From bad to a whole lot worse – the mental deterioration of the President.

A few days before the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I posted on this blog my observation that President Donald Trump’s behavior was becoming more erratic, and that there was an increasing likelihood that he would decompensate to the point where action under the 25th Amendment is necessary.  Things just got a lot worse.

Today he has been sending out tweets accusing the mainstream media (“fake news”) of misrepresenting his position on the Charleston violence to the public. It would be one thing if his effort was simply tactical, trying to blunt some of the extraordinarily negative public reaction to statements from Mr. Trump that failed to acknowledge that Nazism, anti-Semitism, and racial bigotry are evil, while opposition to those beliefs is not.

The thing is, his effort is not simply tactical; it reflects his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. Mr. Trump has always tended to believe that he can create his own reality, but in this case, he is so completely out-of-touch that it is pathological: Members of the public have listened to every word of Mr. Trump’s various statements on Charleston and formed their own opinions. This isn’t about “fake news.”

Yes, commentators can help shape opinions, but we have seen the derision with which a handful of right-wing commentators have been met when trying to defend Mr. Trump’s remarks. Plus, elected officials of all stripes, business leaders, and everyone else you can think of have joined the chorus of voices condemning the President for failing to denounce fascists and bigots in unambiguous language; it’s hard to find someone rational who hasn’t. For Mr. Trump to see this as just another round in his fight with the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, etc. is delusional – there is no other word for it.

No president has ever been this ostracized for his behavior. I doubt that he can psychological withstand the pressure without cracking completely. What exact form his deterioration would take, I don’t know, but I believe that he first will try to find refuge in people who reinforce his aberrant social views and prop up his fragile ego – that would be a typical coping mechanism as he tries to hang onto the delusion that, destructive as it may be, helps give order to his view of the world. In other words, he is going to be vulnerable to folks like Steve Bannon. And Bannon, with a nose like a vulture for decay, knows it. That’s bad.

I am not rejoicing in what I see happening to the President, by any means. Mr. Trump is unlikely to go down without a fight, even if it becomes obvious to Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet – as well as to Mr. Trump’s family – that Mr. Trump must be removed. Resistance by Mr. Trump would be accompanied by civil disorder instigated by his supporters, and the United States would be in a very vulnerable position as the attempt at a transition of power played out. Messy doesn’t even come close.

Plus, I am not enthusiastic about the ultimate outcome of removal – replacement of Mr. Trump with Mr. Pence. If you want a sense of what I think about Mr. Pence, read the article that recently appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica, generally considered a Vatican house organ. More disciplined and less psychologically imbalanced than Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence poses a greater danger of successfully advancing the destructive agenda of the unholy alliance between secular bigots and nativists and hard-right Christians that brought Mr. Trump to power. Of course, we will only have to worry about that problem if we survive the one at hand.

August 17, 2017

 

 

 

The Towson Station fiasco – a process flawed from the start.

To date the controversy in Baltimore County over the land development project known as Towson Station proposed by Caves Valley Partners for 5.8 acres of county-owned property at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue in Towson has focused on whether putting a gas station and convenience store on the site is an appropriate use of the property. A deeper controversy lies in the way that Baltimore County handled the disposition of this property from the beginning, because that is the reason that the county is in such a nasty, messy situation.

Baltimore County never should have structured the disposition of the property in a way that gave the county a financial stake in the outcome of a regulatory process that is supposed to be conducted in an independent, objective manner. The county created a fundamental conflict of interest between its proprietary interests and its regulatory responsibilities that appears to place citizens who object to the proposed development at a serious disadvantage.  Those citizens realize that, and they are not happy.

The relevant history.

The county solicited proposals from developers interested in purchasing the property, the site of a former fire station and public works facility. The proposals included the price offered to the county for the property and the nature of the proposed development of the property.  Clearly, those two elements of a proposal were related to one another, because the nature of a development determines the revenue to be earned from it. Generally, higher the revenue-producing capacity of a property, the higher the price.

The county announced in 2013 that Caves Valley had submitted the successful proposal, offering $8.3 million for the property.  The development proposal accompanying the offer included 10,000 square feet of retail and a 4,200-square-foot space that could be a restaurant or bank, and a Royal Farms gas station and convenience store, even though a gas station is not permitted by the zoning classification of the property.

The contract of sale between the county and Caves Valley, which was approved by the County Council that same year, is contingent on the county formally approving the development proposed by Caves Valley for the property through the process set forth in the county code.  In other words, the county’s ability to realize the purchase price of $8.3 million was contingent on the county approving the construction of a gas station not permitted by the property’s zoning.

To compound the problem, the county excluded the public from the process that resulted in the award of the contract to Caves Valley, even though the process included proposals for the type of development on the property. Baltimore County, being Baltimore County, conducted the process that resulted in the solicitation and acceptance of proposals for the sale of several county-owned properties in 2013, including the proposed site of Towson Station, in secret. Mr. Kamenetz defended the secrecy, stating that the county had to be tight-lipped to protect the committee responsible for the selection from “outside influence.”

County officials claimed that, in reviewing proposals, the committee considered “how the [proposed] developments would fit into the community” in addition to the amounts offered for the properties. It was a questionable claim, at least as applied to the Towson property. It seems like the “outside influence” that county officials were determined to avoid consisted of the views of citizens who lived in the affected communities.

In summary, the county administration, without inviting community participation or seeking community buy-in, attempted to maximize its profit from the sale of the Towson property by accepting a bid for the property tied to a development proposal calling for a more intense use of the property than is permitted by the zoning of the property; specifically, a gas station. Consequently, residents and business owners in Towson who oppose the gas station understandably believe that they were sold out by the county in favor of the highest bidder.

Questions about the planned unit development (PUD) process.

The fly in the ointment with the Caves Valley proposal was the fact that a gas station is not a permitted use on the property under the zoning classification applicable to the property. In zoning parlance, a gas station is a more “intense” use of this property than allowed by its zoning. How to overcome that impediment?

Requiring Caves Valley to seek and obtain an administrative rezoning of the property to a classification permitting gas stations was not a practical solution to the problem, if only because there are strict standards applicable to administrative rezoning and this property would not meet them. There was only one practical way to solve the problem: A planned unit development (PUD). Property developed under a PUD may include a more intense use on the property than otherwise would be permitted by the applicable zoning classification of the property.

There are many legitimate PUDs that allow more intense uses than otherwise would be permitted under the zoning classifications of the properties on which the PUDs are located. In those PUDs developers are allowed more intense uses than permitted by the underlying zoning because the development provides some benefit to the community that the community would not receive if the property was developed under standard zoning rules.

For example, a developer may get to include a more intense use on a site in exchange for less dense development than otherwise would be permitted on the site, allowing the developer to create a significant buffer of undeveloped property around the more intense use. Both planners and the neighboring community might consider that a net benefit to the community, preferring a use like an office building buffered by distance and trees nearby, rather than a permitted use like another row of townhouses right across the street. There are many variations on the theme. A PUD is almost always expected to have higher design standards than “conventional” development.

The Baltimore County Code, in keeping with the county’s tradition of “zoning by courtesy,” requires a developer to send the application for approval of a site for a PUD to the County Council member in whose district the site is located. A community meeting must be held to explain the PUD to members of the affected communities so that they can provide their feedback to the County Council.

Before the PUD can move forward for further administrative review the County Council must pass a resolution finding that the proposed PUD “will achieve a development of substantially higher quality than a conventional development would achieve” and satisfies certain other criteria. The County Council approved the Towson Station PUD last December by Resolution No. 113-16 introduced by Councilman David Marks, in whose district the property is located.

The process of administrative review concludes with a final recommendation from the Department of Planning to an administrative law judge (ALJ) from the county’s Office of Administrative Hearings. The role of the Department of Planning, which also provides a preliminary review of the PUD to the County Council, is a highly influential one because it is the agency where the county’s planning and zoning expertise resides. The ALJ approves or disapproves the PUD based on whether it satisfies the requirements of county law and the decision of the ALJ is appealable to the county’s Board of Appeals.

An intriguing question, given the history of this project and the detailed, sequential process for approving a PUD, is whether the county administration got out in front of that regulatory process by committing itself to supporting a PUD before an application to approve the PUD had even been filed with the County Council by Caves Valley. If so, it is grist for the litigation mill because the integrity of the process was compromised. It is a matter that warrants investigation.

One of the many interesting “quirks” of Baltimore County law is found at §32-4-245(c)(5) of the County Code. A standard requirement for PUDs throughout the state is that they comply with the applicable master or sector plan used to guide development where the PUD is located. Baltimore County law adds a loophole – the PUD must comply with the recommendations of the master or sector plan or the recommendation of the Department of Planning. It is a loophole big enough to drive the proverbial truck through, and suggests that a PUD need not be consistent with the applicable plans if the Department of Planning says it doesn’t.

As I described above, the flexibility of a PUD is a useful tool that can result in a higher quality of land development in an area. A PUD also can serve as little more than a backdoor means for up-zoning a parcel, and that is particularly true when the benefits and amenities offered by the developer are not intrinsic to the site of the development.

Without going into the history of PUDs, suffice it to say that when first used, developers were expected to develop the site in a manner that incorporated the additional benefits and amenities into the site plan, such as the example given above. Another example would be for the approving authority to allow a denser development on one part of the property than permitted by the underlying zoning in exchange for some amenity on another part of the property, such as a recreational facility or open space.

As time went on, it became more common for the amenities and benefits offered by the developer as part of a PUD to be things that bore little if any direct relationship to the site of the development.  Yet again, Baltimore County law is quite liberal, and allows the benefits on which a PUD is based to be capital improvements to a “nearby” county-owned or state-owned facility. You tell me what “nearby” means. At worst in such situations, developers are essentially purchasing an up-zoning by throwing in some off-site improvements and benefits, and the PUD process becomes antithetical to the plan of development for an area and does not result in higher-quality development on the site.

I am not saying that is the case with the Towson Station PUD approved by the County Council by Resolution 113-16. As critical as I may be of the process employed by the county in this case, I am not familiar enough with the site plan, the master and sector plans, or the nearby community itself to pass judgment on the merits of the development contemplated by the PUD. That is something for county planners and community members who are have pored over the master, sector and site plans, and who are familiar with the community in which the property is located, to debate.

I am saying, however, that there are red flags. The $50,000 worth of community benefits on which the Towson Station PUD is based include improving the West Towson Trail, planting trees in West Towson and installing solar-powered speed display signs on Stevenson Road, west of York Road, and on Stevenson Lane, east of York Road. Those amenities are not on or directly related to the subject property. Again, given the way in which the county has proceeded, it is easy to understand the concerns of the opponents of the PUD.

Can the residents and business owners of Towson be confident that the Towson Station PUD will be approved or disapproved on its merits? Or will they be suspicious that the county’s pecuniary interests will influence the decision-making process? I do not mean to impugn the integrity of the county’s professional planners and hearing officers, but the fact that questions like these are being raised is precisely the reason that the county should have avoided tying the sale price of the property to its approval of a PUD, and doing so while excluding the public from the process.

If you had any doubt that there is a relationship between the financial return to the county and the approval of the PUD, it should have been removed by the statement from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz on Friday. Finally yielding to public pressure, he announced that he had given Caves Valley 30 days to meet with community representatives and come up with a new plan for the project, preferably one that did not include a gas station. The announcement included an acknowledgement by Mr. Kamenetz that Caves Valley likely would seek to lower the sale price of $8.3 million if the gas station is dropped from the plan.

Why did the county choose to take such a brazen, ill-fated course of action? In my opinion, the county administration believed, based on past experience, that it would be able to railroad the deal through the County Council with what the Baltimore Sun editorial board referred to sarcastically as the council’s customary “efficiency” – very little discussion and perfunctory opposition, if any. The Kamenetz administration still might succeed, but the last-minute decision by Councilman David Marks to throw himself on the tracks by attempting to withdraw approval of the PUD has sent the project back to the drawing boards for now.

In my opinion, there is a pattern in the way that Baltimore County government operates, and it includes self-dealing among county officials, little concern with obvious conflicts of interest, an obsessive concern with secrecy, and an aversion to public participation in decision-making processes. I certainly saw evidence of those things in my inquiries into the now-notorious Executive Benefit Policy and the issue of severance pay for highly-compensated county employees. Unless ordinary citizens are willing to get more involved, as they now are doing with the Towson Station project, they should not expect their interests to be taken seriously by the powers-that-be in the Baltimore County government.

I want to emphasize that my criticism is not directed at Caves Valley Partners; as far as I can tell, they did what the county asked them to do. In my career, I saw developers and ordinary citizens harmed by poor governmental decisions in about equal measure.

I also feel compelled to address comments made on Friday by Council Chairman Tom Quirk, who was asked by Mr. Kamenetz to act as a “mediator” between Caves Valley and representatives of the Towson community. Mr. Quirk, channeling feelings previously expressly by Mr. Kamenetz’s chief of staff, blasted Mr. Marks for introducing a resolution to rescind approval of the Towson Station PUD. Mr. Quirk stated that “I’m coming in from the outside trying to clean up David Marks’ incompetent mess.”

Mr. Chairman, this mess is on you as much as it is on anyone else. Even if he did so only because he got political cold feet, Mr. Marks eventually stepped up to try to stop a process that was flawed from the outset from doing harm to the community that he represents. Better late than never, and Mr. Quirk remains in the never category.

From the time that the council approved the contract of sale in 2013 to its approval of the PUD last year, all members of the County Council knew or should have known that the process was improperly skewed against the opponents of the project. Mr. Quirk and his three Democratic colleagues on the council voted to table Resolution No. 68-17, which had been introduced by Mr. Marks to rescind approval of the PUD.

Mr. Marks and his two Republican colleagues voted against tabling the measure. This should not be a partisan political issue but the hard fact is that, at least for now, the “good government” elected officials in Towson do not sit on the Democratic side of the aisle.

I am sure that Mr. Kamenetz hopes that he can salvage something from his deal with Caves Valley, even if it means accepting less money for the property. The last thing that he wants is a failed deal on his hands with people looking too closely at the causes of the failure.

August 12, 2017

Is the President mentally decompensating?

It is time to take the mental condition of President Donald Trump a lot more seriously. Always having what appears to be only a tenuous grasp of reality, the president is showing signs of mental and emotional deterioration at a most dangerous time. Dust off the 25th Amendment, and ask the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association to put together a panel of their best and brightest to issue an opinion to Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet on whether the president is mentally able to “discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

I have done a variety of things in my life, from working in an underground iron ore mine and in a cardboard box factory, to serving in the Army and then practicing law. The most useful part of my career, however, for understanding what is going on in Washington, D.C. (or at Mar a Lago, as the case may be) was the time that I spent as a psychiatric social worker, trained at the University of Pittsburgh.

For years I screened psychiatric patients brought to the emergency room or mental health clinic at Ft. Meade, Maryland. I saw plenty of psychotic patients in my work there, listening to them describe various types of bizarre ideation. Sometimes the signs are subtler than others, and some patients are more guarded than others, and then you must listen carefully until a patient begins to describe what is obviously a delusion around which a patient has organized a part of his or her life. With President Donald Trump, the signs are right out in the open.

Like almost everyone else familiar with psychopathology, I believe that our president has narcissistic personality disorder. John Gartner, Ph.D, a psychologist who taught at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for 20 years, has described Mr. Trump’s condition as “malignant narcissism” and believes that it renders him dangerous and unfit to be president. It is a condition that could worsen if dementia begins to affect the president, who is 71 years old and has a family history that includes Alzheimer’s Disease.

Many other mental health professionals have joined Dr. Gartner in recommending that Mr. Trump be removed from office under the 25th Amendment, warning that his condition makes it almost impossible for him to distinguish reality from fancy and to control his impulses. Dr. Gartner describes Mr. Trump’s condition as lying in the grey area between sanity and insanity. Dr. Gartner is a serious clinician and scholar. Read his article in USA Today if you want to feel a chill run down your spine.

Today’s tweets from the president indicate that the president may be decompensating – i.e., his mental state going from bad to worse, to the edge of psychosis. The first tweet goading Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “try harder” on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act was bad enough, displaying profound naivete and an abysmal lack of judgment.

The second tweet doubling down on his threats against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was well over the edge. Throw in his statement at a press conference thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for helping Mr. Trump trim the payroll by throwing 755 U.S. diplomats out of Russia and you are starting to build a pretty good case that the president is going off his rocker.

The apparent failure of Mr. Trump’s first threat to intimidate North Korea apparently was more than Mr. Trump’s ego could withstand. After Mr. Trump warned North Korea that further threats to attack the United States would be met with “fire and fury” the regime turned right around and threatened to launch a strike on Guam, describing the fire and fury comments from the president as a “load of nonsense.” Mr. Trump responded by doubling down on his threat, tweeting today that perhaps his first threat was not “tough enough,” and making clear that the door remains open for a preemptive strike by the United States.

No rational person would have believed that, given the apparent failure of his first threat to end the bellicose language from North Korea, the logical thing to do was to try to make an even bigger, more ominous threat. Mr. Trump truly believes that can lie, bully or bluster his way out of every situation. Mr. Trump’s reflex in almost every situation is to up the rhetorical ante. In this case not only is it irrational, it is highly dangerous.

The biggest threat of a nuclear war comes from a perception by Kim Jong Un that a preemptive nuclear attack on his country is imminent. There is nothing to indicate that the dictator is suicidal and the Chinese certainly have told him in no uncertain terms, if his sycophants have not, that precipitating a nuclear exchange with the U.S. would lead to the devastation of North Korea. There is, however, a very real danger that the young and unstable Kim Jong Un could panic if he believes that all is about to be lost and initiate a nuclear attack – what diplomats euphemistically refer to as a “miscalculation.”

Mr. Trump’s joking reference to the expulsion of U.S. diplomats was almost as bizarre. There is of course his persistent reluctance to criticize Russia and Putin, but making light of what is not a humorous situation was inappropriate, and almost pathologically so. The attempt by Russia to interfere in our election, and their disproportionate response to our sanctions, are not funny. Mr. Trump displayed an almost fawning weakness in the face of Russian hostility on one hand, and an exaggerated, overaggressive reaction to North Korean rhetoric on the other. Something is wrong.

The so-called Goldwater Rule has discouraged psychiatrists from joining other mental health professionals in speaking out about Mr. Trump’s mental illness. The Goldwater Rule was promulgated as an ethical principle by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 in response to concerns about liberal psychiatrists being asked to render their opinions on the mental fitness of conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. In general, the principle prohibits psychiatrists from rendering public opinions on patients that they have not examined and who have not authorized them to make such statements.

The rule was recently challenged by the American Psychoanalytic Association, which stated that it no longer considered its members bound by the restriction. The American Psychiatric Association, however, tightened the rule in March, clarifying that the rule is broken by an analysis of behavior even if no diagnostic label is used. Regardless, I think we are going to see more psychiatrists speaking out, under what mental health professionals refer to as the “duty to warn.”

Barry Goldwater was a perfectly sane man who lived a very normal life, but who happened to have political views that were out of the mainstream at the time. It was an abuse by politically-motivated psychiatrists to allow themselves to be drawn into an attempt to question his mental stability.

This is different. President Trump is not normal, and one could argue that experts with knowledge in human behavior have a duty to share their concerns with members of the public, and especially with those persons who have the power to remove the president from office.  And to do so before it’s too late.

August 10, 2017

No thanks for the red herring, Councilwoman Almond.

Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who has been on the County Council since December 2010, has announced that she will introduce a bill that eliminates a controversial provision of Baltimore County pension law dating back to May 2010.  Why now?  In my opinion, the bill is a big fat red herring intended to distract attention from unfinished business involving the Executive Benefit Policy, a policy made public for the first time in my op ed that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on May 16th.

Since the publication of the policy, and especially since the subsequent publication by the Sun of an editorial calling for the practice of severance pay to be ended, Baltimore County politicians running for office in 2018 have fallen all over themselves with expressions of concern about the way in which backroom deals have been used to boost the benefits of high-ranking officials already receiving handsome salaries and entitled to extremely generous pensions.  The Sun’s recent editorial also referred to the 2010 sweetheart pension deal addressed, perhaps not coincidentally, by Ms. Almond’s bill.

County Administrative Officer Fred Homan revised the Executive Benefit Policy on July 21st and Mr. Kamenetz scrapped it entirely less than a week later, on July 26th.  On July 27th the County Council amended the Legislative Benefits Policy, a similar policy applicable to legislative branch employees, to eliminate severance pay.  Those were the easy things to do.  The final thing that needs to done may end up being more painful.

The unfinished business with the Executive Benefit Policy is an audit of the administration of the Executive Benefit Policy before it was terminated.  A change made to the policy by Mr. Homan on July 21st was a tacit admission that one or more department heads in the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz are accruing vacation leave in violation of a provision of the policy that has been in effect since 1995.

That is significant, in part because the prohibition against department heads earning and accruing leave was used as one of the justifications for awarding severance pay to those department heads; allowing department heads to accrue leave despite the prohibition would put the lie to that justification.  Employees are paid for unused vacation leave at the time they terminate County employment, and such payments constitute compensation for County service requiring approval by law.

It also is significant because, if any department heads were paid for unused leave accrued in violation of the policy, a misappropriation of County funds has taken place and a criminal investigation will be necessary.  When you consider that just one wrongful payout of unused vacation leave to a veteran County official is likely to cost the County tens of thousands of dollars you realize that we are not dealing with chump change.      

Even in Baltimore County it is a crime to put taxpayer’s money in the pocket of a County official not entitled to it.  I have included a more detailed explanation of the issue at the bottom of this post.

We won’t know the extent of the problem until an audit is done.  Remember, the Executive Benefit Policy was drafted and administered out of public view for decades.  In my experience, “exceptions” to such informal, secretive policies are like termites – if you find one, there are likely to be more.  What are the chances that in the 22 years since the accrual of unused vacation leave was banned there has been only one “exception” (i.e., violation) allowing a department to earn and accrue vacation leave?

It is patently obvious that some members of the County Council are afraid to dig too deeply into this matter.  They know that they share the responsibility for whatever is found because they abrogated their duty under the County Charter to regulate the compensation of all County employees by allowing important components of that compensation for high-ranking officials to be decided by the County Administrative Officer through the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy.

The County Council has the power under the County Charter to pass a resolution directing the County Auditor to perform an audit.  Some people, including the County Executive and his allies on the County Council, apparently don’t want an audit done.  I was informed by a Council staffer that opposition to the audit follows party lines, with Democrats on the County Council reluctant to do anything that could embarrass Mr. Kamenetz, a Democrat who is entertaining the idea of running for governor next year.  Ms. Almond is a Democrat.  She can prove me wrong by introducing a resolution directing an audit.

Why am I suspicious about Ms. Almond’s motives?  This is why:

Councilwoman Almond’s bill would undo provisions of County Council Bill No. 30-10, a bill approved by members of a County Council that included Mr. Kamenetz.  She touted her bill to the Sun by pointing out how County Executive Kamenetz will benefit from the provisions that he helped to enact.  The following appeared in the Sun article:  

“Almond’s office has estimated that once Kamenetz finishes his second term as county executive next year, he will be eligible for a $48,000 annual pension from his 16 years on the County Council, a $70,000 annual pension from his eight years as county executive, and a lump-sum payout of at least $384,000 that represents his “banked” council pension while he was executive.”

Here is the thing about that:  Ms. Almond waited too long to do anything about the windfall for Mr. Kamenetz, and she must know that.  Her bill won’t do a thing to change the County Executive’s benefit, because it can’t.

Mr. Kamenetz is already legally vested in both pensions.  Under County law he vested in the second pension that he is earning as County Executive as soon as he finished his first term of office in December 2014.  You’re three years too late, Councilwoman Almond, and there’s no excuse.

The Executive Benefit Policy was successfully kept out of public view until I obtained it through a Public Information Act request.  The controversial provisions of Bill No. 30-10 at issue in Ms. Almond’s bill may have been snuck through by being added at the last minute to a large pension “reform” bill, but they certainly did not escape public notice. In fact, seldom has any measure in Baltimore County attracted as much negative attention in recent years, once people figured out what the County Council had done.

The Sun ran an editorial in 2011 urging its repeal, and followed that with another editorial in 2012 critical of Mr. Kamenetz that referred to the deal.  Former Baltimore County Attorney Virginia Barnhart wrote a scathing letter to the editor in 2011 questioning the legality of the “sweetheart pension deal” and calling on the new County Council – which included Ms. Almond – to repeal it.  I’ve also included a more detailed description of the controversial provisions of Bill No. 30-10 at the end of this post.

Where have you been, Councilwoman Almond?  If you had acted before December 2014 you would have been able to do something about the County Executive’s benefit, about which you can now only complain.

Ms. Almond expresses new-found concern about the “behind closed doors” way in which Baltimore County tends to operate, citing the Executive Benefit Policy as an example.  She doesn’t, however, deny knowledge of the policy, which has been in effect since long before she took office in 2010.  In fact, since at least 1997 there has been a parallel policy called the Legislative Benefits Policy for appointed employees of the legislative branch, also approved behind closed doors.

Ms. Almond also expresses concern about the legality of placing control over who can “double dip” under the provisions of Bill No. 30-10 in the hands of the County Administrative Officer – six years after a former Baltimore County Attorney brought the issue to her attention.  C’mon, Ms. Almond, we weren’t born yesterday, even though that is about when you apparently began paying attention to the way Baltimore County has been doing business for decades.

There’s a very old trick used by politicians at all levels of government when they feel the need to create the appearance of doing something about a problem, but don’t want to upset the apple cart by doing what is necessary to solve the problem.  In my opinion, that is what is going on here with the bill proposed by Ms. Almond.  It appears that Ms. Almond and other members of the County Council are willing to make noise, but then stop short of doing anything of substance that gets them on the wrong side of Mr. Kamenetz.  Again, I’d love to see them prove me wrong.

A lot of people deserve credit for pushing the Baltimore County Council to start moving in the right direction.  Alison Knezevich of the Sun deserves credit for getting the ball rolling by reporting on the “severance package” paid to former Police Chief Jim Johnson, as does Pam Wood for continuing to report on the issue.  I deserve credit only for having both time on my hands and a cynicism that moved me to obtain the Executive Benefit Policy and the Legislative Benefits Policy through Public Information Act requests.  It wasn’t the first time I’d come across policies of dubious legality and inconsistent application; they get easier to sniff out with experience.

The Sun editorial board gets its share of the credit, and a lot of credit goes to the Baltimore County Progressive Democrats Club, which sent a letter to the County Council and County Executive urging them to act on the severance pay issue.  And, of course, there is Lodge #4 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the union that represents rank-and-file members of the Baltimore County Police Department and has been treated rather roughly by Messrs. Homan and Kamenetz over the years.

The FOP was instrumental in bringing the sweetheart pension deal hidden in Bill No. 30-10 to the attention of the public in 2010, and it has filed its own Public Information Act requests in the current matter.  The County knew that the severance pay provisions of both the Executive Benefit Policy and the Legislative Benefits Policy had legal feet of clay, and in my opinion both were jettisoned under the threat of litigation and political embarrassment – not out of any random “good government” impulses.

The Baltimore County Council, on the other hand, deserves credit for nothing at all until it finishes its business with the Executive Benefit Policy by ordering an audit.  Until it does that there will be a cloud hanging over the head of Council members.

I’m convinced that, at least at this point, some members of the County Council are going to do everything they can to avoid an audit to protect both themselves and the County Executive from embarrassment. Ms. Almond’s bill is a useful distraction.  Another member of the Council told me that the Council needs a “few months” to talk about an audit. Why?  In the hope that the idea will just go away?  What’s there to talk about?

I am not accusing anyone of impropriety in this particular matter, but I will tell you what can happen when audits are delayed.  Evidence disappears and statutes of limitation run out.  Just get it done, Baltimore County Council – order an audit, an action which, under the circumstances, would be a no-brainer in every other charter county in this state.

________________

Here is a more detailed explanation of why I believe that an audit of the Executive Benefit Policy as it was administered until its date of termination is necessary.

Under criticism for approving a policy of which he was one of the beneficiaries, County Administrative Officer Fred Homan issued a revised Executive Benefit on July 21, 2017.  In addition to removing his own position from the scope of the policy he also added language removing any “appointed department head who accrues vacation leave, notwithstanding the change in policy provided for under the heading ‘Vacation, Personal and Compensatory Leave’ of this Executive Benefit Policy.”

Here’s the significance of that:  There isn’t supposed to be an appointed department head who accrues vacation leave.  It was the first time that any reference had been made in the policy to department heads accruing vacation leave “notwithstanding” the prohibition against doing so that had been in the policy for 22 years.

The “change in policy” described in the “Vacation, Personal and Compensatory” paragraph occurred in 1995 and ended the accrual of vacation leave by department heads as of the end of 1994.  The change made by Mr. Homan was a tacit admission that one or more department heads have continued to earn and accrue vacation leave despite the fact the policy expressly prohibits it, and has prohibited it since 1995.  It was a stunning revelation.

Why else would he add that language other than to acknowledge that the policy had been violated?  I am not suggesting that he was responsible for allowing any violations of the policy to occur but it does appear that he was aware of the problem – and maybe he wanted to get out ahead of it before it was discovered in some other manner.  We won’t know until an audit is done.  No one is talking at this point.

It’s bad enough if current department heads are accruing leave with the intent that they would be able to cash it out upon leaving County employment. If, however, any former department head received cash for leave earned after 1994, there is a very serious problem indeed, because then we are talking about the misappropriation of taxpayer money by whomever approved such a payout.  If that occurred, it would require that a criminal investigation follow the audit.

I prepared a lengthy analysis of the historical relationship in the Executive Benefit Policy between payouts for unused vacation leave and the eligibility for and amount of severance pay.  At one point in time, the two were directly related in the policy.  A link to my memo appears below.  The discontinuance of the accrual of unused vacation leave in 1995 has been used as one justification for awarding department heads severance pay when they leave County government.

Less than a week after Mr. Homan revised the policy, Mr. Kamenetz scrapped it entirely.  I suspect that Mr. Kamenetz recognized the implications of Mr. Homan’s admission that one or more department heads are accruing vacation leave, and that Mr. Kamenetz wants this whole thing to go away.  It won’t.                                                                                    ___________________

 

The following is more detail on the provisions of Bill No. 30-10 referred to by the Sun (and many others) as a “sweetheart pension deal.”

In May 2010, the Baltimore County Council approved Bill No. 30-10.  An amendment added at the final hearing allows employees of the County who have retired from County service to return to service and, if approved by the County Administrative Officer, continue to receive the pension benefits from their initial retirements while collecting the salaries for their new positions.

Pension payments from the first retirement are not paid to an employee during his or her second period of employment with the County but are “banked” in a “deferral account” where, if treated in the manner as the County’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), they earn interest at the rate of 5%.  Upon the employee’s second retirement from the County the money in the deferral account is paid to the employee in a lump sun.

But that is not the end of it.  What distinguishes this benefit from the typical DROP benefit (and DROP programs generally are limited in most jurisdictions to uniformed public safety employees, and are not available to other employees) is that the employee is eligible to earn a second pension based on the employee’s service in his or her new position, and therefore receive two pensions upon final retirement from County service.  In other words, the employee receives a lump sum payout from the deferral account, payments from his or her first pension resume, and the employee also receives a second pension based on his or her second period of service with the County.

The provision is a red-headed Eskimo, among other things.  It is limited to employees hired before July 1, 2007, and to employees who return to positions other than the positions from which they retired; in other words, it was ideally suited for sitting members of the County Council in 2010 who might end up in positions in the Executive Branch during the next administration.  Indeed, four of the Council members who voted for the sweetheart deal in 2010 stood to benefit from it: Kevin Kamenetz, elected County Executive later that year; Sam Moxley, a legislative aide to Kamenetz; Vince Gardina, now the county’s top environmental official; and Johnny Olszewski Sr., who worked for the county recreation department after leaving the council.

Councilwoman Almond estimates that when Mr. Kamenetz finishes his second term as County Executive next year, he will be eligible for a $48,000 annual pension from his 16 years on the County Council, a $70,000 annual pension from his eight years as County Executive and a lump-sum payout of at least $384,000 that represents the amount of his Council pension that was “banked” in a deferral account while he was County Executive.  Although a lump-sum payout of $384,000 and an annual pension of $118,000 pales by comparison to the pensions to which County Administrative Officer Fred Homan and other high-ranking officials of the Kamenetz administration will be entitled, it is not a bad return for 24 years of work, 16 of which were part-time.

August 2, 2017

Severance pay review 7 24 17

Congress takes important step toward civil service reform.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 is a victory for veterans and for the great majority of VA employees who provide exceptional service to veterans. It also could pave the way for changes to civil service practices that impede the ability of managers at all levels of government to maintain the quality of their workforces.

The legislation makes it easier for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire senior executives. It is the change to the “standard of review” applied by administrative law judges (ALJs) and the Merit System Protection Board (MSRB) to decisions to terminate, suspend or demote rank-and-file employees, however, that could have the most far-reaching impact.

Indeed, let’s hope that the change begins a trend in other federal agencies and in state and local governments that have all but destroyed qualitative personnel management by transferring much of the power to regulate the conduct and performance of their employees to “independent” hearing authorities. The fact that hearing officers and tribunals substitute their judgment on the retention, suspension or demotion of employees for the judgment of supervisors and managers makes it impossible to hold those supervisors and managers accountable for agency performance – the death knell of effective personnel management.

The act changes the standard of review for most VA employees from “preponderance of the evidence” to “substantial evidence.” No longer will an ALJ or the MSRB be able to overturn the decision of a supervisor solely because they believe that the decision was not supported by the weight of the evidence.

A decision to remove, suspend or demote an employee now can be overturned only if the ALJ or MSRB determines that the decision was not based on “substantial evidence.” That means that the decision stands unless the ALJ or MSPD finds that no reasonable person would find the evidence adequate to support the decision. To overturn a decision an ALJ or the MSRB now must find that the decision not only was wrong but also that the supervisor had no reasonable basis for making the decision in the first place.

The substantial evidence test does what civil service reform was initially intended to do: Protect workers against employment decisions based on improper considerations such as political affiliation and later race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It does so, however, without tipping the balance so far in favor of the employee that it cripples the ability of management to shape the quality of an agency.

In those jurisdictions that have adopted the preponderance of the evidence test the adoption was a major victory for politically-influential public employee unions because it makes it harder to get rid of employees, including bad ones. It turns administrative appeals of terminations into proceedings resembling full-blown civil trials.

Because almost all civil service systems require systems of progressive discipline the focus of an appeal of a termination under the preponderance of the evidence test is less on whether the employee should be fired, and more on whether management dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s along the way.  For the supervisor, it often feels like he or she is on trial.

Even if management does everything that it is supposed to do the appellate authority can reverse the termination if it disagrees with the result. Management decisions effectively are placed in the hands of hearing officers, usually lawyers, who have little or no management experience and, more importantly, are not accountable for employee performance.

The process is so daunting that the supervisors are discouraged from initiating disciplinary action and begin to tolerate employees that they shouldn’t.  Once that mentality takes hold in an organization it is doomed to mediocrity.

If there is a core principle of management, it is this: Give an employee the tools to do his or her job and then hold the employee accountable for the results. That applies to supervisors as well, and one of their tools is the power to remove, suspend or demote their subordinates. Give that power to independent hearing officers or tribunals who are not responsible for the performance of an agency and you have taken a critically-important tool out of the hands of your supervisors. Don’t be surprised at the consequences.

The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 is a step in the right direction. It is civil service reform that promotes the interest of good government without taking away the legitimate rights of government employees.

July 9, 2017

Remember the adage about glass houses, Council President Young.

I wrote an open letter to Baltimore City Council Bernard C. “Jack” Young and sent it today to all members of the Baltimore City Council.  My letter was in response to the letter sent by Council President Young to the editor of the Baltimore Sun criticizing Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).  [“Union deserves some blame for crime spike,” The Baltimore Sun, June 28, 2017.]

Council President Young’s letter criticized Lt. Ryan for, among other things, not being sufficiently accommodating to the city’s desire to abandon the four day a week (4×10) shift schedule instituted by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in January of 2015.  The change to the 4×10 was the brainchild of former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and at the city’s request it was mandated in the collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the FOP in 2014.

Suffice it to say that 4×10 scheduling has not worked out as intended and the city now wants it out of the collective bargaining agreements.  Although the public is not privy to the ongoing negotiations between the city and FOP it appears that the union is holding out to get something from the city in return for agreeing to the change back to the five day a week (5×8) schedules  – no big surprise there.  It is what unions do.

My problem is this:  It is easy for Council President Young to bash Lt. Ryan but the fact remains that the city council (and its president) bear a good share of the blame for the fact that city is in the position of bargaining over issues having to do with the management of the BPD that should not be the subject of collective bargaining.  It is an issue that I have been pressing for over two years, and by now I have concluded that the members of the city council, whatever their rhetoric may be, are loath to take on the FOP over control of the BPD.

My letter to Council President Young points out two instances in which the council has failed to assert itself when it could have done so regarding the FOP and the BPD.  Here is the link to the letter:  Ltr Jack Young 6 29 17

June 29, 2017

Confidence in Mayor Pugh eroding.

The Baltimore Sun continues to do its part in calling city officials to action.  It is hardly alone in that regard.  My question today is directed to the mayor:  Are you listening, Your Honor?

As I noted in a post to my blog a couple of days ago the Sun has demonstrated its concern about the lack of both direction and a sense of urgency in dealing with the epidemic of murder and other violent crime that has gripped Baltimore for the past two years by publishing a series of opinion pieces and commentary on the subject, including my own.  Today the Sun published two thoughtful letters, one from Mr. Jack Boyson pointing out the role that community associations could play as part of an overall strategy for reducing crime.

The other was from Dr. Stuart Varon, stating that Baltimore needs an anti-violence summit.  It is an idea that I put forth in an op ed in January and which needed repeating.  As Dr. Varon points out, summits can have synergistic effects; heaven knows, the energy must come from somewhere to induce the city to get its act together and put together a viable plan for reducing the violence.

I received a short note from someone who has done his best to get the word out about the need for the city to revisit whatever blueprint it is working from to tamp down the violence, and to do so soon.  His message was “keep the pressure on.”  People like Mr. Boyson and Dr. Varon are doing what they can to keep the pressure on, and are doing so in a positive and constructive manner.  I am going to change that tone a bit with the following comment:

Mayor Pugh, you are drifting toward a crisis in confidence; the storm clouds are gathering.  Influential members of the city council – and many others – clearly are impatient with your approach to managing the crisis of violent crime in the city.  Your inability to find a suitable head for the city’s Office of Criminal Justice six months into your administration and over two years into an unprecedented wave of violent crime has become representative of your struggles.

I criticized Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for not articulating his strategy for combating the violence as stress fractures within the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) continue to expand.  It is your office, however, that is responsible for the overall approach of which the law enforcement component is only a part, and it is an overall strategy for which there is the most pressing need.

You pride yourself on your collegiality and ability to get people to collaborate on solutions on to problems.  Sometimes, particularly in crises, leaders also must get out in front and initiate measures around which their followers can coalesce.  You’re not doing so hot on that part of your job.

I suggest that you embrace the city council’s proposal that the city develop a “comprehensive gun violence reduction strategy” and kick off the process for developing the strategy with a well-organized summit.  Invite experts, and invite the governor.  Baltimore needs to see you step up and take charge of coming up with solutions, and soon.

June 25, 2017

 

Mr. Commissioner, let’s hear your strategy.

I don’t use the description “Trump-like” lightly, but there is a certain alternative universe/Alice in Wonderland quality to the “we have a strategy – no we don’t” debate going on in Baltimore.  Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the union representing rank-and-file officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), has been increasingly critical of BPD management, claiming that it lacks a strategy to reduce the rate of murder and other violent crime in the city.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis states that the accusation by Lt. Ryan is not true, and that the department does have a strategy.  Mr. Commissioner, if that is so then you need to take the time to explain to everyone exactly what that strategy is.  If you can explain it, we can understand it – enough with the suspense, for heaven’s sake.  Outline in writing the steps you are taking to reduce violence, release it to the media, and then hold a press conference to answer questions.

Lt. Ryan escalated the war of words on Wednesday by announcing that his union, the FOP, would be meeting directly with community members, business leaders and elected officials to discuss solutions to city’s current “crime crisis” because the city government itself has no long-range plan.  It was an obvious attempt to embarrass the commissioner into taking action- or maybe just to embarrass the commissioner, period.  Commissioner Davis reacted testily, accusing Lt. Ryan of “willful ignorance” of the city’s plan.

Lt. Ryan may have been emboldened to step up his criticism of the commissioner by a growing chorus of voices raising similar concerns.  The editors of The Baltimore Sun underscored their interest by publishing three separate opinion pieces on the subject within the span of several days.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun published my op ed criticizing the failure by city agencies to adopt a strategic violence-reduction plan and endorsing the proposal by Councilman Brandon Scott to develop one.  I stated that the failure of the city to have programs with proven track records of success such as Operation Ceasefire and Safe Streets Baltimore in tamping down murder rates up and running two years into an epidemic of violent crime was a direct result of the absence of a credible strategic plan.

On Wednesday, the Sun editorial board rendered its own opinion on the subject, stating that Baltimore needed a “sustainable plan” beyond just canceling leave, requiring officers to work 12-hour shifts and putting as many officers on the streets as possible:

“People like the idea of police getting out of their cars, walking the beat and interacting with the community. We need that. But we need specialized units, too. We need homicide detectives investigating cases and building the evidence necessary to arrest the relative few who are responsible for most of Baltimore’s violence, and we need the state’s attorney’s office to win convictions that carry hefty sentences. We need internal affairs officers rooting out corruption in the ranks. We need narcotics squads disrupting major drug rings. And we need officers to work in sustained, hand-in-glove partnerships with federal and state agencies to engage in close supervision of those known to be at risk of perpetrating violence or becoming victims of it.”

In the same edition, the Sun published an op ed by former State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein in which he decried the failure by city officials “to display any sense of urgency during the first six months of 2017 as the murder rate has skyrocketed, most recently highlighted by the killing of five people in a single night.”  Mr. Bernstein described a long list of measures that he believed needed to be adopted, noting that an effective strategy “is not about sweeping corners and locking everyone up; instead, it requires a focused approach against the relatively few violent repeat offenders who are causing the violence.”  He concluded:

“In the short-run, a focused, strategic, and aggressive approach against those who are driving violence needs to be adopted, not at the exclusion of the long-term initiatives, but in conjunction with them.”

Mr. Bernstein’s op ed echoed comments made by Rod Rosenstein, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland who is now the Deputy U.S. Attorney General.  Mr. Rosenstein arguably was the most successful crime fighter in Baltimore during his twelve years as U.S. Attorney.  During an interview with WBAL-TV in April Mr. Rosenstein observed:

“When we had a unified effort by local, state and federal law enforcement to focus on violent crime in Baltimore, we drove down violent crime in Baltimore.  We did it from 2007 to 2014, and we believe we can do it again. The current strategy needs to be revised, because we’re not achieving the mission. The mission is keep the streets safe, and the streets aren’t safe, we need to change to deal with it . . . We need to be more aggressive, more pro-active with law enforcement, because our responsibility is to protect the law-abiding citizens.”

The theme of a lack of urgency among city officials is a recurring one.  In January, the Sun editorial board admonished city officials to start acting like the city is in the middle of a homicide crisis – because it is.  A few weeks later the paper ran my op ed suggesting that city and state leaders hold a summit on the epidemic of violent crime as a way of imparting a sense of urgency and beginning the process of putting together an effective plan.

The debate within the BPD is of course not about whether there is a plan; it is about whether the current plan is adequate.  To date Lt. Ryan has not criticized Commissioner Davis by name, and “we need a plan” is perhaps less harsh than saying “the commissioner’s current plan stinks.”  Lt. Ryan knows that a line would be crossed if it sounds like he is accusing the commissioner of not being up to the job, although he is getting close.  Let’s hope that we have an acceptable plan on the table before that line is crossed.  This is not the time for open warfare between the FOP and the commissioner.

Councilman Brandon Scott summed up the feelings of a growing number of observers from both within and without the BPD and city government: “We have to make changes to the strategy that’s happening today because it’s not working.”  The commissioner needs to recognize that he is losing the confidence of people whose support that he needs, and then do something about it.  One gets the sense that Commissioner Davis believes that if he retains the support of the mayor and governor, he’ll be fine.  If that is what he believes, it is a mistake.

So, Commissioner Davis, start by laying out your strategy and tell us why you think it is the path to reducing the rate of murder and other violent crime.  Let people ask questions and try to help them understand your strategy; like it or not, you are going to have to persuade people that your plan will work.  Right now, they are not so sure that you even have a plan.  If you do have one, don’t keep it a secret.

June 23, 2017

The Trump Grand Design – keep following the money.

The real Deep Throat apparently did not tell Bob Woodward of the Washington Post to “follow the money” as depicted in the movie All the President’s Men, although the phrase is now firmly fixed in the American lexicon.  My favorite example of its use was by Det. Lester Freaman in an episode of The Wire:

“You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f__k it’s gonna take you.” ∼ Det. Lester Freaman, Season 1, The Wire.

In a post last December, I cautioned that we needed to be concerned about the potential for divided loyalty when it came to our president-elect and Russia.  I certainly don’t claim to be the first one to point that out.  In any event, I followed that post up with another one two weeks later in which I said that comments made by Mr. Trump had turned me into a “budding conspiracy theorist.”

The comments that sent me off the deep end were his dismissive references to accusations of attempted Russian interference in the presidential election, with Trump at one point stating that it was “time to move on to bigger and better things.”  Bigger and better things?  Yikes.   What is bigger than one of our enemies (and yes, Russia is an enemy) trying to influence the outcome of a presidential election, particularly if they had inside help?

My working theory is that Mr. Trump believed then and believes now that he can simultaneously pursue two goals:  Enrich himself and his family empire beyond all imagination and at the same time achieve “greatness” as president of the United States.  I call it the Trump Grand Design.  I do not think it is possible to overstate the extent and pathological nature of his narcissistic personality disorder and megalomania and the extent to which it distorts his judgment.

Two recent events caused me to return to this theme.  One was the discrepant accounts of a meeting between Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Sergey Gorgov, a Russian banker, a graduate of the academy that prepares students for careers in the Foreign Intelligence Service and Federal Security Service (FSB), and a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Mr. Kushner stated that he met with Gorgov in his capacity as a primary point of contact for the Trump transition team.  The bank of which Gorgov is chairman, VneshEconomBank, released a statement that Gorgov met with Mr. Kushner in his role as head of his family’s real estate firm.

The Russians are perfectly capable of doing and saying things simply to sow confusion and discord, but the context is that we also know that Kushner Companies is looking for someone to bail it out by purchasing a 41-story tower at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.  Kushner Companies bought the building in January 2007 for a then-record $1.8 billion and since then has been hemorrhaging money.

The second event that came up on my radar was Mr. Trump channeling Saudi Arabia’s strident position on the boycott of Qatar at the same time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was trying to ease tensions between the boycotting Arab states and Qatar.  Qatar is a vital military ally of the United States, not only because of the war against ISIS but in general because of its strategic location in the Persian Gulf.  We have an enormous air base in Qatar, Al Udeid Air Base, that is home to 11,000 members of the United States military.  Did Mr. Trump not know that, or didn’t he care?

I was suspicious enough when Mr. Trump began his first foreign trip with a stop in Saudi Arabia where he was fawned over members of the House of Saud and in turn threw his unconditional support behind a regime with a rich history of playing both sides against the middle.  As former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams noted on CNN Mr. Trump referred to the problem with Islamic terrorists in the Middle East as if the terrorists had dropped in from outer space.

In his effusive praise for the Saudis Mr. Trump ignored the role that Saudi Arabia has played as a breeding ground for terrorists and an exporter and financier of Wahhabism, the austere and intolerant form of Islam that provided the ideological underpinning of ISIS.  Saudi Arabia has not stopped doing the things it has done for decades that helped give rise to Islamic terrorism.

Because of the dominance of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia there is a smoldering resentment in Saudi Arabia against the west and the ties of its royal family to the west.  It may be a small thing in and of itself but the Saudi men’s national soccer team recently caused an uproar in world soccer circles by failing to honor a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorist attack in London.  The government quickly apologized, but the incident furnished a rare opportunity for insight into Saudi culture.  One wonders how long the tension can continue before the country explodes.

True to its duplicitous form Saudi Arabia rewarded Mr. Trump for his expression of friendship almost immediately, by putting the United States in an awkward situation with a key ally in the Middle East by orchestrating an unnecessary and precipitous boycott of Qatar.  Mr. Trump seemed not to care, probably because his focus remains on fostering a personal relationship with the Saudi royal family and not on the Middle East in general.

Mr. Trump, highly critical of our closest allies, has been as uncritical of Saudi Arabia as he has been of Russia.  And I believe in both cases the reason is the same:  He is cultivating them as sources of money for the Trump-Kushner empire.  If you are looking for very large amounts of money accompanied by very little scrutiny then Russian oligarchs and Arab oil sheikhs are just the thing. Plus, like Messrs. Trump and Kushner, they have no problem mixing business with politics and government. Everything is negotiable, including scruples.

As an aside, I am not one of those folks who see Mr. Kushner as a “moderating” influence on the president.  Any moderation he does is intended to preserve the president’s dwindling credibility, because his dwindling credibility affects Mr. Trump’s ability to advance their shared economic interests.

Mr. Kushner is a more cosmopolitan version of his father-in-law, at least in terms of ambition and ruthlessness. Ivanka married someone pretty much like her old man, although with a lot more polish and a less-pronounced personality disorder.  There is nothing in the way Mr. Kushner runs his family’s businesses that suggests that he would be unwilling to exploit his symbiotic relationship with his father-in-law to mutual advantage.  In my opinion Mr. Kushner thinks that he is clever enough to help pull off the Trump Grand Design without seriously damaging the United States and his youthful arrogance is almost as dangerous as Mr. Trump’s megalomania.

The only logical reason that Mr. Trump is so concerned about the Flynn and Russia investigations is that they may lead back to him or Mr. Kushner.  It is imperative that the investigations continue.  The distortion caused in Middle East policy by Mr. Trump’s desire to attract Saudi money to his businesses can cause serious damage but nothing like the irreparable harm that can be done by his potential ties to Russian banks, oligarchs, and Putin himself.

I get that my theory about Mr. Trump’s odd posture toward Russia and now Saudi Arabia involves plenty of conjecture and a little paranoia, but I am waiting for one piece of evidence demonstrating that I am on the wrong track.  Unfortunately, as each day goes by and new facts are adduced it appears more and more likely that my theory is correct.  I don’t believe that Mr. Trump will fire Robert Mueller, the DOJ special counsel, but if he does that will be all the confirmation I need to conclude that there is some arrangement or discussion with Putin or one of his associates that even Mr. Trump doesn’t think that he can explain away.

June 13, 2017

 

 

So much for the Baltimore City Charter.

A lot of what goes on in the City of Baltimore government has an ad hoc, ill-considered feel to it, and adoption of the city budget for FY 2018 was no exception.  Rather than work within the restraints of the “executive budget system” mandated by the city charter, the city council worked around the legal limitations on its power by what politely could be referred to as hostage-taking and extortion.  Heaven forbid that council members should try to gain voter approval of a charter amendment allowing them to do what they want to do – that would involve the risk that the voters might tell them “No.”

Baltimore city leaders announced last week that they had agreed on a budget after weeks of acrimonious disagreement between members of the City Council and Mayor Catherine Pugh.  The compromise appears reasonable, at least on its face, with $7.58 million in spending shifted in the budget for the coming year, with most of it going to Baltimore’s public schools.  That does nothing to change my reservations about the nonsense that went on this year and last and I do not believe that it necessarily bodes well for the future.

The budget process always involves some contentiousness but in the last two years in Baltimore that contentiousness has risen to the level of open revolt by members of the City Council against the mayor.  Last year Council President Jack Young threatened to shut down the government if former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not add funding for services to children and youth that he deemed important.

This year the council held programs and projects near and dear to the mayor hostage, threatening to defund the programs and projects unless the mayor amended the budget to fund the Safe Streets program and other programs and projects intended to benefit children and youth that council members wanted funded.  Andrew Kleine, the city’s budget director, became a lightning rod for the council’s unhappiness and the council communicated its displeasure at him by voting to defund the entire Bureau of the Budget and Management Research that he supervises.

Although it was never likely that the council would leave funding for the budget office out of the budget as finally approved, Mr. Young believed that voting to defund the mayor’s budget office was necessary to prove to the mayor that the council was not “playing.”

The Baltimore Sun editorial board heaped praise on the council for its asserting itself.  That is fine except for the fact that in the process of doing so the council revolted not only against the mayor’s proposed budget but also against the so-called “executive budget system” established by the city charter. The city charter is the “constitution” of the city approved by its voters.  Members of the council obviously didn’t like the legal budgetary framework approved by the voters so they have found a way to work around it.  Basically, they said to hell with the law.

Under the city’s executive budget system, the council may reduce but not increase the amount of the expenditure proposed by the mayor for a program or project.  Consequently, even if the council reduces the expenditure proposed for one program or project it may not use the savings to increase the expenditure for another program or project unless the mayor agrees to amend the budget to do so.

The city’s executive budget system is modeled on the state’s executive budget system, which was adopted in the early part of the 20th century in response to a fiscal crisis.  Of the eleven charter home-rule counties in the state, seven (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Wicomico) have charters that establish executive budget systems similar to the city’s.

Three of the remaining charter counties (Dorchester, Prince George’s and Dorchester) have charters that allow their county council to increase the amount of an expenditure proposed by the county executive for a program or project but not add new programs or projects.  The Montgomery County charter allows the county council to add programs or projects to the budget but gives the county executive line item veto authority over the budget as approved by the council.

According to the mayor’s statement part of the deal with the council is that more money will be allotted to the Baltimore City Public School System.  State enabling law in the Education Article provides that the city council would have the power to restore cuts made by the mayor to the budget submitted by the school system upon adoption of a charter amendment by the city implementing the power.  The city has never adopted such an amendment.

In other words, there is a right way for the city council to do what it seems to want to do, and that is to ask the voters of the city to approve an amendment to the city charter giving them the power to add expenditures to the budget that county councils in some counties have, and the power to restore any cuts made by the mayor to the school budget.  I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that a change to the city’s current executive system is prudent – I think a lot more thought should go into giving the city council any more control of the budget.

The city council did gain the approval of the voters in 2016 to an amendment to the executive budget system that requires setting aside a fixed percentage of the city’s revenue each year for the so-called Children and Youth Fund.  Ironically, in a post criticizing the idea I suggested that, as an alternative, the charter be amended to allow the council to move money between items of expenditure if the concern was that mayors were not giving sufficient priority to funding programs and services for children and youth.

Dedicating (or “earmarking”) by law a fixed percentage of revenues for expenditure for only certain purposes violates every principle of modern municipal budgeting, not the least of which is the need to retain the flexibility to adjust to crises and changes in circumstances.  Also, rating agencies and lenders get nervous if there are legal impediments that prevent revenues from being used to pay the principal and interest on city bonds and that nervousness can translate to higher interest rates charged to the city.

I saw and still see modifying the executive budget system to allow the council to move money around as less destructive to the city’s financial well-being than hard-wiring expenditure levels into the city charter.  Time will tell if the Children and Youth Fund turns out to be anything other than a massive boondoggle; rather than allocate the money in the fund through the city budget Council President Jack Young is determined to use the fund for a separate grant-making operation over which I am sure he will exercise considerable control. We’ll see how well that turns out.

A strict executive budget system does tend to tamp down expenditures.  The old saw about a camel being a horse designed by a committee applies to a budget put together by 15 members of the city council.  Gaining consensus from such a large group usually involves spending a little more money here and there; each member has his or her own idea on how to best spend the available money and that is particularly true because each member, except the president, represents a separate district.

Although I have no idea whether the criticism of Mr. Kleine by certain members of the council was fair, I do pity him a bit.  The chief budget officer in any municipal government tends to be a little stingy and that is because he or she is charged with keeping one eye on the creditworthiness of the city or county.  If bond ratings slip because of concern over how the city manages its finances borrowing can get a lot more expensive.

I am sure that Mr. Kleine was trying not to use any more of the anticipated surplus from FY 2017 than necessary as a hedge against a shortfall in the FY 2018 budget.  For one thing, the police department is nowhere near getting its overtime situation under control.  There also is a pension lawsuit that could cost the city considerable money, and the DOJ consent decree is a fiscal wild card.  The city could very well face a pinch in the fourth quarter of FY 2018 that would only get worse if revenue estimates prove over-optimistic.

In any event, Mr. Kleine got no thanks for his efforts at fiscal prudence and the comment by Mayor Pugh that “the budget process next year will be very different” came across as a rebuke directed at him.  Given that it is the mayor who makes the policy decisions on the budget her remark was not exactly a reassuring sign of leadership.

It has been a dreary two years for the city. I wish I could muster a little more optimism, but this year’s budget circus could be a sign of even more fractious times to come.

June 11, 2017