at Baker’s transition team and my point is proven. If Baker shows me that he is willing to take some risks and be bold about reforming the County in the next couple of months, only then will he make a believer out of me.
I’m proud of the County Council for limiting Leslie Johnson’s authority by barring her from committee work and oversight of development projects in District 6. While a lot of District 6 residents may think it is unfair because they won’t have equal representation, I have little sympathy for them. That may sound callous, but I have strong reasons for feeling the way that I do.
First of all, despite being elected by their own districts, Council members are all responsible for doing what is best for the entire county. They are the highest paid Council members in the state of Maryland and have ample staff to carry out this mission. If you cannot reach out to your own district’s representative, then you should certainly reach out to another competent member of Council if you need assistance or want to express your opinion about a County issue. It is their job as public servants to help you, and your tax dollars provide generous compensation for their work.
The more important reason I cannot empathize with the frustration expressed by residents of District6 is because as Ms. Johnson said herself, you voted for her. Well, at least 6,400 of you did. Only 21 percent of registered voters even bothered to vote, so the other 79 percent have no reason to complain. Of those 21 percent who voted, but did not vote for Ms. Johnson, I do agree that you have a right to be angry. However, given the importance of your Council member’s influence over issues in your district, it requires a bit more effort than your vote to make sure the right person is elected.
There were other, more qualified individuals on the ballot who would have served you well in District 6. However, in order to overcome the name recognition and financial backing of Ms. Johnson’s husband, those other candidates needed more than your vote. They needed your financial contribution, they needed your sweat equity while you knocked on doors and made phone calls, and they needed you to make sure that the missing 79 percent got to the polls during early voting or on election day. These are the only tools that would have helped overcome the political machinery behind Ms. Johnson.
If you are still so dissatisfied, where is your outrage? Only 200 people signed the petition asking her to step aside. Nobody, to my knowledge, has made it difficult for Ms. Johnson to show up, take the oath of office, and attend Council meetings. If you were really outraged, thousands would sign the petition, hundreds would protest at her house and Council meetings, and people would make Ms. Johnson’s life so miserable that she would decide that it’s far better to resign than keep going. Right now, it’s pretty easy for her to go to work, be ignored, pick up her paycheck, and use it to pay her legal bills. That’s not her fault, that’s yours.
Today is a sad day for me. While everybody is busy celebrating “a path to greatness” with Rushern Baker, I am furious, depressed, and angry about watching my fellow residents cheer Leslie Johnson as she took the oath of office. I could criticize Jack Johnson’s arrogant smirk as he held the Bible for his wife, or talk about how my colleagues are mocking us as a county, or try to shift the focus to all the “great plans” Rushern Baker will now be implementing. But I’m not going to talk about that today, because I think everybody else has given that enough air time, including me.
What I have promised to tell you about is my conversation with Mel Franklin this past Friday. As my new Councilman for District 9, I do have a sense of hope and optimism. While I did not vote for him, I believe he will still do an excellent job representing us, and let’s be honest, Marilynn Bland did not set a high bar for him. As long as he doesn’t steal from the County, assault his employees, ignore his constituents, and push agendas for developers, he’ll surpass the achievements of his predecessor by a mile.
We didn’t spend a whole lot of time discussing the priorities he talked about during the campaign: jobs, education, public safety, and development. I pressed him on the issue at the front of everybody’s minds right now: transparent government. I gave him my checklist for communications (my area of expertise) and asked him to update his website, write a blog to keep voters informed, dialogue with voters on social media (instead of just posting information about his events, activities, endorsements, etc.), and start a YouTube channel to talk to residents when he is considering important decisions as our Council representative. He was eager to implement all of these suggestions, and he even asked for my help (which I am happy to provide, for the benefit of all of us).
I also asked him to put in a request to change the time of the Council meetings, shifting them from a weekday morning to a weekday evening when more people can attend. He said it was one of the first things he planned to do on Council. This will allow far more residents to get involved in the process. He has also promised to measure results on the “issues” section of his campaign website, and to provide progress reports on the Pledge for Prince George’s County. It is our collective responsibility in District 9 to make sure that he delivers on those promises. I pledge to do my part.
While this was certainly not a pressing issue on the minds of most voters, I did ask him one final, burning question that has been on my heart for months now. I simply wanted to know why he would align himself with Joe Vallario (part of the 27A “team” put together by Mike Miller, which also included Jim Proctor) if his campaign theme focused on “Making Change Happen?” He aligned himself with three individuals who have served a total of 94 years in office. Not exactly the change I wanted to see. I was also extremely disappointed that he would advocate so heavily for tougher domestic violence laws while standing side-by-side with Joe Vallario on several mailings I received. He paused before he responded, so I pressed him further by saying “you did it because you just wanted to win and that was the only way to do it, right?” Then he replied that “he did it because he really wanted to be a part of the 27A team.” You can make your own judgment about what that means.
The bottom line is that in order to get elected, stay elected, and become a career politician, you learn early on that you might have to compromise some part of your principles. Or, in the case of the Johnsons, you completely lose your way. At least, that seems to be the case in Prince George’s County. I love the quote by Ghandi: “We must become the change we want to see.” And that doesn’t involve clapping when Leslie Johnson takes office, throwing softball questions to Mel Franklin as he prepares to take office, or forgetting about politics until the next election. If you want things to change in this county, we must all be involved in “making change happen,” or it never will.