Why We Have Lost Our Way
Three headlines have made a lot of noise in Prince George’s County since the ill-fated day of November 12, 2010, when our County Executive, Jack Johnson, was taken away from his home in handcuffs by federal agents. Here’s a quick review:
(1) Jack Johnson Arrested, Indicted on Bribery Charges: Apparently his $174,540 salary wasn’t enough. He spent nearly all of his eight years as County Executive involved in schemes to extract thousands of dollars from developers looking to do business with the county.
(2) Rushern Baker Hosts Lavish Inaugural Celebration: Approximately $525,000 is spent on three days of festivities to celebrate his swearing-in as County Executive. This is more than 100 times the amount spent in neighboring Montgomery County, where Ike Leggett spent $5,000 on his own inauguration.
(3) County Council Spends Thousands on Retreat Outside the County: We still don’t know exactly how much County Council spent on their retreat at a resort outside the County, but according to Council Chair Ingrid Turner, total expenditures are estimated at $10,000 to $15,000. Council spent the funds during a time when the County is facing a $77 million shortfall in its own budget.
The common theme among all these news reports about our elected officials is not corruption, although that has been the major storyline. It’s about the county’s obsession with another issue that has led to it—that making a public display of our wealth matters to us. Our insecurity over whether this county is “good enough” has also motivated our elected officials to try and prove it—in all the wrong ways.
In the case of Jack Johnson, he asks us to overlook the charges against him, by commenting that residents should be focusing on the tremendous growth and progress that the county has made under his administration’s leadership. Yet the indictment alleges that the “growth and progress” have all come with a price tag, allegedly with payoffs directly into Johnson’s pocket. Johnson hopes that having developments like National Harbor or a fancy grocery story like Wegman’s will help us believe we’re really better than other jurisdictions in the region. Even if we don’t believe it, we can at least brag that we’ve got something flashy that others want.
Furthermore, for a public official to stray this far from his churchgoing ideals and prosecutorial roots leads me to believe something else was driving him. Perhaps his greed for more money was based upon his own insecurities about growing up in poverty in racially-divided South Carolina. Maybe in his position as County Executive, he gained some esteem from leveraging his power over others while fattening his bank account. Whatever was driving him, he was so dedicated to keeping the money flowing that he even asked developers to help raise money to get his wife elected to County Council. I’m not quite sure where Johnson lost his way, but one thing I am sure about—no amount of money seemed to satisfy Johnson’s greed. He kept pressing for more, up until the day he was arrested, which was three weeks before he left elected office. Whatever emptiness he sought to fill within himself, no amount of money was able to satisfy it.
In the case of the elaborate inauguration festivities for Rushern Baker, it seemed that he felt compelled to host a lavish celebration to help us all believe that we really are a “good” county and that he will help us make it great. His campaign slogan of “making a good county great” seems to make the assumption that we have an insecurity complex among our residents. Perhaps Baker’s $525,000 affair was just an effort to prove to everyone that after two failed attempts at becoming elected as County Executive, he was finally putting a big exclamation point on his win to show us (or himself) that he really did deserve it. What other explanation could there be, when other similarly-situated counties in our region spent nothing that remotely compares to the inaugural events we held in Prince George’s County?
If $525,000 was going to be raised anyhow, here’s how I might have suggested spending it:
- Hire experienced recruiters to find the best talent and manage the hiring process for the new administration; rather than relying upon former politicians who recycle their old allies into high-paying positions. New blood among the senior leadership team would lend itself to having more political courage in rooting out corruption.
- Bring on transition team auditors who can begin drafting a plan for rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse within the halls of county government.
- Instead of spending time to plan a celebration, pay staff to develop a work plan that will guide the county toward actually implementing the Pledge for Prince George’s County, and aligning its goals and outcomes with the County’s budget process.
These recommendations would probably cost more than $525,000, but at least it would provide us with some real benefits to help pave the way for a difficult transition following Johnson’s arrest.
County Council’s egregious spending on a retreat at a luxury resort makes a statement of its own about how they view their positions as elected officials. Council Chair Turner makes no effort to justify the expense, other than to state that they needed a place where they would not be distracted from their work. It seems that explanation was enough for most people, because we’ve barely heard much of an outcry from residents since the media reported it.
I’ve always thought that, as a county, we’re a bit guilty of treating our elected officials like royalty, instead of reminding them that they are public servants. We don’t run a monarchy, we run a democracy. Yet at a time when the county is facing a $77 million shortfall, Councilwoman Turner’s explanation implies to residents that she chose to spend money on this kind of Council retreat because, quite frankly, the Council deserves it. Why shouldn’t she feel that way, since we pay our Council members more than any others in the entire state of Maryland? We’re sending our own message when we as taxpayers are unwilling to speak out about these issues. I think we should be demanding more accountability from our elected officials, because they are elected to serve the people, not reign over them with a golden scepter.
As a county, we need to come together and recognize that we have some alarming issues to address and tough challenges ahead of us. No amount of money can cover over the problems with our schools, public safety, poor development, and high foreclosure rate. We can’t build McMansions at the outskirts of the County to help us ignore the decline of our inner suburbs. We can’t point to our elite specialty schools and private institutions as justification that options for a great education exist in our county if you’re lucky enough to win the lottery or pay a certain price tag for private education. We can’t blame our homicide rate on drugs and gangs in certain neighborhoods that simply aren’t our neighborhoods. We can’t say our 911 response is sufficient when a few seconds could make the difference in life or death for someone in our household. We can’t brag about the expansion of new, high-end shopping centers and pretend many aging, vacant ones don’t exist. Just because we’re keeping up with our mortgage doesn’t mean that we don’t have neighbors evicted every day as the banks foreclose on the only place they have ever called home. Let’s stand together to fix the problems we face, let’s stand up to those in office who aren’t spending our money to get the right things done, and let’s stand against anybody who stands in the way of that.