It’s time for Baltimore County Council to “meddle” in the affairs of the Baltimore County government.

I wrote an op ed published by The Baltimore Sun on May 17th that criticized long-time Baltimore County Administrator Fred Homan for issuing a “policy” purportedly entitling high-ranking appointed officials in County government, including himself, to “severance pay” upon termination of County government.  If the 7% pay raise proposed for Mr. Homan in the FY2018 budget is adopted that means when he retires he will be entitled to a lump sum severance payment of $ 80,000 in addition to estimated monthly pension payments of $18,750.  That’s right, $18,750 per month.

I followed that up with a letter that I sent yesterday to members of the Baltimore County Council and County Executive Kamenetz detailing my concerns and stating what I believe needs to be done to resolve them, including halting the payment of severance pay until such time as it is approved by ordinance of the County Council.  Ltr to Balt County Council & Exec 5 22 17  Only the County Council has the legal authority to authorize severance pay for appointed officials, including Mr. Homan, and that would have to be done by law.  There is no law authorizing severance pay.

Then of course there are the questions raised by a County Administrative Officer issuing a policy from which he stands to benefit.  Will anyone in Baltimore County do anything about the problems?  I doubt it, and I will tell you why I am so pessimistic.

What drew me to this matter in the first place was my anger at reading that the attempts by Alison Knezevich of The Sun to obtain the source of the decision to award former Police Chief Jim Johnson a “severance package” valued at $117,000 were rebuffed by County officials on the basis that it was a “personnel matter.”  I knew that was not true and decided to make my own inquiries.

One of my inquiries was to Council President Tom Quirk, who is my representative on the Council.  I was both stunned and angered by his response, and decided that this was something that I needed to pursue.  The link to the entire email appears below, but this is the heart of his response:

“Severance pay is an executive prerogative.  This is part of separation of powers.  I know that the executive department policy is to permit severance pay for all department heads . . . I support the County Executive’s decision here and I also believe that this decision is the County Executive’s to make and his alone.  I think it would be inappropriate for the legislative branch to meddle in executive branch responsibility and duty.”

At first I was a bit insulted at being sent such drivel.  The more I thought about it the angrier I got.  Assuming that Chairman Quirk was not aware that I had some knowledge of Maryland local government law where does he get off blowing that kind of smoke up a citizen’s arse?  Did he think that I would just accept that nonsense and his thanks for my “passion and concern” for the County and go away?  It is not “meddling” for the County Council to decide upon the propriety and limits of the compensation of department heads, it is their duty and responsibility.

What is the chance that any remedial action will be taken when this is the attitude of the Council Chairman?  As usual the wagons are circling in Towson.

After the op ed appeared in the newspaper I received an inquiry from a member of the Baltimore County Charter Review Commission asking if I thought it would be useful to amend the County Charter to state that no compensation shall be paid to any County official other than that expressly authorized by the County Council by ordinance.  My reaction was a negative one based on my general opposition to passing new laws when the problem lies in the enforcement of existing ones:  The Charter already states that establishing the compensation to which a County official or employee is entitled because of his or her service to the County is a legislative function assigned to the County Council.  Adding language explaining that means that it is not an “executive prerogative” (Chairman Quirk’s term) is redundant and unnecessary.

No, I’m afraid the problem lies in the people elected to govern Baltimore County and the high-ranking officials that they appoint.  Where was the County Attorney during all of this?  Did he ever have a discussion with his immediate supervisor, the County Administrator Officer, about the legality of the County Administrative Officer issuing a policy entitling appointed officials including both the County Administrative Officer and the County Attorney to severance pay upon leaving County employment?

What about the County Auditor?  The County Auditor is the fiscal watchdog of the County.  Did she ever express any concern about the legality of the Executive Benefit Policy and the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy?  Again, complicating the issue is the fact that she is one of the appointed officials covered by the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy.  Didn’t she ever wonder how members of the Council could approve that policy just by signing it, rather than approving it by ordinance?

Baltimore County has a long history of doing things behind closed doors and of making government as opaque as possible for its citizens.  There also is a fair amount of voter apathy that allows such practices to continue.  I’m not optimistic that anything is going to change anytime soon.  A taxpayer’s suit undoubtedly would bring a halt to payments of the severance pay but is unlikely to effect any longer-term change.

Links to:     Executive Benefit Policy                                                                                                                       Legislative Branch Benefits Policy                                                                                                     Council Chairman T. Quirk email

May 23, 2017

Thoughts on the Children & Youth Fund on the birthday of Malcolm X.

Had he not been assassinated in 1965 Malcolm X would have turned 92 today.  As it happens today is also the day that I read the final version of  the Children and Youth Fund Grantmaking Criteria” that the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Task Force, under the leadership of City Council President Jack Young, intends to propose to the Baltimore City Council in the near future.  First my thoughts on the progress of the Task Force and then a word about Malcolm X.

I caught grief on twitter and elsewhere for my op ed published in the Baltimore Sun  expressing my concerns about the Task Force, which was formed to help implement what the Baltimore City Council website refers to as “Council President Young’s historic Baltimore’s Children and Youth Fund.  And make no mistake about it this is Council President’s Jack Young’s baby.  Is it a problem having a major city program so closely identified with a single politician, particularly one as proprietary in such matters as Mr. Young?  Of course it is, and that remains part of my concern.

The first thing that the city needs is a comprehensive strategy and plan for dealing with the social and economic problems that underlie the city’s violence.  The last thing that it needs are ego-driven politicians pulling in different directions.  Stay tuned for what happens when the recommendations of the Children and Youth Fund Task Force are presented to the City Council.

Most of the grief that I received came from Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle and co-chairman of the Task Force.  Fair enough; when you refer as I did to something someone says as being “stupid” you have to expect a counterattack.  His commentary on twitter resulted in a series of tweets by his supporters questioning both my knowledge and relevant experience – the terms “old man” and “white privilege” came up in the discussion.  The description “old man” is certainly accurate, although I can’t say I’m particularly proud or happy about it.

In any event, Mr. Jackson may never admit it but he and I agree on the core objective of dramatically improving the odds that the black children in Baltimore’s many disadvantaged neighborhoods will escape lives of poverty, drug abuse, imprisonment, and in violent death.  And I am not even going to disagree with him that institutional racism has played a role in creating the social and economic conditions that produce dysfunctional families and troubled children.  My point is that he, and others on the Task Force, are trying to take the Children and Youth Fund in the wrong direction.

Mr. Jackson wants to use the fund for the economic empowerment of the black community by investing in “black-led organizations.”  I think that is a great goal but it is not the purpose of the fund and does not address the most immediate needs of the city.  I have said in many contexts that I believe that the city and state have to focus like a laser on delivering services directly to at-risk children and their families and on making evidence-based decisions on what services and programs will be most effective in addressing the public-health crisis at hand:  The murder epidemic.

My own point of view undoubtedly is shaped in part by the fact that my first professional career was as a social worker trained at the University of Pittsburgh.  One of my internships was with the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole, assigned to help parolees successfully reintegrate into society.  I was a social worker, not an agent.  It was eye-opening and in some cases rewarding work.

The internship was during the height of a heroin epidemic and many of the problems today are depressingly similar to those that I saw back then, with the exception of the proliferation of handguns.  Most of my clients lived in the Hill District or in Homewood, two poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.  I walked through those neighborhoods alone and unarmed.  I wonder if today the University of Maryland School of Social Work sends social work students alone into Sandtown-Winchester or Ellwood Park.  I tend to doubt it.  The widespread availability of handguns has made bad situations a lot worse.

Later my social work career would include the duty to identify and try to prevent recurrences of child abuse and neglect.  After I became a lawyer and a prosecutor a stint screening and prosecuting cases in juvenile court gave me another opportunity to see the consequences of bad or indifferent parenting.  Combine poverty with bad parenting and the chances of a person emerging unscathed from childhood in urban America are not great.

Problems like joblessness and substandard housing and schools may lie at the root of what is ailing Baltimore but there is no doubt that the immediate cause of the city’s almost inexhaustible supply of young men and even boys willing to embark on lives of crime is ineffective or nonexistent parenting.  Yes of course children everywhere take wrong turns despite the best efforts of their parents – there are exceptions to all rules – but the problem of inadequate parenting is killing Baltimore, and the people doing social work and law enforcement down at street level know that to be true.

I believe that the Children and Youth Fund should be for direct services, and Mr. Jackson should look elsewhere for funds for longer-term problems like economic inequity and job creation.  There are programs with records of success going unfunded or underfunded including after-school programs and Safe Streets Baltimore.  Don’t skimp on them for the sake of pursuing a different agenda.

Lester Davis, chief of staff for Council President Young, also spoke with me after my op ed appeared in The Sun.  He was concerned that I did not have all of the relevant information, and I said that if proved wrong about the performance of the fund I would be glad to admit in writing that my criticism was misplaced.

I’ve been following the activities of the Task Force as best I can. I have not attended the meetings; I’ve attended thousands of meetings in my career and am more interested in outcomes than lengthy discussions.  I know that the members of the Task Force are well-intended; that is not the issue, and I don’t question their integrity.  This is about policy.

The Task Force recently published the final version of the proposed “Children and Youth Fund Grantmaking Criteria.”  I was not encouraged after reading the criteria.  In my opinion, the criteria are fuzzy and reflect the fact the Task Force was trying to satisfy a broad range of stakeholders interested in competing for the grant money.  The criteria make very clear that the Task Force wants a large share of the grant money to go to small, local organizations.  I found the last criteria to be fairly revealing about the Task Force’s approach.  The criteria are presented in a question-and-answer format.

“Question:  Does the organization need to show that there is a specific need for the program and services they are aiming to deliver. Should this be substantiated by research?

Answer:  While showing a specific need relating to young people in a specific community could be an important part of the organization’s plan, it should not be a requirement of obtaining Youth Fund dollars. Community members cited that qualitative data is as important as quantitative data in both showing need and potential impacts to be reached for young people in neighborhoods and communities, especially in Baltimore’s disenfranchised neighborhoods and communities.”

A specific need “could” be an important consideration?  Qualitative (in other words, subjective) data is as important as quantitative data?  In other words, there is a whole lot of room to maneuver in terms of deciding who would get the grants under these criteria, and not a great deal of emphasis during the decision-making process would be placed on whether a proposal offered evidence-based solutions to specific needs.

Now to Malcolm X.  Included in the feedback (polite term) that I got from Mr. Jackson and his supporters was a fair amount of Black Nationalist rhetoric accompanied by suggestions that I couldn’t possibly understand what that meant. Mr. Jackson identifies himself on his twitter page as a Black Nationalist.  Because I am, as alleged, a bit of dinosaur the Black Nationalist with whom I am most familiar is Malcolm X, whose 92nd birthday would have been today had he not died in 1965.

As part of the means of escaping oppression by white Americans Malcolm X implored his followers to restore the high standards of morality among black people that he believed had been destroyed by racism.  He broke away from the Nation of Islam in 1964, publicly castigating its leader, Elijah Muhammad, for his sexual indiscretions including fathering children out of wedlock.  Malcolm X converted to Sunni Islam and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  By 1965 he was dead, assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam.

It probably is some sort of sacrilege for a white man to invoke the name of Malcolm X but one can’t help but wondering what Malcolm X would think about Baltimore today.  Yes, he would see the lingering effects of racism but he couldn’t help also seeing the impact of single-parent families and fatherless children on the black community.

It is difficult enough to raise a child in many of Baltimore’s troubled neighborhoods but it is exponentially harder to do so as a single parent; if anyone tells you that the absence of fathers in the lives of too many black children in Baltimore isn’t a problem please stop listening to them because they have no idea what they are talking about.  Even if the broken families are symptoms of wider social and economic problems we have to treat the symptoms first because doing so is the only to bring down the rate of violence in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time.

Joe Jones founded the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore in 1999.  In a 2013 interview with CNN he stated that most men come in the door looking for help getting jobs.  But Jones believes that jobs are just the first step, and that the key to creating real change in Baltimore’s troubled communities is ending what he calls “the cycle of father absence.” CFUF runs a program called Responsible Fatherhood.   According to Jones, “If we don’t crack the code of men having babies for whom they’re not responsible for, all of our efforts to build a better Baltimore will be limited.”  It is a concept with which Malcolm X would have agreed.

I have no great ideas on how to stop the “cycle of father absence.”  I don’t know that Malcolm X would either, but I believe that he would try and he wouldn’t wait until all other vestiges of institutional racism were eliminated to do so.

May 19, 2017

A policy of severance pay in Baltimore County.

The Baltimore County government has gained a reputation as being the place where openness and transparency in government have gone to die. The county’s so-called “Executive Benefit Policy” and how it feathers the nests of high-ranking county officials already eligible for lucrative county pensions is another example of what happens when government is allowed to operate out of public view.

Fred Homan is the Baltimore County administrative officer, the second-in-command to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Mr. Homan has served in that position since 2007 and has been a Baltimore County employee since 1978. He is in his mid-60s and eligible to retire. If he retires next year when County Executive Kamenetz leaves office, Mr. Homan will receive an annual pension from Baltimore County that I estimate to be about the same amount as his current salary of $225,000. His pension, extraordinarily generous as it will be, is at least a matter of duly-enacted county law.

Here’s the issue: When he retires, Mr. Homan also will be in line to ive “severance pay” in the amount of $75,000 from the county, before accounting for the 7 percent raise he’s slated to receive in Mr. Kamenetz’s new budget proposal. If you are looking for the authority to pay appointed officials severance pay in addition to their pension benefits, don’t look for it in the county charter or code. Look for it in a two-page memorandum titled “Executive Benefit Policy, Appointed Employees” dated January 7, 2015. It states that eligible appointed employees — the county administrative officer is listed first — with up to 20 years service may receive 80 days severance, up to 30 years service nets 100 days, and 30-plus, as in Mr. Homan’s case, brings in 120 days severance pay.

Who signed the memorandum? Mr. Homan.

Rosenstein needs to apologize for his mistake.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of the United States Department of Justice was in town last night to receive an award from the Greater Baltimore Committee for courage in public service.  Maybe they voted on the award before Rosenstein’s courage in facing up to President Donald Trump was called into question.

Personally, I am a little tired of the excuses being made around the city for Mr. Rosenstein, popular here because he did a good job as the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland.  Rosenstein tried to play it cute when placed in a difficult ethical position by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions and he got burned.

Rosenstein heretofore had an impeccable reputation for integrity and it certainly is possible for him to repair the damage done to his reputation by the ill-advised role that he played in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.  To rehabilitate his reputation, however, he is going to have to go before the Senate on Thursday to set the record straight and to apologize for his mistake.

Even an admirer of Rosenstein, Preet Bharara, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote an opinion piece captioned “Are there still public servants who will say no to the president?” in which he described the memorandum that Rosenstein wrote critiquing Comey’s performance as a “peculiar press-release-style memo.” It is obvious on first reading of the memo that Rosenstein had undertaken to make the case against Comey as persuasive as possible.

Rather than reciting the facts and offering his own assessment as a professional would do in any objective performance evaluation Rosenstein embellished his memorandum by quoting public comments made by former Justice Department officials that were not necessarily free from political motivations.  Presumably the memorandum was intended to represent his opinion and not the opinions of other folks that the Attorney General and President could read in the newspaper.

Even Rosenstein’s later efforts to make sure that the public knew that his memorandum did not contain an explicit recommendation that Comey be fired ring hollow.  Judge for yourself from the concluding paragraph of his memo:

“Although the President has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly. I agree with the nearly unanimous opinions of former Department officials. The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”  [Emphasis added.]

I’m sorry, I agree with President Trump on this one:  Rosenstein recommended that Comey be fired without saying it in so many words.  Again, Rosenstein was trying to be clever but ended up being clever by half; we may not be as bright as you, Mr. Rosenstein, but we’re not stupid, either.  You write a memo telling the President that the FBI director has irretrievably lost the trust of Congress and the public but claim that the memo did not constitute a recommendation that Comey be fired?  Technically true but far, far too cute for public consumption.

The Rosenstein memo also is noteworthy for what it did not include in the course of addressing the issue of whether Comey should be fired.  Particularly telling is the omission of any discussion of the impact of firing Comey on the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign officials.  Being apolitical does not mean being unaware of political context, particularly when that context includes a legal issue.

Rosenstein had to know that firing Comey at this point in time would result in the perception that the firing was intended to derail or at least discourage the FBI investigation, action that credible experts now are describing as an effort by Mr. Trump to obstruct justice.  This situation is chock full of ironies and one is that Rosenstein’s memo could cause for him that which, according to Rosenstein, doomed Comey:  An irretrievable loss of public and congressional trust.

Right after he wrote “Although the President has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly” Rosenstein could have added “. . . and the timing of the decision must be considered, particularly in light of the highly-sensitive investigation of Russian collusion in the United States election.”  The omission of such a critical consideration is particularly striking because, as a lawyer, Rosenstein knows the perils of omitting advice relevant to an issue upon which his advice has been sought, even if it is on an aspect of the issue that the client did not raise when seeking the advice.  A lawyer’s job includes pointing out pitfalls which the client may not recognize.

Did Rosenstein believe that, while it was important for the director of the FBI to retain public and congressional trust to do his job, it wasn’t important for Rosenstein to retain public and congressional trust to do his own?  As far as I am concerned, the memo gave half the story without stating that it was only half the story, and that makes its author disingenuous.

Listen, I fully agree with Rosenstein that Comey needlessly and foolishly interjected himself into a political campaign by making statements that should not have been made.  Those statements, however, were made over six months ago and he never should have recommended (explicitly or implicitly) firing an FBI director who otherwise did a good job and had the respect of his employees when it was going to appear that the firing was done to influence the outcome of one of the most important investigations that the FBI ever has undertaken in terms of the overall impact on this country.  It is not even a close call.

In this case we know with reasonable certainty that Rosenstein did not include any reference to the Russia investigation because President Trump did not want him to – Trump recoils at any mention of the investigation.  The administration’s Plan A was to use Rosenstein’s memo as the pretext for firing Comey because Mr. Trump recognized that the real reason – getting Comey off his back – would cause a political firestorm.

It also is significant that Rosenstein made no mention of the broad support that Comey enjoyed (and still enjoys) within the FBI.  If your concern is whether Comey could continue to lead the FBI in an effective manner wouldn’t it be relevant that Comey retained the confidence of the men and women who worked for him?  There was no objective weighing of the pros and cons of retaining Comey in Rosenstein’s memo.  It was a hatchet job pure and simple, and it was so by design.

Whether Rosenstein had second thoughts about the role he was given to play, or whether he never understood the full extent to which the White House would attribute personal responsibility for the firing to him, Rosenberg decided that he had to make it clear to the public that he was not the moving force behind Comey’s firing, and he put pressure on the White House to do so.  As a result of Rosenstein’s disclaimer the Trump administration had to go to Plan B (the truth) and admit that Mr. Trump intended to fire Comey all along and that Rosenstein’s memo was window dressing.

Regardless of what Rosenstein knew and when he knew it, here’s the thing:  Rosenstein never should have written that memorandum.  At the very least he knew that 1) it was going to play some role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey; and 2) it was not an objective and comprehensive treatment of the subject of whether Comey should be fired.

Moreover, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States is not one of the president’s press agents.  When he writes a memorandum of advice on an issue to his boss it has to reflect his own considered professional judgment on the issue, or clearly state otherwise.  When he was told to write a memorandum on one particular aspect of an issue but to omit any reference to other critically-important considerations he should have refused.  Period.  Instead, his knees buckled and he tried to play it cute, willing to write the script for the political theater about to take place on the assumption that his name would not appear on the screen credits.  Instead, he got top billing.

In another irony, in order to rehabilitate his reputation Rosenstein is going to have to do something for which he castigated Comey for failing to do:  Admit his mistake.  Rosenstein is going to have to express his regret at agreeing to prepare a brief for the president to use as grounds for firing Comey and to admit that it was a mistake to allow the Attorney General or President to dictate the contents of the memorandum.  I am not overly optimistic because that would be an enormously embarrassing admission for a veteran government attorney and because Rosenstein already has made it known through his actions that he is very conscious of which side of the bread the butter is on.

If he does not apologize for the memorandum, however, Rosenstein will find it hard to overcome lingering questions about his integrity.  There is one thing in his memorandum with which I agree wholeheartedly, and that is you cannot fully trust the judgment of someone who is unwilling to admit a mistake.

I want to make clear that I am saying that Rosenstein is a bad person or a bad Deputy Attorney General.  He did an excellent job as the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland without a hint of scandal; the consummate professional.  On the other hand, there is the idea that integrity is akin to physical courage and you can’t lay claim to courage until you find out how you act when the real bullets start flying over your head.

I am sure that Rosenstein had to withstand some political storms and pressures while United States Attorney and that he did so with aplomb.  I am equally sure that he has never faced anyone like Donald Trump and his sidekick, Jeff Sessions, in a situation in which his future in the Justice Department – and a possible future appointment to the federal court – was at stake.

It is my opinion that, when placed in that crucible, he wilted.  I hope that on Thursday he takes the steps necessary to recover the bit of integrity that he has lost and that his lapse was only temporary.  If he comes clean I disagree with his former colleague Mr. Bharara and believe that Rosenstein can credibly continue to supervise the investigation into Russian collusion.

It is not as if Rosenstein was the first governmental employee to fail in his duty to speak truth to power and say no to his superiors when that was required.  It is a problem that plagues government at all levels in this country.  In my opinion, it was at the core of a controversy for which my opinion was sought last year in Anne Arundel County and at the core of actions taken in Baltimore County that are the subject of an op ed that I wrote that was published today in the Baltimore Sun.

The current National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, wrote a book that every government employee expected to tell truth to power should read.  McMaster wrote Dereliction of Duty in 1997 while he was Major in the Army.  I don’t know any former military officer of his generation or younger, including me, who hasn’t read it.

I hope I am attributing this accurately (it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve read the book and I got rid of my copy when down-sizing our household last year) but I seem to recall a passage in which McMaster muses on how men who could exhibit such courage on the battlefield when young could become such careerists as they progressed through the ranks, unwilling to risk being passed over for promotion by speaking truth to power.  The book recounts the disastrous consequences in Vietnam of the failure by the military to provide the country’s civilian leadership with frank appraisals of the war effort.  Maybe Rosenstein has become just another careerist.

Perhaps there is a silver lining in the dark cloud that the Trump presidency has hung over this country.  Government at all levels will be better off if employees look at what is going on in Washington and renew their commitments to speak truth to power and say “no” when no is the right answer.  On the other side of the coin maybe managers will re-examine whether their expectations of personal loyalty are misguided and whether what governmental organizations really need from their employees is loyalty to the missions of the organizations – and to the laws that govern them.

May 16, 2017