Mosby and Hogan should work together on Baltimore crime issues

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan should put aside his disdain for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, stop the political posturing and work with her as best he can to stem the epidemic of murder and other violent crime in Baltimore that is entering its sixth year and destroying the city. The stakes are too high for the tit-for-tat nonsense going on between the governor and the state’s attorney to continue.

Mr. Hogan and Ms. Mosby appear intent to inflict political harm on each other as they jockey to avoid blame for the continuing crisis in Baltimore. Regardless of which of them is prevailing when it comes to public opinion, it is the people who live in the city who are suffering because of their inability to resolve upon solutions to the crime problem in Baltimore.

Mr. Hogan’s recent proposal to add more than two dozen prosecutors and staff to the office of the attorney general to prosecute violent crime in Baltimore met immediate resistance from Ms. Mosby, and for good reason. Prosecuting street crime in Baltimore is her job. Having prosecutors with jurisdiction over the same crimes committed by the same criminals arrested by the same police department, but who answer to separate bosses, is a recipe for confusion and conflict.

Mr. Hogan knows that his proposal is a non-starter. He could have offered state money to Ms. Mosby to hire more prosecutors. Instead, he proposed action conveying his lack of confidence in the city’s elected chief prosecutor, the latest salvo in a running political battle between him and Ms. Mosby.

The two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, especially when it comes to law enforcement. In September, Mr. Hogan publicly criticized Ms. Mosby for being soft on repeat offenders and making “excessively lenient plea deals.” In turn, Ms. Mosby accused Mr. Hogan of offering too little support, financial and otherwise, to the fight against crime in Baltimore, claiming that he refused to meet with her to discuss “real solutions” to the problem.

In fairness to Mr. Hogan, Ms. Mosby is not what I would describe as the consummate team player. Every move she makes appears calibrated to achieve maximum political benefit, and she is obsessed with burnishing her reputation on the national stage as a “progressive” prosecutor.

On the other hand, Mr. Hogan has not exactly demonstrated an overwhelming commitment to help Baltimore, especially when it comes to spending state money. He has expressed little if any support for the police reforms necessary to rebuild public trust in the Baltimore Police Department — trust necessary to restore the effectiveness of the department.

The spat has become personal, with a distinct element of childishness. It is the absolute last thing that the city and state need at a time when it is critical that state and city agencies work in concert to target violent offenders and get them off the streets.

The staffing plan just unveiled by Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is an opportunity for a fresh start. The plan includes worthwhile goals such as increasing the number of officers assigned to street patrol, expediting internal investigations and establishing a specialized unit of highly trained officers to focus on offenders who commit violent crimes.

Mr. Hogan and Ms. Mosby should meet with Mr. Harrison to talk about how those goals can be implemented, and then move to a general discussion on what they can do to reduce violent crime in Baltimore. Maybe they can even compromise on a few points and refrain from press releases after the meeting attacking each other for their ignorance and recalcitrance.

One of the most discouraging things over the past five years has been the lack of a sense of urgency and the failure by public officials to recognize that Baltimore is in a crisis. A crisis sometimes causes people to suspend petty disputes and suppress personality clashes while they pursue a shared interest in resolving the crisis. What a godsend it would be if Mr. Hogan and Ms. Mosby did that for the sake of the Baltimore.

History will judge Mr. Hogan and Ms. Mosby unkindly if they continue to place their own political ambitions above the interests of the citizens of Baltimore. They need to stop the bickering and get down to work.

[Published as an op-ed by the Baltimore Sun on December 16, 2019 but not posted to my blog until August 20, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Worse than Young’s gaffes is his refusal to enforce a new law

The mayor’s odd statements are embarrassing, but his vow to not enforce the “gag order” ban is outrageous – and a reason to vote him out in 2020.

___________________

The buffoonish statements Mayor Jack Young has made since taking office last May have raised a question about the 2020 mayoral candidate: Is he fit for the job?

Thanks to his recent announcement that he will not comply with City Council Bill 19-0409 – now a law – we have a definitive answer to that question:

No, Young is not fit to be mayor.

In the broadest sense, he lacks the judgment to be an effective mayor at a time when Baltimore needs one the most.

Bill 19-0409 was passed on a 15-0 vote by the Council and enacted into law on December 2. Its provisions make it unlawful to require victims of police misconduct to agree to refrain from publicly discussing the facts or circumstances of their claims as a condition of receiving a monetary settlement from the city.

While Young’s oddball pronouncements have made him an object of public ridicule, his decision to defy a duly-passed law banning the use of non-disparagement clauses has brought him serious scorn.

If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it’s that city voters are learning how poorly suited Young is for the job of mayor before next year’s election rather than, in the case of his disgraced predecessor, Catherine Pugh, after it.

Tone deaf and Baffling

As another year closes with more than 300 murders, the unremitting epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore clearly has Young flummoxed.

His silly remarks are unmistakable signs that he is cracking under the pressure.

In June, Young suggested that disputes on the streets could be kept from evolving into gun violence by having the antagonists resolve their differences in boxing matches at Royal Farms Arena.

He wasn’t kidding. “[May] the best man win, and the beef should be over,” Young explained. “Those are some kinds of things I’m thinking about and hoping that we can get these people to put these guns down.”

Last month, Young said that he hoped a cold winter would keep gang members off the streets.

“As you know, it’s like planting a flower. In the winter, it dies, and it comes back,” he said. “I’m hoping with the colder weather, they will stay inside, watch TV and help kids with homework.”

Yes, he actually said that. And, as far as I can tell, he believed it.

Less than two weeks later, he made another statement that will live in infamy in Baltimore for its whiny, tone-deaf failure to grasp what it means to be the mayor.

I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand,” Young said at his weekly press conference. “How can you fault leadership? This has been five years of 300-plus murders. I don’t see it as a lack of leadership.”

Not exactly what citizens desperate for someone to lead the city back from edge of the abyss wanted to hear.

Spreading Facebook Gossip

In an apparent case of damage control gone wrong, Young sought to affirm his commitment to the crime fight – only to end up with arguably his worst gaffe yet.

In a television interview, he warned the public about people in a white van “snatching” young girls to sell their organs.

“We’re getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I’m told,” he said. “So, we have to be careful because there’s so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country. It’s all over Facebook.”

“JACK YOUNG HASN’T LOST HIS WAY AS MAYOR; HE NEVER FOUND IT.”

It may have been “all over” social media, but neither the Baltimore Police Department nor the FBI had received any reports of this “snatching.”

It was Mayor Young doing his best “Chicken Little” imitation in a city that is already frightened enough.

Experts lectured him about panicking the public and distracting from legitimate efforts to combat human trafficking. Needless to say, the ridicule of Young on both traditional and social media was intense.

• A Facebook rumor about white vans is spreading fear across America (CNN 12/4/19)

Refusal to Enforce a Law

It is one thing to make buffoonish statements. It is quite another to make inexcusably bad decisions, such as Young’s refusal to comply with the new law resulting from Bill 19-0409.

The use of non-disparagement clauses (sometimes referred to as “gag orders”) in settlement agreements with the alleged victims of police conduct became increasingly controversial in the city as the full scope of the problems within the Baltimore Police Department became known.

The concept of protecting the reputations of officers whose misdeeds resulted in the monetary settlements was bad enough. Even worse was the fact that the clauses promoted the secrecy that allowed corruption and abuse in the department to flourish.

The city was urged by many to abandon the practice of using non-disparagement agreements as antithetical to the goal of restoring public trust in the BPD.

It refused to do so, but in July the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit spoke with authority, striking down the use of the clauses by the city as unenforceable waivers of victims’ First Amendment rights.

According to City Solicitor Andre Davis, the city already had revised its non-disparagement policy by the time the court issued its opinion. He claimed that the new policy did not violate victims’ rights. The ACLU, one of the parties to the lawsuit against the city, disagreed, portending the possibility of more litigation.

Twelve members of the council responded by co-sponsoring Bill 19-0409 to put the issue to rest once and for all.

The bill became law, but Young and Davis had other ideas.

Flawed Arguments

Young stated that he will not abide by the law on Davis’ advice.

Davis contends the ordinance violates state and city law based primarily on two arguments. The first is that the Council lacks the power to interfere with the operation of the BPD, a state agency.

This argument is absurd. The ordinance places a condition on the expenditure of city funds used to settle claims that has no effect on the operation of the department itself. The decision to use such funds to settle claims against the BPD rests with the city, not the BPD.

Suffice it to say that curtailing the right of a victim of police misconduct to speak freely about the misconduct is not a law enforcement matter committed by state law to the sole discretion of the Police Commissioner.

The second argument is that the ordinance intrudes upon the sole authority given to the city solicitor over the “preparation and trial” of lawsuits to which the city is a party.

The gigantic flaw in that argument is that, while the solicitor controls how legal proceedings are conducted, he has absolutely no authority to approve the payment of city money to settle a suit.

The city charter confers that authority on the Board of Estimates and allows the City Council to place conditions on its exercise by legislation such as Bill 19-0409.

“WHY WOULD THE MAYOR MAKE THAT CHOICE? THE ANSWER IS THAT HIS JUDGMENT IS DREADFUL.”

Further muddying the administration’s position on the matter were Young’s statements on the radio.

He confirmed that he didn’t plan to sign the bill banning gag orders, but also said he doesn’t like them. (“I don’t think nobody should have a gag order,” Young said, adding without explanation: “I’m in the process of fixing that right now.”)

“Lost ball in high grass”

Young chose to infuriate citizens and members of the Council by ignoring a law that enjoys broad public support. He did so to protect the city solicitor’s unfettered right to include non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements – a prerogative that only the solicitor seems to care about.

Even if the solicitor’s legal arguments were stronger, why would Young make that choice? The answer is that his judgment is dreadful. Part of being a mayor is knowing which advice to accept, and which to reject.

Former state senator Harry McGuirk famously referred to then-gubernatorial candidate Harry Hughes as “a lost ball in high grass.” That description of Hughes, as it turned out, was not apt. The metaphor, however, does apply to Young.

At this critical juncture in its history, Baltimore needs someone who is more than at best “well meaning” or “just okay.” Young hasn’t lost his way as mayor; he never found it.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. Harking back to Young’s boxing ring idea, this is no time to be pulling punches; the stakes are far too high.

Baltimore cannot afford four more years with Jack Young as mayor, and the sooner people realize that the better.

[Published as an op-ed by the Baltimore Brew on December 11, 2019 but not posted to my blog until August 20, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Worse than Young’s gaffes is his refusal to enforce a new law

The mayor’s odd statements are embarrassing, but his vow to not enforce the “gag order” ban is outrageous – and a reason to vote him out in 2020.

_____________________________

The buffoonish statements Mayor Jack Young has made since taking office last May have raised a question about the 2020 mayoral candidate: Is he fit for the job? Thanks to his recent announcement that he will not comply with City Council Bill 19-0409 – now a law – we have a definitive answer to that question:

No, Young is not fit to be mayor.

In the broadest sense, he lacks the judgment to be an effective mayor at a time when Baltimore needs one the most.

Bill 19-0409 was passed on a 15-0 vote by the Council and enacted into law on December 2. Its provisions make it unlawful to require victims of police misconduct to agree to refrain from publicly discussing the facts or circumstances of their claims as a condition of receiving a monetary settlement from the city.

While Young’s oddball pronouncements have made him an object of public ridicule, his decision to defy a duly-passed law banning the use of non-disparagement clauses has brought him serious scorn.

If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it’s that city voters are learning how poorly suited Young is for the job of mayor before next year’s election rather than, in the case of his disgraced predecessor, Catherine Pugh, after it.

Tone deaf and Baffling

As another year closes with more than 300 murders, the unremitting epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore clearly has Young flummoxed.

His silly remarks are unmistakable signs that he is cracking under the pressure.

In June, Young suggested that disputes on the streets could be kept from evolving into gun violence by having the antagonists resolve their differences in boxing matches at Royal Farms Arena.

He wasn’t kidding. “[May] the best man win, and the beef should be over,” Young explained. “Those are some kinds of things I’m thinking about and hoping that we can get these people to put these guns down.”

Last month, Young said that he hoped a cold winter would keep gang members off the streets.

“As you know, it’s like planting a flower. In the winter, it dies, and it comes back,” he said. “I’m hoping with the colder weather, they will stay inside, watch TV and help kids with homework.”

Yes, he actually said that. And, as far as I can tell, he believed it.

Less than two weeks later, he made another statement that will live in infamy in Baltimore for its whiny, tone-deaf failure to grasp what it means to be the mayor.

I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand,” Young said at his weekly press conference. “How can you fault leadership? This has been five years of 300-plus murders. I don’t see it as a lack of leadership.”

Not exactly what citizens desperate for someone to lead the city back from edge of the abyss wanted to hear.

Spreading Facebook Gossip

In an apparent case of damage control gone wrong, Young sought to affirm his commitment to the crime fight – only to end up with arguably his worst gaffe yet.

In a television interview, he warned the public about people in a white van “snatching” young girls to sell their organs.

“We’re getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I’m told,” he said. “So, we have to be careful because there’s so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country. It’s all over Facebook.”

“JACK YOUNG HASN’T LOST HIS WAY AS MAYOR; HE NEVER FOUND IT.”

It may have been “all over” social media, but neither the Baltimore Police Department nor the FBI had received any reports of this “snatching.”

It was Mayor Young doing his best “Chicken Little” imitation in a city that is already frightened enough.

Experts lectured him about panicking the public and distracting from legitimate efforts to combat human trafficking. Needless to say, the ridicule of Young on both traditional and social media was intense.

• A Facebook rumor about white vans is spreading fear across America (CNN 12/4/19)

Refusal to Enforce a Law

It is one thing to make buffoonish statements. It is quite another to make inexcusably bad decisions, such as Young’s refusal to comply with the new law resulting from Bill 19-0409.

The use of non-disparagement clauses (sometimes referred to as “gag orders”) in settlement agreements with the alleged victims of police conduct became increasingly controversial in the city as the full scope of the problems within the Baltimore Police Department became known.

The concept of protecting the reputations of officers whose misdeeds resulted in the monetary settlements was bad enough. Even worse was the fact that the clauses promoted the secrecy that allowed corruption and abuse in the department to flourish.

The city was urged by many to abandon the practice of using non-disparagement agreements as antithetical to the goal of restoring public trust in the BPD.

It refused to do so, but in July the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit spoke with authority, striking down the use of the clauses by the city as unenforceable waivers of victims’ First Amendment rights.

According to City Solicitor Andre Davis, the city already had revised its non-disparagement policy by the time the court issued its opinion. He claimed that the new policy did not violate victims’ rights. The ACLU, one of the parties to the lawsuit against the city, disagreed, portending the possibility of more litigation.

Twelve members of the council responded by co-sponsoring Bill 19-0409 to put the issue to rest once and for all.

The bill became law, but Young and Davis had other ideas.

Flawed Arguments

Young stated that he will not abide by the law on Davis’ advice.

Davis contends the ordinance violates state and city law based primarily on two arguments. The first is that the Council lacks the power to interfere with the operation of the BPD, a state agency.

This argument is absurd. The ordinance places a condition on the expenditure of city funds used to settle claims that has no effect on the operation of the department itself. The decision to use such funds to settle claims against the BPD rests with the city, not the BPD.

Suffice it to say that curtailing the right of a victim of police misconduct to speak freely about the misconduct is not a law enforcement matter committed by state law to the sole discretion of the Police Commissioner.

The second argument is that the ordinance intrudes upon the sole authority given to the city solicitor over the “preparation and trial” of lawsuits to which the city is a party.

The gigantic flaw in that argument is that, while the solicitor controls how legal proceedings are conducted, he has absolutely no authority to approve the payment of city money to settle a suit.

The city charter confers that authority on the Board of Estimates and allows the City Council to place conditions on its exercise by legislation such as Bill 19-0409.

“WHY WOULD THE MAYOR MAKE THAT CHOICE? THE ANSWER IS THAT HIS JUDGMENT IS DREADFUL.”

Further muddying the administration’s position on the matter were Young’s statements on the radio.

He confirmed that he didn’t plan to sign the bill banning gag orders, but also said he doesn’t like them. (“I don’t think nobody should have a gag order,” Young said, adding without explanation: “I’m in the process of fixing that right now.”)

“Lost ball in high grass”

Young chose to infuriate citizens and members of the Council by ignoring a law that enjoys broad public support. He did so to protect the city solicitor’s unfettered right to include non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements – a prerogative that only the solicitor seems to care about.

Even if the solicitor’s legal arguments were stronger, why would Young make that choice? The answer is that his judgment is dreadful. Part of being a mayor is knowing which advice to accept, and which to reject.

Former state senator Harry McGuirk famously referred to then-gubernatorial candidate Harry Hughes as “a lost ball in high grass.” That description of Hughes, as it turned out, was not apt. The metaphor, however, does apply to Young.

At this critical juncture in its history, Baltimore needs someone who is more than at best “well meaning” or “just okay.” Young hasn’t lost his way as mayor; he never found it.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. Harking back to Young’s boxing ring idea, this is no time to be pulling punches; the stakes are far too high.

Baltimore cannot afford four more years with Jack Young as mayor, and the sooner people realize that the better.

[Published as an op-ed by the Baltimore Brew on December 11, 2019, but not posted to my blog until August 20, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Time to get rid of a relic of Baltimore County’s checkered past

Anyone unfamiliar with the extensive history of corruption in Baltimore County should read  Eyes of Justice, the recently published book by James Cabezas, a long-time investigator for the Maryland State Prosecutor. Baltimore County’s quadrennial “Comprehensive Zoning Map Process” (CZMP) is a throwback to that checkered past, when government actions like zoning changes were bought and sold. The CZMP must be replaced with a process more in harmony with state law and less vulnerable to corruption.

The most recent CZMP began in August and concludes next year. During the CZMP the county solicits requests for zoning changes from property owners and contract purchasers seeking to develop their properties. Each requested zoning change is voted upon separately by the county council, something that is unique to Baltimore County – and fraught with opportunity for abuse.

Baltimore County has the cart (zoning) before the horse (planning)

Maryland law requires a county to adopt a “master plan” updated at least once every ten years. The CZMP defies the mandate under state law that land use decisions made by a county council are to be based on a county’s master plan, not on the wants and desires of individual property owners and prospective developers as too often is the case in Baltimore County.

By law, the master plan must address issues such as the regulation of land use and development and needed improvements to public facilities. It must contain goals and objectives that “serve as a guide for the development and economic and social well-being” of the county. A master plan is implemented through zoning maps and laws and by subdivision and other regulations consistent with the plan.

Other counties use their master plans to establish long-term strategies for managing growth. Not Baltimore County, where master planning historically has been anemic.

The county’s master plan update is also due next year. The fact that the county is evaluating proposed zoning changes right before its master plan is updated tells you just how little regard the county has for master planning. Time and effort that planning staff should be spending on the master plan is being spent on the CZMP. Master planning in Baltimore County is, almost literally, an afterthought.

The CZMP stretches the limits of Maryland law

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that legislative rezoning must be done “comprehensively.” In the words of the court, it must be “well thought out, the product of careful consideration and extensive study, and based upon considerations concerning the common needs of the particular area.” Although the area of reference during a comprehensive rezoning process need not consist of the entire county, the area must be substantial in size and certainly not limited to a single parcel.

The CZMP is “comprehensive” in name only. It makes a farce out of state law intended to ensure that local governments base zoning decisions on common needs. Rather than start with the big picture of what is best for all citizens in an area of the county, the CZMP begins with the narrow interests of prospective developers.

Crumbs occasionally are thrown to community groups, but that does not change the overall focus of the CZMP, which is on owners and contract purchasers seeking to make more profitable uses of their properties. Community groups find themselves on the defensive, scrambling to resist changes that would harm their neighborhoods.

The “dashboard” recently launched by the county to help citizens monitor zoning change requests improves the transparency of the process. It does not, however, change the basic, flawed nature of the CZMP.

“Pay to play” in Baltimore County

It has been decades since Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign from office because of tax evasion charges related to kickbacks that he received from engineers who got no-bid contracts while he was Baltimore County Executive. Or since his successor as county executive, Dale Anderson, was convicted of extorting almost $40,000 from contractors doing work for the county. I am not suggesting that type of corruption is still prevalent.

There is, however, another type of corruption that remains problematic, and that is so-called legal or “soft” corruption, better known in Baltimore County as “pay to play.” Land developers and other special interests curry favor with elected officials through generous contributions to their political campaigns. Soft corruption occurs when officials make decisions based on those contributions rather than on the common good.

Oguzhan Dincer, associate professor and director of the Institute for Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, studies patterns of corruption across the country. He recently told  Capital News Service that when it comes to illegal corruption like bribery and fraud, Maryland is “kind of in the middle of the road” among other states. On the other hand, when it comes to soft corruption — unethical acts without actual criminality — Dincer stated that “Maryland is very corrupt,” describing the situation as “quite alarming.”

Dincer’s conclusion would not surprise Baltimore County voters. Their disgust with the pay to play culture in Baltimore County played a prominent role in the 2018 county executive race, especially in the Democratic primary.

The CZMP is part of that pay to play system. The vulnerability of the CZMP to corruption is self-evident; a lot of money in land development potential can ride on a single zoning change.

The risk of corruption in the CZMP is even greater because of the strong tradition of “councilmanic courtesy” that prevails in Baltimore County. Other council members typically defer to the wishes of the member in whose district a property under consideration for rezoning is located. The CZMP therefore bestows a lot of power on individual members of the county council. And it won’t be easy to persuade them to part with that power.

In 2017, responding to growing complaints about the pay to play culture in county government, the county council passed a bill banning campaign contributions and fundraisers during the one-year period in which the CZMP takes place. Campaign contributions from property owners and prospective developers seeking zoning changes remain lawful, however, as long as they are received before September 1st, when the time for officially filing rezoning requests begins.

In other words, a would-be developer seeking to gain favor with a council member simply has to make a campaign contribution before the formal process begins. The 2017 “solution” to corrupt influence was an insult to citizens’ intelligence.

Time for a change

One of the reasons that the CZMP results in ill-conceived zoning changes is that it occurs far too frequently, multiplying the chances of misadventure. In Howard County and Anne Arundel County, for example, comprehensive rezoning takes place about once every  ten years, coordinated with updates to their master plans.

If you believe that it is a coincidence that the four-year CZMP cycle corresponds with the four-year terms of county council members, then I have a bridge over the Patapsco River I’d like to sell to you. The four-year cycle gives every person elected to council at least one opportunity to participate in a CZMP – and to pay off political debts and cultivate new campaign contributors.

Keep in mind that a property owner has the absolute right in between comprehensive rezonings to seek a change in zoning because of a change in the character of a neighborhood, or because of a mistake in the previous comprehensive rezoning, through the administrative rezoning process. There is no justification for a four-year legislative zoning cycle other than the rawest kind of politics.

To any thin-skinned members of the council who believe that I am accusing them of wrongdoing, I say relax: Even assuming that all current members are beyond reproach, the rezoning process should be redesigned to better comport with state law and to reduce temptation for any future members who may be less ethical than you are.

Going forward, the CZMP should be replaced with a truly comprehensive rezoning process that occurs no more than once every ten years, synchronized with updates to the county’s master plan. The time saved should be spent on better planning for the sustainability of future development and the economic and social well-being of the citizens of Baltimore County. For the CZMP already underway, the objective should be to avoid as much damage as possible from politically motivated and improvident zoning changes.

This should be the last hurrah for the CZMP. The sooner this Baltimore County tradition dies, the better.

[Published as guest commentary by Forward Baltimore on December 10, 2019, but not posted to my blog until August 20, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]