Archive for January 2011
I attended the first public meeting of the Accountability, Compliance, and Integrity Advisory Board meeting today, and although I arrived late, I did get the opportunity to hear most of the discussion from the group. Some brief thoughts for those who are curious about what came out of it:
- I was disappointed, but not surprised, that only about 20 residents showed up to participate. The room could have accommodated 150 people or more, and given that it was on a weekend when most people do not work, it was a great chance for people to dialogue directly with the board members.
- Fortunately, several members of the media were there to report about the meeting, and hopefully their news will be read by many more who share my concerns about ethics in county government.
- The Advisory Board spent some time debating how to set the meeting schedule to accommodate maximum participation by the public while squeezing the time into their already jam-packed schedules. This could be interpreted in one of two ways: the board is really committed to helping the county by making this work a priority despite their other obligations, or they simply do not have the time it will really take to provide comprehensive, constructive feedback to move the county forward. I hope it’s more the former than the latter, but I’ll have to wait and see.
- Many of the residents who did attend are people I had heard of, or recognized, from their record of advocacy in the county. Fortunately, the last half of the meeting was an opportunity for many of these activists to speak directly to the Advisory Board about their suggestions for the work that needed to be done. You can read some of that feedback on my Twitter account.
- I think one of the important, but probably overlooked suggestions, was to provide employees the opportunity to report corruption. Being a government employee myself, I can assure you that there are those who are well aware of corruption that is going on, and are unhappy about carrying around the tarnished image of their county with them.
- A lot of concerns centered upon making Prince George’s County a more open government, and that would be a huge step in the right direction if it can be achieved. This will require a major organizational culture change, and extreme diligence on the part of many people to make it happen.
- The one thing I was most surprised about is the limited discussion about accountability of our elected officials. This is certainly one of the most pressing ethical issues facing the county, and the advisory board meeting was a perfect opportunity for it to be addressed because no county council members were present to object!
The Advisory Board committed to try and get their report back to the County Executive by May 2011, when it could be considered as part of the budget presented to County Council (presumably because creating an Office of the Inspector General will require money). Hopefully, County Council will not only consider it as a part of the budget, but also embrace ethics as an essential part of their duty as public servants.
Today marks 12 homicides in the first 12 days of 2011 for Prince George’s County. Much has already been said about it, from the Council press release stating that additional resources are being sought, to County Executive Baker stating to WTOP that most are drug-related and we need more officers on the street to deal with it, and Interim Police Chief Mark Magaw telling residents that the three arrests they have already made should “bring some calm to the public.”
Well, if you’re a resident of Prince George’s County, especially if you live inside the Beltway where most of the homicides have occurred, I don’t think you feel calm, safe, or confident in the County’s ability to protect you right now. Even if most incidents are drug-related, that doesn’t really make residents feel secure because, at any moment, it’s always possible an innocent person could be caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, to brush off the homicides as drug-related ignores the reality that the reason the County suffers from this crime in the first place is because criminals know they can get away with murder here, right? The homicides are not just statistics, they really affect economic development, schools, and businesses here in the County, regardless of who was murdered and the reasons behind it.
County Executive Baker promised in his “Pledge for Prince George’s County” that he would “strengthen laws, procedures, and policies and collaborate with each branch of the criminal justic system, so that the definitive message is that Prince George’s County does not tolerate violence.” The big problem with his pledge, like most of the work he has done so far as County Executive, relies upon “legislating” your way to change. While Baker might have been a great legislator in the General Assembly, his experience may not translate to being a great executive of a large urban county. You can’t fight crime with legislation. You have to fight crime by standing up to it and putting qualified cops on the beat to fight it. You can’t just collaborate with the community, you must engage them to work together to confront and stop criminals within our own neighborhoods. We all have to do the hard work to stop the violence, so I’m not placing the blame on Baker alone. However, he probably needs to get out of his suit and hit the police beat with the cops to get a real sense of what’s going on and ask the community personally to get involved.
Baker stated that he was elected to “make a good County great” and his inaugural theme was “The Path to Greatness.” I’m not so sure anybody who lives here feels we are headed in the that direction, or even deserve to be called “good” right now. It’s going to take a lot of work from every one of us to get it turned around.
Today’s hot topic was focused on the $15,000 our County Council just spent at a retreat outside of the county, which came straight out of the taxpayer’s pockets. Nice way to start off the New Year, but I’ve said enough already on that topic, via my Twitter posts.
I wanted to comment briefly on an issue that was buried underneath news about Council barring Leslie Johnson from committee assignments. On the day they made that decision, they also assigned themselves to the committees that will make most of the choices that directly affect county business. A press release was issued, but nobody was paying attention to it.
My biggest disappointment was learning that my Council representative, Mel Franklin, was not assigned to the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee. After all, he was probably the only one to make a specific campaign promise not to take money from developers, and he didn’t. It seems that in light of the post-election arrests of the Johnsons for allegedly taking bribes from developers, that it would be in the best interest of the Council to assign Franklin to chair that committee. At least they could be certain they would have a truly honest broker not bought off by the influence of any developer. Instead, he’s been assigned as Vice-Chair of Public Safety and Fiscal Affairs, an important one, but his work there could be influenced by the Professional Firefighters and Fraternal Order of Police, who endorsed him and contributed several thousand dollars to his campaign. I’m not sure the unions always have the best interest of residents on their agenda.
I was even more mystified that Obie Patterson and Karen Toles were selected to oversee the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee. While Patterson formerly served as a delegate for three terms, his professional and legislative experience (listed on the County website) gives no indication that he has ever actually worked on any of these issues. His professional work focused on grants administration and he spent his time as a legislator working primarily “in analyzing the State budget, education reports, tax and revenue reports and transportation reports, among others” according to his own biography. He also claims credit for a signature issue: treatment and training for nonviolent drug offenders. Seems like he would have a steep learning curve for his current assignment, and might be a much better fit in Franklin’s role as Vice Chair of Public Safety and Fiscal Affairs.
What’s even more astounding is that Toles would be chosen as Vice Chair of Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development. She was the only Council member chose for leadership on two committees, so it’s likely this appointment was in place of Leslie Johnson, who was supposed to chair this committee before Council decided to deny her that privilege because of pending federal charges.
In looking at Toles’ experience, it seems that she would have been a better fit for the Health and Human Services committee. She has a degree in Public Health, and has lobbied for the healthcare industry and the public employee union. I don’t see any indication that she has spent considerable time learning the intricacies of planning, zoning, and development issues in the County. I have considerable concern about Toles reviewing and making decisions on growth issues that will shape the future of our County.
So what do you think of the committee assignments? Are your Council representatives appropriately appointed? Where would you place them?