Wednesday, December 20, 2006

City-Wide Tell-All Published

We came home from picking up my number 1 daughter from college tonight and I was thrilled to find my Department of Public Works Resident Information Packet for 2007 hanging on our door. If you live in the City of Laurel, please be sure to find yours, read it carefully and save it away.

Maryland Science Center graduate students have found that the info packet will help you lose weight, increases your IQ by 25 points, improves your gas mileage and answers most of your deepest municipal questions. Think…Dr. Phil meets Bill Nye the Science Guy at City Hall.

It’s an extremely well done package. In it you will find answers to many of your municipal questions, including:

- Where is the big red button? Or what to do when the Mayor declares a city emergency?

- Do you live on an emergency route? (How to avoid the magic tow fairy.)

- When is your recycling, trash and bulk pick-up day? (Learn about our year-end special pick-up for unruly children, unemployed teens, and nagging spouses.)

- What to do with your used Christmas tree? (Please see the story of how the angel got on top of the tree.)

- Lawns, how high is too high? Or when you should cut your grass? (Code enforcement officer Pat Walsh gives you his thoughts on the challenges of meadow gardening in Laurel.)

- How to get rid of hazardous waste? (No, hauling it out to West Laurel is not encouraged.)

- Where to get rid of unused paint? (See above.)

- What to do about yard debris? (Hint – your neighbor’s yard is big and the night is dark and long.)

- Where to get a building permit? (Or how to re-build your deck to comply with city rules.)

- What to do to be prepared? (No joke here, being prepared for natural disasters is too important.)

All kidding aside, Mayor Moe, the City Council, City Administrator Kristie Mills, Emergency Manager Marty Flemion and the entire city team have created a wonderful info packet for us. It might not help you lose weight, but it could answer some of your questions.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Where Are Laurel's Best Christmas Lights?

Laurel's neighborhoods twinkle with Christmas lights. From Main Street to Montpelier, from West Laurel to North Laurel, homes are aglow with the Christmas spirit. Or at least the kind of glow that helps our good friends at BG&E earn large annual bonuses from our electricity use.

I'm not a real Christmas kind of guy. I do enjoy the family time but I can't understand some of the wacky traditions. Such as cutting down a tree, sticking it in your living room and watching it die a slow death. That seems unseasonably cruel to me.

And then there is Christmas caroling. A group of strangers encamp in your yard and then threaten to keep singing until you give them drinks and cookies. What else can you call it except Christian terrorism?

But I do enjoy all the lights. I'm sure many of you enjoy driving around town to see the Christmas lights as much as my family. The magnificent Kuckhuhn tree (shown in this bad photo) on Brooklyn Bridge Road is a long time Laurel tradition for us. My neighbors in the 400 block of Montgomery Street have set a new standard for awesome holiday displays, and this year with synchronized music.

So this is where we can help each other. Where are the best Christmas light displays in the Laurel area?

Please post your favorites in the comments section or send them directly to me at g.rick.wilson at gmail.com and I'll post them to the blog as a convenient driving map. (Please replace the "at" with @ in my email address.)

Merry Christmas from the Laurel Connections Blog.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Whither The Mall?

Architecture student and local blogger Dan sent me a link to his story about an very interesting concept for redeveloping the Laurel Mall.
This drawing shows a Bowie-like Open Town Center. It comes from a Woodbine, Maryland based, Seth Harry and Associates, an urban planning firm.
The drawing carries a 2005 date. I have no idea if the concept is now... or if it ever was being seriously considered. It's a very interesting concept nonetheless.
Dan's Just-Up-The-Pike blog is worth a visit.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Where Laurel Eats

Fifty Laurelites voted for their favorite area restaurants in our recent survey.

Winners
Silver Diner and Something Special Coffee Shop are the hot spots in the morning. Don Pablos is our favorite place for Tex-Mex. Almost 3 out of 5 people list Pasta Plus as the winner for red sauce and wine. Bay & Surf lands the fish prize and Outback lassos the red meat ribbon.

Mandarin House is by far the best place for Asian food with 70% of the votes. And we voted Oliver's Main Street Saloon as our favorite watering hole for drinks after work. (see below for other suggestions).

Click here for the detailed survey results.

Below are write-in results for your favorite after work spots and top overall restaurant recomendations.

It's been a tough day at work. You decide to meet your friends for a couple of drinks and appetizers. Your favorite after work place in Laurel is:
1. Rams Head
2. Wild Buffalo
3. We avoid drinks and appetizers.
4. I haven't done that in 20 years!
5. Tampico's
6. Red Hot & Blue should be on this list!
7. Under Rt. 1 bridge
8. Red Hot & Blue
9. Nuzbacks

Everyone has a favorite place and a favorite meal.
When a friend or neighbor asks you for suggestions, where do you send them?
What is your all time best meal at a restaurant in Laurel.

1. Red Sky
2. c j ferrari's
3. Pasta Plus
4. Oliver's
5. Pasta Plus
6. Without any question, Pasta Plus has been the scene for our favorite meals in Laurel.
7. Tag's. It's no longer there. Had a geat chicken livers and pasta.
8. Red, Hot and Blue
9. I really enjoy Pasta Nostra - very family-friendly, as well as Shish Kabob. 5 guys in a nice addition - they've had a cult-like following in Northern Virginia. Trapeze, in Fulton near 216 and 29 is like a downtown restaurant right next door!
10. Oliver's and Red Hot Blue
11. Pasta Plus, always a good meal from a Chicken Dish to a Meatball Sub or White Pizza.
12. Pollo al Pesto, Pastra Nostra (you gotta love pesto, though!)
13. Wild Buffalo grill on wendsday nights. Chiken wings for $.20 each. They have hot, barbecue, honey barbecue, old bay, fried, very hot, etc...
14. We are still looking and longing for nourishing, heart-healthy, appetizing meals in Laurel. We prefer two Ethiopian places in Silver Spring: Addis Ababba and Langanos. We've had a few decent meals at India Gate. We like some of the fish specials and the seafood salad at Pasta Plus. We would love to get more green and other vegetables (unsauced/unbuttered) anywhere.
15. Our family is always looking for healthy, cheap food. I think that the best restaurants in Laurel are Pasta Plus, Mango's Grill and Chung King (love that Mongolian Buffet!) but we don't go there often because they are on the expensive side. For good cheap food we usually end up at Chipotle or at Ruby Tuesday for the soup and salad combo.
16. Pasta Plus! Is there any other place for a high quality meal with good service on a consistent basis for a reasonable price?
17. Longhorn peppered steak salad Bay N Surf - cream of crab soup with any entree
18. Mandarin House - special request entree - Roast pork Fried Rice, extra dark, no peas and carrots, extra bean sprouts. This is in the old-fashioned,"Boston-style" Cantonese manner - not usually available south of Boston, MA - but Mandarin House will do anything to please their customers. Anything on the menu is above average.
19. I love fajita night at Don Pablos.
20. We LOVE pasta plus!
21. Anything from Famous Dave's that has Devil's Spit on it! YeeHaah!
22. The Mango Grill for their grilled salmon with mango sauce
23. 3 brothers, I love veg.boat with a salad
24. Red Hot & Blue. If it's a light day: chicken Caesar salad and bread. If it feels like a good afternoon for angina: memphis drummies, fries, and a coke with a cherry. Ask for the magician.
25. pasta plus
26. Rams Head Fish & Chips
27. Red, Hot and Blue
28. 5 Guys burgers & fries
29. Stuffed flounder at Bay & Surf
30. We've had several memorable meals at India Gate and it's always high on my recommended list. Recently, we've had neighbors, who are Indian, tell us that Sapphire, on Route 197, is even better. We haven't checked it out yet, but its definitely on the list!
31. I always send them to Mango. They have great seafood, steaks and pupusas. My favorite meal is the Carne Asada with extra grilled onions and a side of guacamole.
32. Oliver's Coconut shrimp
33. Famous Dave's ribs (and a side sausage link). I still haven't forgiven them for taking that sausage off the menu as a main dish.
34. I send others to Pasta Plus. But my favorite is a cheesseburger, fries and chocolate shake at Big T on Route one.
35. Creamed chip beef on a biscuit, with home fries, large orange juice, and hot coffee at Silver Diner. Jane has left Silver Diner now, but she was the best waitress in Maryland. Many great mornings with Jane, hot breakfast and a newspaper at the diner.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Dining in Laurel

Laurelites like to eat out. Over 70 people read the previous blog article and 32 people voted in the Laurel area restaurant survey . I've included the results so far below. The survey is still open for your voting. I'll post all the final results in the comments section of this post at the end of the week .

Silver Diner is the hand's down winner for breakfast with 10 votes. Tastee Diner and Ihop follow with 5 and 4 votes respectively. Something Special wins as the favorite coffee shop with 12 votes with Starbucks coming in second with 9 votes.

Based on 19 votes, the Mandarin House is the the top choice for Asian food. No place else got more than 2 votes.

Pasta Plus is the top vote getter in the Italian food category with 14 votes. Pasta Nostro came in a distant second with 6 votes.

Laurelites like Don Pablos for Tex Mex with 9 votes. Toucan Taco (Tippy's), Tampico and Mangos closing in with 6, 5, and 4 votes respectively.

Bay and Surf and Timbuktu are almost tied in the seafood category with 8 and 7 votes respectively.

The red meat category is a mixed grill with no clear favorite. Lone Star and Outback are tied at six votes each. Newcomers Red Sky and Long Horn show a growing interest.

For an after work gathering, Laurel's favorite by far is Oliver's with 11 votes.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

We Gotta Eat, Right?

Joanne and I have a thoroughly modern American marriage. This means that we share all of the tedious household duties. For example, we take turns cooking. When it's Joanne's turn to cook, she prepares nutritional, tasty and multi-course dinners.
Of course, when it's my turn to cook, I turn to one of the dozens of fine dining establishments in the Laurel area.
It's not like I'm picky about eating, as anyone who has met me knows immediately. I love to eat. I'll eat almost anything, (except possibly scrapple). I'm happy going to Tippy's for chili con queso, Red, Hot and Blue for a pulled pig sandwich or Tastee Freez for a Country Burger with fries and a shake. You can find me and my neighbor Eric at the Tastee Diner eating breakfast on most Saturday mornings.
We have so many choices in Laurel, it's hard to pick a restaurant. I thought it would be useful to offer a quick survey for you to vote for yours.
Help a guy out, It's my turn to cook on Monday and I'm looking for a new menu.
Please take a minute and let us know where to find you when it's your turn to "cook." I'll post the results to the blog.
To take the Laurel Connections restaurant survey, visit http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=224662977872 . SURVEY CLOSED 12/8/2006
Table cloths or paper plates, please visit the comments section to post a review of your favorite spot in Laurel.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thirty Five Years

Today is the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania and I’m not there.

Since 1971, my father and I would spend a few days every year hunting white-tailed deer at a cabin we built together near Kettle Creek, Pennsylvania. Our cabin is small, heated only by a wood stove, and it doesn’t have electricity or running water. We had lots of time for telling stories, with our easy chairs pulled up close to the wood stove.

We told the same stories every year. Tales of past hunts. The shots we made. The deer we missed. Stories about getting lost and finding our way back. Stories about friends and relatives.

We shared stories over those 35 years about living life, our shared work as engineers, stories about our shared military service. Dad was drafted into the Army right after the Korean War and I did my time in the Air Force 20 years later. The last couple of years, my son Stosh joined us to carry on our tradition.

I grew up hunting with my Dad. Our goal was not necessarily to bag a buck. Friends at work laughed when I returned home from deer hunting without a deer year after year. The last decade, as he entered his 70’s and me, my 40’s, a deer would have had to hop into the bed of my Dad’s pick-up truck and turned broadside for one of us to pull the trigger. Our trips were about so much more than hunting.

My Dad passed away suddenly this year on September 16th. Our last conversation was about getting a gun ready for Stosh to use today. When I rushed the 300 miles to his home on the night he died, I found that he had already gotten that gun ready.

This fall has been hectic, so Stosh and I couldn’t hunt this week. But next year you will find us at the little cabin near Kettle Creek, carrying on a tradition of sharing hunting stories and learning about each other. We will also pass a few, long, fall nights together close to the wood stove remembering those that came before us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Scrapple Insult Raises Intercity Tensions

WE have a heap of trouble cooking on Laurel Ave. You see, food and culture are important to us Laurelites. We don't want anyone insulting our culture by way of insulting our favorite foods.

As much as it embarrasses me to admit it, my wife Joanne eats scrapple. She loves the stuff. She even passed on this genetic flaw to our children. It turns out that my neighbor Eric is also a connoisseur of this rendered hog offal and cornmeal, aka scrapple.

I guess it makes sense that they both would be familiar with this midatlantic pork mush. Joanne was raised by native Washingtonians. Eric grew up in the shadow of the Delaware Bay Bridge in Wilmington. I've read that scrapple is only consumed in eastern PA, MD, and DE.

I'm from northeastern Ohio and I never heard of scrapple before moving to Laurel. Honestly, the thought of eating scrapple makes me want to do something painful. Like maybe live through the 21st district election all over again wearing a campaign sign.

But can anyone seriously enjoy ground up pig parts? I mean think about it, scrapple is made from the parts of the pig that the sausage guy didn't dare use. No thanks, I'm happy with just good old fashioned bacon.

Eric and Joanne are incensed over a scrapple cooking insult that Eric experienced this past weekend during a motorcycle trip to Westminster, MD. It turns out that the Plum Crazy Diner prepares scrapple by deep frying it. Can you imagine? And to add indignity to this porcine insult, they also suggested that he drizzle on a bit of maple syrup!

Eric and Joanne are now preparing to lay siege to the Plum Crazy Diner and possibly to the entire City of Westminster for this gross breach of scrapple etiquette.

Thank goodness that Laurel's Tastee Diner knows how to properly prepare scrapple...smashed and burned. And Tastee's super waitress Patty, would never even joke about putting maple syrup on scrapple.

Remember the Rapa Brand!

Westminster, you have been warned. Don't mess with Laurel.

Feel free to share your scrapple tributes in the comments section.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Peaceful Palette

Don’t you love the way they smell? Is it more of a musty or a dusty smell? Or is it just the memories of blue sky, crisp air and being at peace with the earth? Throwing great fistfuls of them into the air and leaping into a pile are some of life’s great joys. Even if your pushing fifty instead of five.

Short work with a rake and we had a fresh palette of harvest wheat, yellow ochre, brick red, burnt sienna, and dying green colors at our curb. I love the fall. Especially fall in Laurel.

The leaves are three quarters down in Oldtown. Only the oak trees have nearly full crowns. My neighbor Eric’s oak tree slowly drops its brown, crinkly leaves all winter. A hopeful installment plan to guarantee our next spring.

We have a sixty-five foot dawn redwood tree that is the last to drop its leaves in our yard. It's a very confused, deciduous-evergreen tree. It always drops its needles during Thanksgiving week. For nineteen years, I’ve raked mounds of needles in the morning while waiting for Joanne to finish our turkey feast. The picture on the right is how our redwood looks this afternoon.

Eleven geese just flew over the tree tops of the alley between Laurel and Montgomery Streets. It looks like they're heading for the Patuxent River. Their V pattern is almost as perfect as their honking.

I always want to live in a place that has four seasons. I hope Heaven has a fall as wonderful as Laurel’s.
UPDATE 1 - I forgot mention above that Laurel's Public Works Department will vacuum up leaves from your curb for free. Oldtown residents living west of 7th Street have their weekly pickup on Tuesdays and east of 7th Street addresses are scheduled on Thursdays. Here are Laurel City's leaf pickup schedule map and the leaf pickup instructions.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Subscribing to Blogs


Blogs are so much easier to read if you use an RSS reader. Having a reader means that your favorite blogs come to you ... you don't need to remember to go to them.

I've added a subscription button like this one to the right side of this blog window. Click to subscribe to Laurel Connections using a cool blog reader. I use Bloglines for reading all my favorite blogs because it's free and effective. But there are many good readers available. Google RSS readers for additional information.

Bloglines is a website that collects all of your favorite blogs into a single page. Sort of like your very own personal magazine. But this is a magazine that is always fresh and it remembers what you have already read. So no more stale magazines littering the bathroom floor.

If you go to Bloglines by clicking the button, you'll be invited to create an account. It is really quick and easy to do. Then all you do is subscribe to your favorite blogs. Whenever you want to read blogs, the reader site will have all of the most recent posts. No more clicking around seeing who has new posts. You can even download a notifier tool that lets you know immediately when anything is posted.

I have also included my blogroll on the sidebar. A blogroll is list of your favorite blogs, podcasts and video podcasts that offer RSS subscriptions. My favorites run the gamut from geeks to personal productivity gurus to management Czars, with Dilbert and local politics thrown in for laughs.

Not every blog site offers RSS subscriptions, e.g., Mike Sarich's and John Giannetti's campaign blogs do not. So I have try to remember to visit them.

RSS and Bloglines give me an easy way to skim a ton of information in the shortest amount of time.

Good luck and please let me know if you set up your own blogroll. I'm always on the lookout for cool blogs.

rick - driving in the fast lane on the information highway.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Laurel Boys and Girls Club

By now I'm sure you have read about the LBGC and McCullough Field issues in the Laurel Leader. I was serving on the City Council when the land transfer took place and I can assure you that there was never any intent to transfer the field to the Club.

The City's role in the transfer of the old Laurel High School and Phelps Center property was minor. The city had the right of first refusal on that property. We negotiated using our refusal to allow the Club to obtain the property in return for continuing the lease on the Phelps Center until a new Senior Center could be built. The field was not part of the deal.

Setting aside the invalid McCullough property transfer, I felt then and continue to believe now that the old Laurel High School property was a bad strategy for the Club. The burden of owning an old historic building, with millions of dollars worth of needed repairs would ultimately drown the club financially and most importantly, divert the attention of the volunteers from their core role of providing youth sports programs.

I was subsequently appointed to an advisory committee serving the LBGC board of directors and after a number of meetings and digging into the finances, I sustained my original opinion. I believed then that without significant yearly government grants, the club could not both restore the building to code and also provide quality core sports programs. Living off of grants was simply too risky a bet to build a credible strategy for the future.

Now we are engaged in a debate about county grants for the Club. The LBGC leadership feels that County Councilman Dernoga unfairly denied them their funds. I've included Tom Dernoga's letter explaining this issue below.

I am also concerned that some members associated with the club may be unknowingly jepoardizing the LBGC's tax exempt status by engaging in political activity. The IRS rules are very clear. There are also clear rules severely limiting political activity by organizations receiving state or federal grants.

I encourage all sides to use the comments section of Connections to raise issues and ask questions.



--------------------------------

August 29, 2006
Re: Laurel Boys & Girls Club Funding

Dear Community Member:

As I promised, I am writing in response to many inquiries about whether I reallocated $200,000 of funds that had been promised to the Laurel Boys & Girls Club (LBGC). Actually, in FY 2006, I did provide the $200,000 that I had promised to the Club for renovations. I have been one of LBGC’s biggest benefactors the past five years. However, it is true that I did not seek to fight to keep an additional $200,000 proposed for LBGC for FY 2007 (known as Year P32 for Community Development Block Grant (“CDBG”) purposes).

There are numerous reasons for my decision not to use my influence to seek these additional funds at this time. These reasons include:

· Payments for Property Taxes.
· Internal disputes.
· Lack of a Certified Audit.
· Payments for Attorneys Fees.
· Substantial Out of County participation.
· Disputes with the City of Laurel.

Contrary to what has been stated, I informed Levet Brown of this result when I met with him and Patrick Reed on July 12th. I did leave open possibility of seeking additional funds next year. I explained to Mr. Brown and Mr. Reed why I was unwilling to support additional funding to LBGC at this time and what LBGC would need to do to obtain additional funding. I am concerned that in his recent emails to the public, Mr. Brown claims to have just learned last week about the funding for FY 2007 and to have no knowledge of my rationale; and that therefore, members should contact me to urge me to explain the situation. In doing so, Mr. Brown is making me, and other officials, publicly address matters that may not reflect well on the LBGC. I regret that.

While not the sole reason, a significant reason is that I decided not to pursue additional funds for this fiscal year is that I have concerns about the leadership of the LBGC and the actions that I have observed over the past 15 months. I have a fiduciary obligation to the County taxpayers, and I take this obligation very seriously. I also have expectations about principles, and the LBGC leadership and I have different views. I will discuss this below.


Background

First, LBGC has not been a major recipient of County funding until recently. It has largely been self-sufficient, but in the past couple of years, there have been several claims of financial crisis and requests for stop-gap funding. Here is a breakdown of funding since 1996:

Prior To Taking Office Since Taking Office

Fiscal Year Amount Fiscal Year Amount
FY 1996 $ 0 FY 2003 $ 13,500*
FY 1997 $ 0 FY 2004 $ 12,500
FY 1998 $ 0 FY 2005 $ 15,500*
FY 1999 $ 10,250 FY 2006 $256,000*
FY 2000 $ 0
FY 2001 $ 10,000
FY 2002 $ 10,000

*County Executive Jack Johnson provided grants of $1,000 in FY 2003, $3,000 in FY 2005, and $1,000 in FY 2006.

The above Table only shows a fraction of the resources that I have provided to LBGC or that I am in the process of obtaining. Additional Recreational Benefits that I am working to provide to LBGC and area youth in general are listed on Attachment 1.[1] Also, Attachment 2 provides information on the many projects that I have worked on or have budgeted to address the needs of our public schools. If you have a children in our public schools, please ask your principal if I have been of assistance.

The community has been told that I “reallocated $200,000” that had been promised to LBGC. The community is not being told all that I have already done.

Being a substantial supporter of LBGC, after meeting with Mr. Brown and other Board members during 2004, I offered to find substantial funding for capital improvements to the High School building. During FY 2005, I negotiated with my Council colleagues to obtain a substantial CDBG grant for LBGC for the following fiscal year, FY 2006. I had my staff assist with the application process and walk LBGC through the process. I kept my word, as did my colleagues, and LBGC received a $200,000 CDBG Grant in FY 2006. To date, LBGC has only used about $100,000 of the funds. I also obtained a second CDBG Grant in the amount of $25,000 to assist with program costs. I also obtained $30,000 and inserted it in the Park & Planning Commission FY 2006 budget. Apparently, the community has not been informed that I went to bat for LBGC in FY 2006 and obtained unprecedented funding.

With respect to FY 2007 (i.e., Year P32), the truth is that during this year’s Council budget negotiations, while I obtained substantial funding for many projects in this area – many needed projects – I did not go to bat for this additional funding. In part, I had already pushed the limit the year before and other Council members wanted their share of the funding.[2] Ultimately, this $200,000 went to two organizations in Councilman Sam Dean’s district that provide services to the poor and disadvantaged (the Mission of Love Charities[3] and Sparrow’s Nest Ministries). I supported Councilman Dean on a number of funding initiatives, and he supported important projects in my district, including $290,000 for 1st Generation College Bound in Laurel and $200,000 for a community health clinic in Beltsville; $500,000 for the clean-up of Laurel Lakes; $3,000,000 for the gym on the Laurel-Beltsville Elementary School;

While a significant reason for not pushing this issue is that the Council has a “share the pie” approach and I had gotten the District 1 share in FY 2006, I also have concerns about the LBGC leadership. I have been watching the actions and attitude of the leadership for the past 15 months and I am troubled by a number of things. While I know that the LBGC leadership has the interests of youth at heart, and has worked hard for youth, that does not mean that concerns should be overlooked.

Concerns

Transfer of Old Laurel High School & Phelps Senior Center to LBGC: In 2002, the County, the City and LBGC engaged in negotiations to turn ownership of the Old Laurel High School and the Phelps Senior Center over to LBGC. The LBGC leadership of 2002 knew that this would be a tremendous responsibility and require significant fundraising on its part. I supported this transfer of the building and offered future help in fundraising. As part of this transfer, the parties agreed that the Senior Citizen programs run by the City of Laurel would remain in place until a new Senior Citizens Center was constructed. That project is about 2 years from completion.

At no time did anyone intend to transfer McCullough Field to LBGC and LBGC had no expectation of receiving the Field. The County has a long-term lease with the City of Laurel for McCullough Field so that the City may provide for its recreational programs. It shares the field with LBGC. A renewal of the lease arises in 2007.

During the Council review of the transfer approval, I noted that the acreage listed (11 acres) seemed too large for the High School site. I was assured by County Staff that the acreage figure was correct. LBGC has recently discovered that an error was made in the deed transfer of the High School building. The original deed actually includes the parcel for the High School and, in a separate provision, includes McCullough Field. Whoever drafted the transfer documents did not separate the two parcels at the time of transfer. LBGC is now taking the position that it owns McCullough Field. Belying the fact that no one had any intent to transfer the Field, LBGC had never asserted ownership until it stumbled over the error recently.

More about this issue is discussed below.

Payments for Property Taxes: When LBGC obtained ownership of the High School property, LBGC did not conform its activities to comply with Maryland real property tax laws. By renting the facility to outside users, the property became subject to State, County and City real property taxes. This taxation is controlled by State law. In my view, LBGC leadership mishandled this problem and did not seek appropriate advice. When it was brought to my attention, it was too late address the property tax issue for the tax year. Consequently, LBGC lost over $15,000 in tax payments.

My first concern is that due to its desire to conduct business in a manner that creates a taxable situation, my grant of $12,500 did nothing more than offset taxes. I was able to work with LBGC to get a County tax credit for the following years. Nevertheless, LBGC paid over $8,500 in property taxes for FY 2006, but not before the property went to tax sale (costing over $500 in penalties and interest). LBGC owes over $8,000 in property taxes for FY 2007. These taxes are unpaid at this time.

All or part of these taxes is owed to the City of Laurel. This tax situation should be worked out between the two parties, but because of disputes between the parties, there has been no resolution to date. I am unwilling to provide County dollars to fund property tax bills.

Internal disputes: I and other elected officials have been notified of a number of internal disputes that reflect poorly on the working of LBGC. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from complaints, because it is not our role to investigate and take sides on internal disputes. Nonetheless, repeated complaints raise flags about the inability of a group to work collaboratively. I saw a petition from one group of parents last summer demanding the resignation of the Board of Directors and the holding of elections. Apparently, the Board dismissed the complaint and did not hold elections. One repeated complaint that I have heard from various quarters is that dissent is quashed on the Board and that only hand-picked persons are appointed.

Later, the boxing program was ejected from the Club. This resulted in a lawsuit last fall, in part demanding elections since none had been held for about five years. Eventually, the lawsuit was withdrawn and the complainant moved to another club. Elections were finally held earlier this year; however, it is my understanding that only the Directors in office ran for election. This raises a flag as to how open and inclusive the election process was.

These internal disputes were not determinative in my view about LBGC leadership; however, they have created a concern.

Lack of a Certified Audit: LBGC’s accounting controls apparently are so poor that its accountant is refusing to certify its audit. This information comes from County auditors who have reviewed LBGC’s books. This does not mean that there is any impropriety. It does mean that there is a lack of comfort about LBGC’s accounting systems. The current leadership inherited this state of affairs and has promised to take steps to rectify it. Once this is corrected, I will feel more comfortable about the handling of funds.

Another concern raised by the review of LBGC finances is that one individual associated with LBGC has received over $40,000 in contracts to provide renovation related services. Perhaps these are low-cost services that save LBGC funds; however, former Board members raised questions about whether the individual was properly certified or licensed and whether improvements met code requirements.

Payments for Attorneys Fees: The litigation that occurred this year generated attorney’s fees. I believe that the legal services were provided at a reduced rate; however, I have concern that County taxpayer funds may be going to lawyers rather than children because adults cannot work together. As the disputes with the City of Laurel move forward, I am concerned that the LBGC will again be expending funds on attorneys to settle a dispute and I do not want tax dollars subsidizing such activities.

Out of County participation: While not a major issue, this is still a concern. LBGC is focused on being a regional Boys & Girls Club, and is not limiting itself to the City of Laurel or Prince George’s County.[4] There is nothing wrong with this. However, I have heard a number of complaints about City/County residents not getting opportunities because of commitments to outside groups. And, as the use of Club facilities and resources expands to serve residents of wealthier Counties, I have concern about increasing demands for funding support from Prince George’s County and the City of Laurel. I am unaware of funding being provided by other Counties. I am unaware of any requests for funding having been presented to other Counties.

Recently, LBGC issued a postcard for members to send to the Mayor and City Council demanding funding support from the City. A significant portion of LBGC members reside outside the City of Laurel. I think it is inappropriate for the LBGC Board to stir up ill-feelings toward the City among its members considering the numerous benefits that the City provides to LBGC, and considering that none of these other Counties provide any support. I am unaware that field or gym space is even provided to LBGC by these other jurisdictions.

Disputes with the City of Laurel: The foregoing issues are concerns, but the principal reason for my decision not to push for CDBG grant funding this year relates to disputes with the City of Laurel. At my meeting with Mr. Brown and Mr. Reed on July 12th, I specifically instructed them to resolve their disputes with the City and then I would meet with them to discuss funding options. There has a brief meeting or two with City officials, but I perceive almost no movement. The disputes are as follows:

Increased Rent for the Phelps Senior Center. The City has provided a complete senior program at Phelps for many years. When the County owned the building, it provided space to the City at no cost. In part through my efforts, MNCPPC provides over $120,000 per year to the City to pay for the program. As noted above, when the building was transferred to LBGC, the agreement was for the City’s senior program to stay in place until the Senior Citizens Center is complete. The City and LBGC entered into a lease arrangement.

To address its funding problems, LBGC has looked at market rate lease costs in the area, and is demanding that the City’s rent more than quadruple. In my view, the new LBGC leadership is reneging on the commitments of its predecessors. The state of the City senior programs is in jeopardy and senior leaders are very upset with this action. Not only do I understand LBGC’s concern about funding, but I have been working to find financing for LBGC. My efforts last year are obvious. I have also been working on fundraising efforts and making progress. I am disappointed that rather than a collaborative approach with elected officials, the LBGC leadership has taken a confrontational approach with the City.

The irony of this effort is that since I provide the funding for the City senior program through MNCPPC, while LBGC is negotiating with the City about fair rental value, in part, I will be expected to find the funds to increase support of the senior program in order to pay more rent to LBGC. In that respect, LBGC’s dispute is not with the City itself, but with me, one of its leading financial supporters. I found it difficult to financially support LBGC this year when (1) it is taking a confrontational approach with the City and threatening the viability of the senior program; and (2) when I do not know how much additional funding I will have to provide to pay the additional rent – in essence, additional funding through my efforts to LBGC. This second concern is compounded by consideration of the amount of resources that are allocated to out-of-County members or participants.

McCullough Field. This dispute is the most troubling matter affecting my decisions. As noted above, LBGC recently stumbled across an error in the deed transferring ownership of the High School property to it, and it now claims ownership of McCullough field. Mr. Brown has stated a number of things that I find very troubling. For example:

“The club at this time agreeing to allow the City of Laurel to conduct its programs on this field as long as the Laurel Boys and Girls Club’s programs don’t suffer because the City of Laurel’s usage. However, the club will revisit this issue at a later date in the year 2007.” The lease between the County and City for the use of the Field allows for review in 2007.

“Furthermore, the club feels that from the conversation [Mr. Reed] and I had with you in the meeting in July, you will not be satisfied until we give your constituent’s children field over to the City. You made this very clear to [Mr. Reed] and me. . . . I want to remind you as I stated in our meeting, that I will never be a part of giving these children’s field over to anyone.”

I was an integral participant in the negotiations to transfer the High School building to LBGC for no cost. No one involved in that transaction had an intent to transfer McCullough Field. The City actually has first right of refusal on surplus County property and it waived its right to the benefit of LBGC, but only for the building. The City would have exercised its right with respect to McCullough Field had there been any intent to surplus the land.

I told Mr. Brown and Mr. Reed very clearly that my support for their leadership (or anyone’s) is based on how they conduct themselves. I noted that the lawyers’ error in not separating the two parcels in the deed transfer might stand up in court, and that LBGC may find itself with an unintended windfall. I said that knowing that the Field was never intended to be transferred to LBGC and that such transfer would cause great harm to the City of Laurel, I would look to their actions to determine their character. I used the following analogy:

“A person is walking down the street and drops $100 on the ground. You are walking behind and see this. You pick up the $100 and you have a choice. There is no name on money, so you can put it in your pocket. Or, you can give it back to the person. However, I am walking behind both of you and I see you pick up the $100. What do you think I will say if you put the $100 in your pocket, and then turn and ask me to give you money?”

I believe that the manner in which LBGC handles this issue is a matter of honor and principle. LBGC still has a choice to make, although to date it is giving all indication that it will assert its legal ownership of the land and put the City’s recreational programs in jeopardy. I am disappointed by Mr. Brown’s attempt to hide behind my “constituent’s children field”. The Field belongs to the County and is leased to the City for the City to provide recreational activities to my constituents – including many children. The City does a great job in providing such activities.

Another great irony is that LBGC is taking this action unnecessarily. Review the attached list of projects that I am working on, some intended to specifically benefit LBGC in terms of providing additional facilities.

Based on what I know to date, I am concerned that this dispute will result in more litigation. I will not provide tax dollars to LBGC only to see these funds again go to pay for attorneys.

As noted above, I told Mr. Brown and Mr. Reed on July 12th where I stood on their disputes with the City and that their choices would affect my view of the principles of the LBGC leadership. I told them to resolve their differences and then I would meet. Neither dispute has been resolved.

Apparently frustrated by my position, last week Mr. Brown claimed to have just learned that LBGC did not receive approval for the FY 2007 CDBG grant. Mr. Brown has issued various emails to members stating, without explanation, nothing more than that I have “reallocated $200,000” that had been promised, and asking the members to contact me to get an explanation from me. This message to members had the intended affect on members. I have received about 30 emails demanding an explanation and demanding funding now. Some of these emails were from out-of-county users of the LBGC facilities demanding that I give County funds for their benefit. Some of the emails have been very nasty. I have a thick enough skin to take the slings and arrows. However, it is not lost on me that one of the complaints by former Club members is that Mr. Brown attacks those who disagree with him and seeks to isolate them. It is also not lost on me that a similar tactic is being used against the Mayor and City Council. Attempting to apply public pressure on elected officials is a strategy, but if the elected officials fear that the pressure is created by unfair information, the strategy may be counter-productive.

One point that LBGC has failed to mention in its statements is that I directed LBGC to the CDBG grant program, walked it through the application process, paved the way for approval and secured $225,000 in CDBG funds in FY 2006. Without my assistance, LBGC would not even be aware of the CDBG program. LBGC’s emails are misleading people into thinking that the decision on the CDBG grants is very recent and can be reconsidered. That is not the case. The CDBG program for FY 2007 was approved by the County Council on June 20th, and signed by the County Executive on June 29th. The County Executive never spoke to me about having promised a grant to LBGC; therefore, I think Mr. Brown’s claims about this are overstated.

LBGC may file an application this Fall for next year’s program; however, I believe that the leadership needs to do a self-assessment. Club members may want to discuss the recent actions and strategies with the Club leadership. I look forward to a collaborative relationship with LBGC pursuant to which I can continue to seek to secure funds to support programs for youth. However, I do not want to fund attorneys’ fees, property taxes, and residents of other Counties that do not also contribute to the costs. Nor do I want to fund an organization that has leadership lacking honor.

People may disagree with me on this matter, but I am willing to accept that. I was elected to be a fiduciary and I believe that I have done a good job over the past five years as a fiduciary. I also have obtained tens of millions of dollars to benefit the youth in my District. I have been one of LBGC’s strongest supporters. People can ask what has happened to my support. Or, they can ask whether the present LBGC leadership has its priorities straight. Even if people disagree with my assessment of this situation, I know that I have looked at the matter objectively and made the best decision that I am able. I have taken a position that might be politically unpopular, but that is not a basis for making decisions. I will not be cowed by arguments of “do it for the children.” I have heard those arguments from people such as Dr. Andre’ Hornsby, and I often find that such arguments are a mask to hide substantive issues.

Again, I regret that Mr. Brown has demanded that I publicly address his questions. I think that these discussions with would have better served our youth, the City and our County by being conducted outside the media. However, if explanations of my actions are demanded – if my motivations are impugned – I have no problem explaining the bases of my decisions. I am sure that this issue will continue to be discussed in the future. I assure you that I will act in what I consider to be the best interests of County residents, including our youth. I am confident that we will get past the present set of issues and that LBGC will continue to provide recreational services to our youth.


Sincerely,

Thomas E. Dernoga, Chair

notes
1. Contrary to what some people believe, I am no stranger to LBGC. I was a parent member and served as a soccer coach for years.
2. Typically, the County receives funding requests approximately double the amount of available CDBG funding.
3. Mission of Love Charities, Inc. is a multifaceted health and human services organization dedicated to helping the underserved and misfortunate by providing free programs and services designed to meet their immediate and short-term needs.
4. In a recent letter, Mr. Brown states that “It is the club’s hope that you continue to support the Laurel Boys and Girls Club in its important endeavor, and that is providing a service to the community of Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery County.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Point - Counterpoint

There is a well mannered but otherwise very interesting discussion about voting records, campaign signs, politicians and habeas corpus in the comments section of the previous post on campaign signs.

This is exactly the kind of discussions that community blogs like Laurel Connections were created to encourage.

It looks like we have the attention of our most wired and digitally-enlightened elected officials such as Laurel Councilman and 21st District candidate Mike Sarich and Prince George's County Council President Tom Dernoga.

While they may disagree with each other, their discussion is both courageous and informative. It takes significant courage and skill to engage in this new kind of public blog forum and the electorate is much better prepared because of their efforts.

Now that we have them engaged, please read and add your opinions, comments and questions to the discussion here.

http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=10814078&postID=115530161347135456

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sign Debate Grows

Tom Dernoga Announces 2010 Bid for Gov or Senate

The political sign debate in the comments section is heating up. PG County Council President Tom Dernoga offers his views in the comments section of the previous post in response to Laurel City Councilman Mike Sarich's comments. Tom also announces his future political plans :^)

Please see this link to read and add your own comments.

You'll need to scroll down to see all the comments.

What do you think about all of the campaign signs this season? Does it make you more or less likely to vote for the candidate with the most signs?

I can't get the following song out of head: http://www.fivemanelectricalband.ca/signslyrics.html

-rick

Friday, August 11, 2006

Campaign Signs

I think the candidates have gone completely overboard with their campaign signs this season.
Name recognition is important but the overload I'm seeing cannot serve them well this time. Everyone I meet on the street is talking about how bad it all looks and it may backfire.
There are only two good uses for campaign signs in my opinion, name recognition and informing people of the election day.

I don't see the election date on any of the current signs around Laurel. A pity.

I was only a one-term city council candidate that ran unopposed. But I did learn a few campaign lessons from my brief time on the stump. It doesn't matter how many signs you have in the neighborhood. CAMPAIGN SIGNS DON'T VOTE!

(The picture above is not from around here so I don't offend any of our hardworking current candidates.)

Main Street Gets Re-Treed

Nope, the Farmer's Market has not turned into a plant nursery. These trees are part of Laurel City's Main Street rebuild project. The project started with the new brick sidewalk, new street lights and now many of the existing trees are being replaced because of disease or because they have gotten too large for their planters.

Mike Lhotsky, Laurel's Director of Parks and Recreation told me yesterday that there will be 70 trees planted. Four city-friendly species have been selected, Southern Wax Myrtle, Sargent Cherry, Paperbark Maple and Zelcova.



The Southern Wax Myrtle's will be planted in ten of these big containers. The containers will be placed along Main Street. This one is located caddy-corner from Billy Miles Meat Market.

All of the redevelopment and rebuilding of Main Street shows how vibrant Laurel is becoming. I'm excited and pleased to see it. Mega-Kudos to the Mayor and City Council and to the Public Works and Parks Departments.

-rick

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

City Council - Please Save My Marriage!

My lovely wife Joanne is beautiful and perfect in every way ... except for one tiny flaw. She is a pack rat that keeps just about everything.

Just last week she exclaimed, "Fondue is coming back in style and then who'll be happy that we have the complete, 16 pot, all electric, avocado colored, deluxe dipping set with 4o matching forks?

Simple physics was the only thing that kept me from going crazy from her collection obsession and leaving her. Once she filled up our house, the only way for her to add to her collection was by throwing something else out. We reached an ecological balance of sorts. But now those large temporary storage containers called PODS may signal the end of our marriage.

You see, Laurel City does not have an ordinance prohibiting or controlling these big white home wreckers. See Dan Schwind's story in the Leader.

Our crazy neighbors had a POD in their front yard for over six months last year. Joanne figures that she can legally fill our yard with dozens of the big white PODS and then she'll have almost unlimited space to store more stuff. She will never need to throw anything away ever again.

If the City Council doesn't pass a law to stop her, it will mean the end of our marriage. I can't take it any more and I'm betting the divorce court will agree with me.

A simple solution is available. Pass an ordinance that requires city residents to get a $5.00 permit to put a POD on their property --for no more than 30 days. This seems reasonable to me. Thirty days is plenty of time to accomplish a move or rehab a garage. Lots of cities across the USA are taking just this reasonable step to preserve family values.

City Council Members, Joanne and I have been married for 23 years. I'm putting the future of our marriage squarely in your hands.

Please regulate the PODS and save our marriage.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Mushroom Goes To The Woodshed

My previous post about voters being treated like mushrooms brought the swift response from Prince Georges County Council President Tom Dernoga at the bottom of this post.

He takes me to woodshed for complaining about the Liquor Board because he correctly explains that the State of Maryland really controls the Board, not the County. He also mildly rebukes me for incorrectly referring to the County as PG instead of Prince Georges.

I've also added my response to his email as a comment to this post. Mr. Dernoga agreed to let me to post his message to the blog.

I appreciate the opportunity to correct my errors and I appreciate even more that our hardworking Councilman took the time to set me straight on a holiday .

-rick

----------------------------------------------------------------
From: Dernoga, Thomas E.
Sent: Tuesday, July 04, 2006 8:31 PM
Subject: PG County Govt

Rick:

I'm mildly offended by your recent emails. I agree with the basic premise -easy access to public information. I also agree that the County has been behind in getting its technology up to speed. The Council has pushed on this, but unfortunately, like too many things that are outside our direct control, we haven't gotten to where we need to be yet.

So... why am I mildly offended?

First, like many people, you ignore the fact that the County needs to do more with less. I don't have time right now to go through my spreadsheets of data that I have compiled; however, suffice it to say that 30 years of foolish development policies have left us with a County demographic that has less property value per capita, less income per capita, less wealth per capita and a lower educational level per capita than those surrounding jurisdictions who are doing so well with technology. Since Maryland bases its taxing system (and hence, its County's taxing systems) on wealth, our relative lack of wealth means substantially less tax revenue per person to use to perform the same governmental functions. While I am certain that there is adequate funding to provide the type of technological infrastructure to perform the type of functions you desire, I gather that other pressing needs distract focus from this issue and keep it from being an agency priority - that is, the County's Office of Information Technology.

Second, and really more important, the Board of License Commissioners is not really a "PG County" agency. Sure, its budget ends up under our County budget and we "approve" it. And, they have a County email address. However, the same is true of the Circuit and District Courts, the Sheriff and various other agencies created by State, the officials of which are appointed by the State, and the laws under which they operate are State laws. Neither the County Executive nor the County Council may direct the operations of the Board. Thus, when you blame "PG County" (known as Prince George's in some circles), for not having a web service to let you know when liquor license applications arise in 20707 or 20708, you presume that PG County has jurisdiction to order the Board around. Unfortunately not. The elected officials that you need to petition for action on this are named: Miller, Lawlah, Green, Pinsky, Giannetti, Currie, Exum and Britt. Since they enjoy the control that they have over liquor licenses, perhaps THEY "simply want to keep citizens out of the hearing process?"State law provides how many people we have to pay for in our Budget for the Board - the Chair, the Commissioners, the number of inspectors, their legal counsel, etc. I have appended at the bottom the State law discussing how Prince George's Board is staffed and its duties. I don't think you will find any similar rules under County law.

So.... you could argue that the Board is a County agency, but such argument would not be completely accurate. If you wish to blame "PG County" for the Board's failure to employ technology effectively, at least blame the responsible elected officials.

Regards.

Tom

Monday, July 03, 2006

Are We Just Voting Mushrooms?

I believe that our county leaders think we are mushrooms .... because they want to keep us in the dark and feed us bullcr%p.

I recently got an email from the Prince George's County Board of License Commissioners, aka the liquor board, because I asked to be kept informed about upcoming hearings after the Club Amazon debacle.

Unfortunately, the staffer at the commissioner's office sent the email with every one's email address exposed in the to: line. It's really not her fault. The Prince George's County Government simply doesn't want to make information easily available to its citizens.

The email contained the entire docket for the next two hearings. It would be so much better if the PG County government would just let me subscribe to a simple web service that would inform me via email when any liquor license is under review in zipcode(s) of my choice.

This highlights a much bigger problem in Prince George's County. Have you ever tried to find useful county data? I mean something more useful than Jack Johnson's photo.

For example, who holds liquor licenses in the county? How many violations do they have? Can you easily cross reference the license holders and their affiliates to any campaign donors?

But it's not just liquor licenses. Just try to find the email address of a county official. I wanted to complain about this problem but I could not find the email address for Mr. Charles W. Wilson, the Director Office of Information Technology and Communications. We pay for their computers and blackberries, we should be able to send any county employee an email and expect a response. That is the policy in the City of Laurel.

It gets worse. Do you want to know how your precinct voted last election? Then you'll need to buy this information. It's ridiculous to buy information that your tax dollars already paid to collect!

It's time for our elected officials and candidates to demand that all public government information is made freely available via the web. The technology is here. All we need is a commitment to full electronic transparency in our government. The rule should be, when in doubt, put it out!

Oh by the way, I use the campaign websites of our local candidates to get an idea how well they understand how people use the internet to find information. It is an indicator of how well that they will demand full electronic transparency. Most of you who read this blog might feel the same way. Here are the factors I use to figure out if the campaign site is more than just an electronic billboard?

  • How current is the info?
  • Is it as easy to send them an email as it is to send them a contribution?
  • Do they answer the email promptly?
  • Or do they make you use a lame web form?
  • Do they have meaningful issue papers?
  • Do they have a blog?
  • Do they post regularly to their blog?
  • Can you subscribe to get tailored information?
  • Is the information relevant and timely for voters?
  • Do they have a Spanish language version? (This may be a pro or a con for you.)
  • Do they provide links to additional information sources?

Here are some local campaign sites for your review. You should be able to tell very quickly which candidates "get" the web. (I'm not associated with any campaign.)

Here are some additional useful sites that I found that cover PG County politics.

Write these candidates and tell them if you think their websites are lame or useful. Let them know that you believe that all publicly accessible government information should always be available via the internet.

The standard should be that if you can get the information in person, you should be able to get that same information via the web for free.

No more web manure!


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Flood Gates Open

All seven floodgates at the Duckett Dam are now open. Low lying areas in Laurel are at risk. Call the City at 301-725-5300 if you have questions or concerns.

I'm not sure if this real-time stream flow gauge makes sense. http://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/uv?01592500
Discharge, cubic feet per second Most recent value: 4,500 06-27-2006 04:15.

It might be broken. This flow is greater than the flow that followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Anonymous said...

Regular readers soon realize that the most interesting bits of this blog are provided by the readers via the comments section. Since my purpose is to discover and encourage connections within our community, I want to make it as easy as possible for folks to share their own news and opinions. So, I encourage all comments to be posted, both attributed and anonymous.

Some readers have privately taken me to task for allowing anonymous comments, but I believe there is a long tradition of unattributed political discourse in America.

When you post your comment, you are asked to either supply a name or you can post anonymously. The Blogger software doesn't know who you really are, so any name you provide is accepted. The Blogger software also allows me to delete any comment. This all leads us to an important issue. To wit; should I ever censor reader comments? And if so, what is my policy for censoring? This policy problem is like red meat for a lifetime bureaucrat like me to think about.

I decided to only censor a comment if I judge it to be in poor taste or an ad hominem attack. If I decide to censor a comment, I will always remove the entire comment. I will never selectively edit a comment.

Moreover, I have set a higher bar for attributed comments. In other words, an anonymous comment may cross my line sooner than somebody willing to publicly stand behind their words.
I have only removed one comment in all of the 47 posts that have been published on this blog. It was an anonymous comment to one of the candidate interviews posted during the Laurel election season. I decided that it met my threshold of an inappropriate ad hominem attack and I removed it within a few minutes of its posting.

That's my policy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

-rick

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Sound of Silence

Is it just me, or have the Laurel City Council members and challengers been quiet about a Main Street manager?

Remember all the hewing and crying during the recent election season? Lots of foot stomping about how good or bad Main Street was doing.

But nary a word since the election. Where are the legislative fixes ? Where is the manager's salary in the recently passed FY07 budget? Where are the council challengers, who promised to stay involved?

Alas, I remember the same deafening silence following the last election.

If it comes up during the next election, I'm going to cry foul. There is simply no Main Street problem, except during an election season. And that is a problem that can be best fixed by simply ignoring it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Amazon A Go-Go ... All A Gone-Gone

The Amazon Strip Club liquor license "show cause" hearing ended in a victory for the Laurel community tonight.

Update: Also see Joe Murchison's detailed report of the hearing at the Laurel Leader website.

The Amazon's owners proffered a settlement where they agreed to never, ever, open up again at that address. This was an admission of guilt on their part. The owners then asked for 90 days to try to sell their license.

The board agreed to the deal and fined the Amazon's owners $5000 dollars for their violations. This ends the Strip Club saga at that location. Unfortunately, this does not solve the strip club problem throughout the county.

Until we can get the courts to see that taking your clothes off and writhing around a pole is not what the framers of the constitution meant as speech, we need to be more vigilant.

There is just no excuse for the slipshod way the liquor board works today. There should be a website where anyone can get specific and timely notification of any and all liquor license transactions anywhere in the state. The State and the County Council must pass liquor license sunshine laws.

There were about 65 other concerned citizens at the hearing. You should know that Laurel was well represented. Oldtown's own Susie Marucci made the trip. County Council Member Tom Dernoga was in there swinging hard. City Council Members Leszcz, Robison, Sarich, and Snyder made the trek and were part of the negotiations. LPD's finest, Chief Crawford, Deputy Chief McLaughlin, and Lt. Pollock made time for the hearing. As did Kim Rau, the best City Council Clerk in the State of Maryland. My personal heroes in this whole affair were Bob Manzi and Ben Barnes, lawyers working for the community.

If we stick together and use technology to stay vigilant, we can shine a little sunshine into their smoke filled back rooms. Both the strip club's rooms and the county commission hearing rooms.

- rick

p.s., I want to welcome Mike Sarich to the community blogsphere. It takes a lot of guts for an elected official to write a blog. My hat is off to him.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mayo Bombs, Speed Humps and Squeeze Plays

The readers of this blog are pretty quick in registering their opinions about traffic calming strategies for Laurel. In the 21 hours since midnight on the 12th until about 9 pm on the 13th, 88 people read the previous blog post about traffic calming. Of those 80, about 37 people participated in the survey.

I've loaded all of the results from the survey for your reading pleasure way below. It is a bit of a chore to wade through, but there are some really interesting ideas offered in the text options. I especially liked the mayo and sniper suggestions.

Here is my initial analysis:

1/3 of us follow the traffic rules all the time. 2/3's most of the time. 2 people have lead feet. (I think one of these was my wife, Joanne. (Go get her Chief Crawford!)
60% believe we have a problem with excessive speed.
Regarding the choices for traffic calming options, I assigned 3 points for a first choice, 2 points for a second and 1 point for a third choice. Based on that algorithm, we see that we have pretty much a statistical tie for the first three options; enforce (66), impede (53), squeeze (63). Inform was pretty much rejected at 21 points.

Here are the definitions of the options:
Enforce - increase number of police/radar patrols.
Impede - build speed bumps or humps that force vehicles to slow down. Squeeze - create visual traffic choke points in the roadway that tend to limit speed. Usually thickly painted lines jutting out like islands from the curb that take away part of a lane. This tends to force traffic to maneuver towards the center-most lanes. Sometimes thin rubber pickets are used in addition to the painted lines to make an even more substantial visual choke island.
Inform - additional signage to remind drivers to slow down. For example, more speed limit signs, brightly painted signs, electronic message boards, flashing lights (like school zones) or devices that measure and display your vehicle's current speed.

1. I am:
Response Percent/Response Total
a resident of Laurel - 86.5%/32
employed in Laurel - 8.1%/3
neither,but I like to drive through Laurel - 2.7%/1
Other (please specify) -2.7%/1
1. past resident of Laurel

2. I drive the 25 mph speed limit while on residential streets:
all the time 29.7%/11
most of the time 64.9%/24
are you kidding, 25 mph is too impossibly slow 5.4%/2

3. Do you think there is a speeding problem on our residential streets?
Yes - 59.5%/22
No - 8.1%/3
I'm not sure, I need to see the data - 10.8%/4
Other (please specify) - 21.6%/8
1. Mostly Main Street (no stop signs) and I've had people pass me on Brooklyn Bridge Rd.
2. More accurate to say there is a traffic problem. Many Laurel City streets are carrying pass-thru traffic.
3. There are many safety problems on our streets, mostly due to inattentive drivers and pedestrian who don't use common sense. But even the radar on Fourth St. showed that 85% of the cars were not speeding. Slowing down the cars might help, but it won't erase all the safety problems.
4. Yes -- by a small percentage of drivers. 5. on some of our narrower streets, the average traffic is quite slow. The wider and longer streets have much faster traffic...4th street is not as big a speed problem as some - though ALL of our streets have "extreme speeders" sometimes - the most dangerous.
6. Mostly on main roads, i.e. Montrose, Montgomery, Van Dusen, Cherry Lane.
7. Only on a few streets, I believe. At "Speeding" meetings I have asked the DPW and the police department to post the results of their Fourth Street surveys twice, but neither has done so
8. yes, a few people speed excessively but most do not--it is the extreme. Also the volume of traffic is high


4. What would be your FIRST choice to reduce speeding on our residential streets? Please select only one.
enforce: write more speeding tickets - 32.4%/12
impede: speed humps or bumps - 21.6%/8
squeeze: road chokes - 35.1%/13
inform: better signage - 8.1%/3
Other? 2.7%/ 1
1. Write tickets -- xx mph over speed limit write ticket for not only speeding, also reckless driving -- impound cars for reckless driving

5. What would be your SECOND choice to reduce speeding on our residential streets? Please select only one.
enforce: write more speeding tickets - 27%/10
impede: speed humps or bumps - 32.4%/12
squeeze: road chokes - 16.2%/6
inform: better signage - 13.5%/5
Other? - 10.8%/4
1. Stop signs are the only time proven method of truly forcing vehicles to reduce speed in residential neighborhoods.
2. More speeding cameras
3. Zero tolerance on speeding tickets.
4. speed carts to display speed


6. What would be your THIRD choice to reduce speeding on our residential streets? Please select only one.
enforce: write more speeding tickets - 27.8%/10
impede: speed humps or bumps - 13.9%/5
squeeze: road chokes - 33.3%/12
inform: better signage - 5.6%/2
Other? - 19.4%/7
1. School zones with lights that flash yellow during arrival and dismissal times and "fines doubled when lights flashing" signs.
2. Raise the speed limit to 30 in residential areas.
3. neither of the other two work, road chokes on two way streets bring cars together (often dangerously ) and who cares about signs if you're going too fast to read them?
4. Snipers.
5. Local Traffic Only on some streets.
6. Do not have a third choice.
7. Squeezes and information don't work...like drivers don't know they're speeding. Please!


7. (OPTIONAL) What other comments to do you have?
1. Speed humps & bumps really slow down and in some cases damage emergency vehicles.
2. Fourth choice: Citizen enforcers armed with mayonnaise-filled balloons. Depending on the accuracy of the hurler and time between car washes, speeders should be easier to spot. If speeding tickets aren't a deterrent, maybe some incoming Hellman's would be.
3. 4th Street is not the only street that needs help. On any given week day morning I see at least 10 - 12 cars speeding down Prince George St towards Route 1. This issue should be looked at in the entire City area not just 4th street.
4. Certain speed traps around Laurel have, in the past, forced or encouraged drivers to switch from arterial roads, such as MD 198, to residential streets, such as Montrose Ave. (Just one example). I would suspect that Van Dusen Road and Cherry Lane could be made to fall into the same category.
5. Someone going 30-35 in a 25 zone is not really the problem as I see it. The problem is those cars that will be cutting through a neighborhood and go zooming by at an obviously inappropriate speed - like 45-50 on a residential block.
6. In many cases, obvious revenue raising speed traps simply generate contempt for law enforcement by everyone. Speed traps should be placed in real accident danger areas, not on straight flat stretches of high speed Interstate highways that have too slow speed limits. The contempt raised by stupid state cops generalizes down to small town police departments.
7. Huge difference between humps and bumps. Vehicles ars are designed to absorb bumps better at higher speeds, so bumps punish drivers for driving slower. Humps work opposite. I support humps and oppose bumps. I oppose allocation of taxpayer resources for ROUTINE speed trapping, either manual or automated. Speed traps are extreme measures only warranted AFTER passive observation (automated or manual) establishes that speed humps and chokes have failed.
8. Montpelier and Beltsville I would imagine have similar problems-- residential streets become thoroughfares as people begin to drive though neighborhoods to avoid Route 1, the parkway, the beltway, or the interstate. I notice the annoying speed bumps whenever I am driving to friends' houses in both areas. Why not follow their example and annoy our drivers into slowing down?
9. Main Street is a special problem. I have to cross the street at least twice daily, and even though I use the cross walks, I would guess about 50 per cent of the drivers totally ignore the crosswalks. They sometimes even increase their speed as they see me step into the cross walk. Many of the drivers are distracted on cell phones - I think that is the critical mass of ignoring a crosswalk - if you are on the cell phone, a croos walk presents too much information to process and the driver continues through without stopping, while talking a mile a minute and making hand gestures to the talker on the other end of the conversation. I think another set of traffic lights is needed between Route 1 and Route 216, say at 6th street. This may slow the traffic down. I know, I know, Main street is a "State Road" and all that - but the speeders are out of control. Everything has been tried here and nothing works. Please put two "you are traveling at --- speed" on each end of main street - this may help for now.
10. enforce works, at least it did for me. Caught going 40 mph on Sandy Spring Road a few years ago (25 mph is the speed limit) and slapped with a fine, I haven't exceeded on a city road since then.
11. I'd like to install speeding cameras on every street in Laurel, get the DMV to get people's checking account number when they register to drive, and simply deduct the fine from their account.
12. The problem is gonna get worse once the work on ICC is done.
13. humps so large they require slowing to far below the speed limit or coming to a stop aggravate me. If that's needed, lower the speed limit more. But a 30MPH road with bumps you need to take at less than 5mph...grrr. See Hyattsville for an example of this. I had a medical condition for a while that made even bumps very painful even at very slow speeds.
14. Enforcing is a temporary fix. Impeding and squeezing are permanent. Regarding signage - people can easily ignore it.
15. Enforce with more speeding tickets appeals to me the most, because others don't have to suffer, and it also comes with consequences, such as points. But I'd need to know the other costs, such as more police necessary? Taking the focus away from other crimes and crime prevention?
16. I like the bumps/lumps in the road. I use cedarbrook drive, and before the bumps went in, I rarely/never went 25. Since the bumps went in, I keep the speed down.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Q - I never exceed the speed limit, yes or no?

We all try to obey the traffic laws. Most of us drive the speed limit ... most of the time. But some of us drive way too fast ... some of the time.

The most frequently cited complaint from citizens when I was a Laurel council member was that cars were driving way too fast in their neighborhoods.

Many people agree that speeding on residential streets is a problem in Laurel. It is a problem all over the state. Small town police departments do everything possible, but putting out a permanent radar enforcement unit is almost impossible.

Unfortunately, a bill that would have allowed Montgomery and Prince George's counties to install a fleet of speed radar cameras on residential streets and in school zones died in a House committee without a vote in 2004. A bill was passed in 2005, just for Montgomery County, but not in Prince Georges County. (This is an issue to bring up with the candidates.)

Kara Weinstein has been working with the City government and her neighbors to reduce speeding on the 400 and 500 blocks of 4th Street. She writes a great article about her crusade in the comments section of this post. Click here to read her article.


I've whipped up another quick survey to explore the traffic calming problem in Laurel. Please take a few minutes to answer it. Click here to take the survey. I'll post the results here in a few days.

Your comments are always appreciated. Please send this blog link to your friends and neighbors. Thanks again for reading.

rick

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

To Blog or Not To Blog?


A couple of months ago, Steve Early from the Gazette asked me, via email, a series of questions about this blog and why I was writing it. He never used my answers. I think they were too long for a newspaper article. So I thought I would include a version of what I sent him here. As always, your questions and comments are welcome. -rick
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Why did you start blogging about Laurel?

Sometimes it is easier to know what is happening on the other side of the globe than what is going on across the street. There are thousands of news gathering organizations covering big stories around the country but only a few papers are covering stories about Laurel.

I’ve been a news hound since grade school. Local news has always been the most interesting for me. Weekly newspapers do a great job but waiting until Thursday to find out what’s going on around town just kills me. As web technologies like blogs began maturing I started to consider how they might be used to provide local news more efficiently.

I started reading Westport Now! a couple of years ago. It is a local news blog written by a team of folks in Connecticut. I emailed some questions to the founder, Gordon Joseloff, and he wrote back and explained how he created his site.


Do you have a journalism background?

I’ve never been a professional journalist. But I have always been interested in collecting and telling stories. I was trained as an engineer but I wrote for my high school newspaper and have remained curious about the craft since then. I’ve written a few articles for the Leader. They were very supportive of my rookie efforts.

I think everyone is a journalist. We all tell stories. It’s part of being human. Communities grow by the stories we tell each other.

In my next life, I would love to create long-form radio features for NPR. I plan on trying out audio files (podcasts) on my blog when I can find some time.


What is the role of a blog? How does a blog compare with the more traditional press?

It depends on what you mean by traditional press. When people mention "journalism" today, most people think about professional journalists and commercial news organizations like the Leader and the Wash Post. But long before there were professional journalists, people were telling stories around the camp fire.

Today, thousands of mainstream reporters swarm all over the big national stories. But only a couple of folks pound the pavement in Laurel. Commercial media need a large audience to generate enough advertising revenue to stay alive. Local news, features and opinion pieces are relegated to a few dedicated weeklies and an occasional story in a metro daily.

How many unique Laurel stories do you think are covered by the Post, Sun, Gazette and Leader collectively in one week? I would guess that there are less than 25 news stories published by the traditional outlets in any given week.

But how many interesting and important stories are told in Laurel's coffee shops and offices everyday? How many local stories are sent via email? Shared at PTA meetings, club meetings, schools and church events? How many are tossed over the back yard fence, front porches and over shopping carts at the super market every week? Maybe thousands?

Obviously, each story is only important to a small circle of people, but collectively they define and shape our community for that week. Blogs provide a cheap and efficient tool to narrow cast important stories for only a few people.

But blogs can even go one better than dead tree technology. Once you post a story on the blog, other people can immediately comment, telling you where you got it wrong or they can add to the story from their own perspectives. Blogs create a diverse tapestry of interactive voices and shared perspectives. In their most useful form, blogs engage their participants in a collective conversation. Conversation creates stronger bonds in a community than the more passive media of traditional newspapers, magazines, television, or radio.

Another benefit of a blog is that we can archive stories and conversations forever. And they are also easily searchable, so in the future we will be able to effortlessly turn back the clock and replay any discussion to more fully understand how we got from there to here. Imagine if bloggers commented to the Federalist Papers in 1789?

Professional journalists work hard to discover the truth. Traditional outlets are expected to be fair, to get all sides to a story, to check their facts. When a mainstream media company prints or broadcasts a story, it puts its institutional reputation on the line. When I write a story on my blog, I put my personal reputation on the line.

If somebody tells you a story in a bar, do you always believe it? Maybe your buddy on the next bar stool got his facts wrong, or simply lied to you. On a blog, the reader must be a much more critical information consumer. We need to evaluate information based on the source.


What posts have generated the largest response, either online or elsewhere?

The most interesting reaction I got was from a couple of good friends who accused me (separately) of creating a public nuisance with this blog. They were upset with me for allowing untruthful comments to be posted during the recent election. Or at least they thought the comments were untruthful.

I tried to explain that a blog is a public forum not a newspaper. I suggested that if they felt that some comments were incorrect, they should post their own views. The both declined to participate that way.

I know that some people will never be comfortable engaging in public debate for the record over the Internet. I think that the power of a community blog is that it brings sunlight into the public process. Folks who want to stay in the shadows of the backroom will find that their power is eroding. Power will shift to new leadership models leveraging a two-way public discussion of a blog.


What were you trying to accomplish with your city election coverage?

My timing for the blog was specifically planned for the Laurel elections. The only time some issues ever get any traction is in the 6 weeks preceding an election. So, like Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” I purposely ramped up the blog because elections are where the energy is.


What plans do you have for the future of the blog? How can you reach outside the traditional audience and make sure you’re not just preaching to the choir?

Not sure I want or need to reach beyond the choir. I don’t want to turn the blog into a mainstream media wanna be.

The net lets us effortlessly bind ourselves together via links. I don’t need to grow my blog’s reach at all. I have a dream where every church, PTA, club, neighborhood, business, city department and government institution has somebody collecting and sharing their unique stories via blogs. I then can easily link their stories to mine, constantly adding to and reshaping the conversation. Just like we do when we fgmeet on the street and share our stories.

I want to continue writing stories that interest me here in Old Town Laurel. I am interested in local history. I love wallowing in a good policy wonk story or deeply analyzing a budget. Traditional local weeklies can’t afford the space to really dig into a complex policy or budget story, but a blog has no limits other than my own energy.

I also want to experiment more with pictures, audio and video stories. I used to produce a few television shows for the local public access channel in Laurel. It would be interesting to adapt some of those show concepts for the blog.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use free net meeting technologies to create and distribute a public policy talk show where the panelists participate from their own homes and offices via the net. The audience would ask them questions online. I think it would be cool to do a real-time talk show over the net like this for hot local issues.
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