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

Baltimore violence requires comprehensive strategy, checked egos.

The epidemic of violence that has gripped Baltimore for the past two years is, among other things, a public health crisis. Baltimore will be discussed for years to come in schools of public health as a case study in how not to manage such a crisis.

Finally, however, there is a ray of hope. City Councilman Brandon Scott introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by all members of the city council, calling for the mayor and city agencies to develop a “Comprehensive Gun Violence Reduction Strategy.” Why it has taken so long for someone in the city to recognize the need to put together a strategic plan is a matter for another day. Better late than never.

For the past two years actions have been guided by politics and a series of individual decisions rather than by a coherent, comprehensive plan. The consequences are best demonstrated by the absence of any effective tools to apply to the recent spike (or more accurately, a spike within a spike) in gang-related violence.

Some of the city’s gangs are informally-organized, but they are gangs nonetheless. The story by Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector in The Sun about a series of killings related to the murder of local rapper Lor Scoota illustrated a phenomenon that police officers have understood for years: A significant percentage of murders in Baltimore are retaliatory killings; in other words, done by persons who take justice into their own hands.

The “good” news about retaliatory killings is that some can be interdicted at the last minute, but to do so you must have eyes and ears on the street and people in place capable of intervening effectively. The Safe Streets program, based on the proven CureViolence mode, is designed to identify and interrupt conflicts. It can be messy because it uses recent ex-offenders to mediate disputes. The benefits, however, outweigh the risks that on occasion an outreach worker will return to criminal behavior. We’re trying to prevent murders, not create saints.

People rally for the Baltimore Safe Streets program as concerns arise about a proposed budget cut to the city violence prevention program.  Operation Ceasefire, another program with a record of success, uses highly intensive interventions focused on individuals at high risk of committing violent acts to disrupt the cycle of retaliatory killings. Neither Safe Streets nor Operation Ceasefire have been given the necessary support to work in Baltimore. That never would have been allowed to happen if the city was working from a credible plan to reduce gun violence.

During one 72-hour period this month, seven people were killed and 15 wounded by gunfire. Unless there was a terrorist attack that I missed I am certain that many of those shootings were retaliatory, with one shooting leading to the next. It is inexcusable that two years into this epidemic the city had too few assets on the ground working to prevent that carnage, and that failure is entirely a consequence of the ad hoc way the city and state have responded to the evolving crisis.

Money and other resources are limited. Priority must be given to programs and services that are most likely to reduce gun violence in the shortest possible time. The necessary focus on such programs and services never will be achieved until there is an agreed-upon plan for reducing gun violence.

There are other objectives that are important, including tackling the social and economic conditions that breed crime in the city, but they are secondary. An adequate plan will establish a sequence for funding programs and services in the order of their priority. The city cannot afford to go off in a hundred directions all at once, throwing money around without any clear set of goals and objectives. That, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened.

The city council should invite the governor to participate in the planning. The plan needs both political and practical credibility to succeed. There is an abundance of expertise in the city, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Use them, because you need people experienced in making data-based rather than political decisions. In fact, try to keep the process as free from politics as possible.

The biggest threat to the success of the council’s initiative will be the minefield that is politics in the city and state. Crafting a useful plan depends on elevating the planning process above politics. The biggest challenge will be getting beyond the egos of the politicians whose cooperation is required. If that can’t be done this one glimmer of hope is going to fade away.

[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on June 16, 2017 but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

 

Higher-ed desegregation case obscures the real problem.

Let’s get something straight right up front: Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission is not about desegregation and racial equity. It is about power and money. Specifically, it is about increasing the academic stature and wealth of Maryland’s historically black institutions (HBIs) by relieving them of the burden of competing with other public colleges and universities based on the quality of their programs.

As reported earlier this month in The Daily Record (“Closing arguments heard in dispute over segregation at Md. colleges,” June 9) U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake ruled in 2013 that the state was perpetuating a segregated system of higher education by allowing program duplication at traditionally white institutions (TWIs) that weakened enrollment at HBIs. Blake cited the formation by the University of Baltimore and Towson University of a joint MBA program as an example of “unnecessary” program duplication that harmed the MBA program at Morgan State University. That depends on whom you ask.

Missing from her analysis under Fordice v. United States was the benefit of competition to students of all races. It was the failure by Morgan State to offer an MBA program attractive to either black or white students that preceded the decision by UB and Towson to initiate the joint MBA program in 2005.

The number of students enrolling in the Morgan State program had dropped to 28 from 62 a decade earlier, some drawn to the MBA program at UB. Robert Caret, then president of Towson and now chancellor of the University System of Maryland, referred to the “dwindling enrollment” in Morgan State’s MBA program and told the hard truth: “Morgan simply has not delivered for the citizens of Maryland.”

The president of Morgan State at the time claimed that its failure to attract more students was due to a lack of state funding. That claim discounted the importance of leadership.

UB established its MBA program in 1972 at a time when UB was a private institution and struggling financially. The program flourished because of the efforts of leaders like former UB President H. Mebane Turner, not because state funding was any more generous than that provided to Morgan. UB achieved success the old-fashioned way – by earning it.

 

Legal rabbit hole

Plaintiffs propose moving unique, high-demand programs from TWIs like UB, Towson and the University of Maryland Baltimore County to HBIs. The leadership of the targeted schools, including the African American presidents of UB and UMBC, has warned of the dire consequences to their schools and the general degradation of the quality of higher education in the state. Forced program transfer would be an intolerable outcome of this case.

By targeting competition (“program duplication”) the plaintiffs seek to destroy that which has caused higher education in this country to flourish: Freedom of choice among public and private institutions competing for applicants. Show me the evidence that elimination of competition improves the quality of an academic program.

The decision in Fordice v. United States, decided in the context of the situation in Mississippi in the 1970s, was not intended to protect HBIs. It was intended to ensure that the educational opportunities available to black students are the same as those available to white students. Fordice does not require a state to maintain the existence of an HBI. Indeed, in his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas cautioned that Fordice could prompt states to merge or eliminate publicly funded HBIs as one means of removing the vestiges of a segregated past.

Today in Maryland access to equal educational opportunities by black students has nothing to do with the identity of a school as a TWI or HBI. It has to with economic disadvantage and tuition costs. We’re worrying about the future of HBIs rather than dealing with the real problem. A better use for the $50 million in additional funding proposed by the state for HBIs would be to put it into scholarship funds for economically disadvantaged students from Baltimore.

Applying Fordice v. United States to the situation in Maryland in 2017 is a trip down a legal rabbit hole. The outcome of this case could do irreparable harm to the system of higher education that serves students of all races in this state.

[Published as a guest commentary by The Daily Record on June 15, 2017, but not posted to my blog until December 24, 2017.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

 

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

 

Lawyer or shill?

Most of what President Donald Trump and his sycophants say makes my blood boil and the public statement by his private lawyer in response to yesterday’s testimony by former FBI director James Comey was no exception.  Marc Kasowitz equated the release by Mr. Comey of the personal notes of his conversations with Mr. Trump with leaks of classified information, essentially conflating matters of privilege protected by civil law and matters of secrecy and confidentiality protected by criminal law.

Mr. Kasovitz knows better, but he was addressing the court of public opinion rather than a court of law, so maybe that didn’t matter to him.  I began legal practice at a time when lawyers rather than public relations agents making out-of-court statements intended to sway public opinion was nowhere near as common as it is today, and certainly not widely accepted as a best practice.  So maybe I’m a little old school on this, but it seems to me that when a lawyer shifts his focus from the courtroom to the media and public opinion he or she risks being labeled a shill rather than a legal advocate.

Assuming that the notes of the conversations were subject to the so-called “executive privilege” (a huge assumption, by the way) their release by Mr. Comey was at most a civil matter between the president and Mr. Comey. Had the president acted first he may have been able to persuade a civil court to prevent the release.  At this point the president theoretically would have the right to sue Mr. Comey for any damages to the president arising from the release, although I cannot imagine what those damages would be – damage to the president’s reputation?  Can you imagine that trial?

The same principle of law applies to other privileges, such as the priest-penitent privilege and lawyer-client privilege.  Breaking the confessional seal is a violation of canonical law and can result in a priest being defrocked, but it is not a crime against the state.  Violating the lawyer-client privilege can get you sued and likely will get you disbarred but will not send you to prison.

These privileges, considered “personal” in nature, are vastly different under the law from matters that are protected from disclosure by various provisions of state and federal that make disclosure a crime against the state rather than a civil wrong against another person.  Criminal laws prohibit the disclosure of not only classified national security information but also various types of personal, health, and other information.

Here is my challenge to Mr. Kasovitz:  Cite the provision of the United States Code or Code of Federal Regulations carrying a criminal penalty that Mr. Comey allegedly violated.  If you can’t, then please stop trying to mislead the public.

As an aside, would I have viewed Mr. Comey in a somewhat more favorable light had he handed his notes directly to the New York Times? Yes, but he did take ownership of the disclosure and there is a question of how much can we expect from this man?  This was a person placed under enormous pressure in a matter of extraordinary gravity and it is unreasonable to demand perfection in every step that he took in dealing with an unprecedented situation.

Mr. Comey conceded (wished?) that he could have been stronger in dealing with aspects of the situation.  It is actually a laughable matter, however, for anyone to suggest that he or she would have done better under similar circumstances.  Yeah, sure, would be my reaction to such claims.  I’ve seen people claiming to be persons of integrity wilt under far less pressure.  Mr. Comey did well enough, and I believed every word that he said.

Thank goodness he did go public with this information because, regardless of the outcome of the various ongoing investigations, the attempt by the president to bully the FBI director into closing the investigation into the president’s former National Security Adviser’s ties to Russia is something about which the American public simply had to be made aware.  I happen to be one of those people who believes that Mr. Trump couldn’t care less about Mr. Flynn (or anyone else other than himself and his immediate family) and is worried solely about the Russia investigations eventually implicating either his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, or the president himself.

June 9, 2017

Small victory for racial harmony in Anne Arundel County.

This post is a follow-up to my earlier post titled “Racial harmony vs. racial politics.”  The proposed resolution of the Anne Arundel Council that was the subject of that post was introduced and passed on Monday night.  All members of the County Council joined as co-sponsors of the resolution.

Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden nevertheless stated that Resolution No. 22-17 passed by the Anne Arundel County Council denouncing racism and white supremacy was “disappointing.” In my opinion, his disappointment was less about the resolution than it was about the fact that his attempt to turn the resolution into a political sideshow, with him in the spotlight, had failed.  Mr. Snowden, not the resolution, is disappointing.

As I noted in last week’s post Mr. Snowden probably thought that he had Mr. Peroutka backed into a corner.  If Mr. Peroutka refused to introduce the resolution Mr. Snowden could tout the refusal as proof of his racism.  If Mr. Peroutka yielded to the demand Mr. Snowden could claim credit for his capitulation. Fortunately, Councilman Peter Smith stepped up and announced that he would introduce the resolution and invited other members of the Council to join him as co-sponsors.

The leadership demonstrated by Mr. Smith defused the situation and allowed the focus to shift from a petty political feud to trying to do something to stem the rising tide of racial animosity in the county.  It also, however, snatched an opportunity away from Mr. Snowden to even the score a bit with a political enemy and Mr. Snowden seemed very unhappy with that development.

I initially planned to submit an op ed to the The Capital expressing my disgust with Mr. Snowden’s behavior in this matter.  As I thought about it, however, I saw little good to be served.  Most of the residents of Anne Arundel County have long since formed their opinions about Mr. Snowden.  Those who view him as a race-baiting opportunist do not need any further persuasion.  Any criticism that I directed at Mr. Snowden would be written off by those who view him as a civil rights hero as the typical response of the white establishment.  Sometimes it is best to let folks judge for themselves.

June 8, 2017

 

Racial politics vs. racial harmony.

I was heartsick when I read about the stabbing death of Lt. Richard Collins III, the Bowie University student about to graduate and embark on a career in the United States Army.  I didn’t feel any better when I read that veteran Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden and others appear to be using this profound tragedy as an opportunity to refight the battle against Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka that Mr. Snowden lost in 2014.

Sean Urbanski is charged with murdering Lt. Collins.  Urbanski was a member of a Facebook group known as “Alt Reich: Nation” that shared anti-Semitic and racist material.  Police are investigating the killing as a possible hate crime.

Mr. Snowden and his allies applied pressure on Mr. Peroutka to introduce a County Council resolution “condemning racism and white nationalism” as a response to the death of Lt. Collins.  The effort was more about racial politics than about racial harmony and had revenge written all over it.  Fortunately, Councilman Peter Smith stepped in and announced that he will introduce the resolution, a move that is likely to defuse the situation and shift the debate to a more constructive subject:  An uptick in racially-tinged incidents in Anne Arundel County and what to do about it.

Mr. Snowden, convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, stated that Mr. Peroutka “has a moral obligation” to introduce the resolution.  Yasemin Jamison, founder of Anne Arundel County Indivisible, said that the activists reached out to other council members but that they focused on Mr. Peroutka not only because Urbanski is from his district but also because of Mr. Peroutka’s past membership in the League of the South, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled a hate group.  The apparent goal was to force Mr. Peroutka to prove that he is not a racist by introducing the resolution.

In 2014 Mr. Snowden made a concerted attempt to prevent Mr. Peroutka from being elected to the County Council.  Things got ugly on both sides.  Mr. Snowden labeled Mr. Peroutka an “extremist.”  Mr. Peroutka at one point alluded to “the personal demons that have plagued” Mr. Snowden, an apparent reference to past problems with alcohol and marijuana that landed Mr. Snowden in jail for ten days in 2013.

At first blush this ploy looked like a no-lose proposition for Mr. Snowden.  If Mr. Peroutka refused the demand Mr. Snowden could tout the refusal as proof of his racism.  If he yielded to the demand Mr. Snowden could claim credit for getting him to capitulate.  One important consideration appeared to be missing, however:  Mr. Peroutka was not responsible for the death of Lt. Collins.  Mr. Petrouka has no “moral obligation” to perform an act of contrition for something that he did not do.

I am not defending Mr. Peroutka’s past membership in the League of the South or his theocratic ideology, both of which I find very troubling.  I didn’t vote for him when I lived in his district but plenty of my neighbors did; he defeated the Republican incumbent in the primary and a Democratic opponent in the general election in 2014.

Mr. Peroutka renounced racism before his election and since taking office he has earned a reputation on the County Council for his civility and has done nothing to justify having his character placed on trial in the media.  In my opinion this is not about anything that Mr. Peroutka has done; this is about Mr. Snowden trying to even the score with Mr. Peroutka, whether Mr. Snowden can admit that to himself or not.

The attempt to embarrass Mr. Peroutka will make him a martyr in the minds of many white residents in his district and elsewhere in the county.  It will be perceived as race-baiting, with some justification.  Mr. Snowden and Ms. Jamison appear to be concerned that Mr. Peroutka is part of the alt-right faction that has hijacked this country.  The sad irony is that what they did provided recruiting material for the alt-right, which is absolutely the last thing that we need.

This was not the occasion for Mr. Snowden to refight the battle that he lost in 2014.  Doing so dishonored the memory of Lt. Collins and did nothing to promote the cause of racial harmony.  To the contrary, it threatened to turn what should be robust conversation about race relations into a political sideshow.

Credit to Mr. Smith.  He may have saved Mr. Snowden from embarrassing himself any further and prevented him from doing any more harm to race relations in Anne Arundel County.  His announced intention to sponsor the resolution shifts the spotlight away from the personal feud between Mr. Snowden and Mr. Peroutka and back to the subject of how to prevent future tragedies like the death of Lt. Collins.

June 2, 2017