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Saturday, December 2, 2017

U.S. Constitutional Amendments Needed Now

George Wenschhof
Today, it is painfully obvious a serious nationwide discussion is needed on election reform where we engage voters to hear their preference on areas that have significant impact.
Establishing a nonpartisan method for redistricting, meaningful campaign finance reform, popular vote versus the Electoral College, primary caucus voting versus secret balloting, online voting, ballots by mail, the determination of the order of the states in presidential primaries, the length of the primary and general elections, term limits and the role of the media in elections should be included in the discussion.
The descent of American politics into tribal warfare has contributed to the congressional gridlock we experience today.  States and cities are described as “Red” or “Blue” depicting either the Republican or Democratic Party. Local communities are divided as never before and friendships are now tested by extreme partisan politics. This begs the question “will American democracy survive?”  This dysfunctional approach to governing did not occur overnight so expect the solutions to this self defeating culture to also take time.
Sadly, finding the solutions to the issues we face as a society has deteriorated into a “my way or the highway” approach in Congress.
Health Care legislation is a good recent example of the clannish approach to governing that has taken hold in the United States.  The U. S. was the only developed country who did not view health care as a right and not a privilege until The Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010.
After The Affordable Care Act was passed in the Senate, the House voted 219-212 on March 21, 2010 to approve with all 178 Republicans voting against it.
Seven years of obstructionism and countless attempts to repeal by congressional Republicans would follow and in May of this year the House passed The American Health Care Act with a vote of 217-213 with all 193 Democrats opposed. The bill has been sent to the Senate and its defeat was the result of Republican Party infighting.

Tax reform legislation is the latest example with the Senate passing their version with a 51-49 vote along partisan lines with only one Republican senator opposed.
These illustrations of the extreme partisan approach to governing taking place today in America are difficult to absorb. Moderation and compromise have become mostly obsolete traits in members of congress. It is difficult to argue this pendulum swing approach to governing on serious domestic and foreign policy is conducive to moving the country forward.
Thankfully, the founders of the constitution provided mechanisms to amend the document, when the need arose. The process is rightfully not easy, resulting in only 27 amendments since the constitution was ratified in 1789 with the first 10 of them, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified by the first congress in 1791.
An amendment can be proposed by the Congress with two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and Senate voting in favor of it. Or, two-thirds of the state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment. States have never voted to call for a new constitutional convention.
To be ratified an amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or Congress can direct the states to establish special ratifying conventions to consider the proposed amendment with again three-fourths approval needed.
Since the passage of The Bill of Rights, only 17 constitutional amendments have been passed out of over 11,500 that have been introduced over 226 years.
It is interesting to note that out of these 17 amendments, 11 are associated with the United States election process.  In 1870, the 15th amendment prohibited the denial of vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.  In 1920, the 19th amendment prohibited the denial of their right to vote based on sex.   

The 22nd amendment approved in 1951, limits the terms for President to two and in 1971, an amendment I benefited from, allowed an 18 year old to vote.

All the way back in 1804, the 12th amendment established the Electoral College as the manner to elect the president.  Since that time the electoral vote and popular vote have produced the same presidential election results except on 4 occasions; 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016.

Perhaps, the top issue contributing to the acerbic and vitriolic manner exhibited by many members of Congress is how redistricting is conducted today.
Population changes reported by the census every 10 years become the justification for redistricting, a task handled by state legislatures in 36 states. Seven states have only one representative, due to the size of their population. The remaining states use an independent or bipartisan commission, with a few of those states retaining state legislative approval.
This has led to the inverse of what we want in a democracy.  Instead of voters picking their representatives, politicians are picking their voters. Extremists from the two major political parties who have been elected to these “safe seats” are mostly driven by ideology and not pragmatic thought.
The out of control cost of elections is another area that must be addressed.  The Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission essentially found that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. This allows corporations and unions to spend money to support or criticize candidates.  Today, elected members of congress spend a third of their time in office raising funds instead of representing their voters. 
Meaningful redistricting and campaign fundraising reform along with other changes proposed by voters coming after a nationwide discussion must be enacted through constitutional amendments to have meaningful effect.
Naysayers will say passing constitutional amendments to establish election reform will never happen. To save the democracy we all love and cherish, it has happened in the past and it must happen again.
Let’s hope the discussion begins soon!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Time to Consider 25th Amendment?

George Wenschhof

George Wenschhof
The irrational, irresponsible and totally unacceptable actions coming from the occupant of the White House clearly illustrate Mr. Trump is temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to serve as president of The United States. 

It is frightening to consider the further damage Mr. Trump can do over the next three plus years to American representative democracy.

The extreme damage Trump has already done and can do is so severe, it may be time for the vice president, cabinet and congress to step up to exercise their powers provided in the constitution to replace the president, for the good of the nation.

Section 4 of the 25th amendment of the U.S. constitution outlines procedures for the removal of a president deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

It only takes the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to decide that a president is no longer fit. After the House and Senate are notified, the vice president is able to take office as acting president.

If Trump would protest to the House and Senate and there is no doubt he would, he is reinstated until another vote is taken by the vice president and the Cabinet declaring him unfit. Afterward, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate is required to determine the permanent removal of the president.

Espousing reckless and incendiary language that has put the United States on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, an action that would result in the loss of millions of lives, demonstrates Trump is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

Add to that, an at times incomprehensible and combative recent press conference where Trump defended white supremacists in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Meanwhile, there are multiple ongoing investigations of the collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia and their efforts to influence the 2016 election. The firing of F.B.I. director James Comey and verbal threats of their jobs by Mr. Trump directed at special counsel Robert Mueller and attorney general Jeff Sessions have also been appalling coming from the president. His actions deserve the scrutiny of obstruction of justice charges.

Dismissing and defending his son’s acceptance of a meeting with Russian operatives, ostensibly for the purpose of receiving negative information on secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her campaign is simply mind boggling.

Further telling is that in six short months, there have been three White House press secretaries who have come and gone, unable to effectively provide cover for the failings of the president. Now, after many high level executives resigned following the disgusting language by Mr. Trump defending white hate groups, the White House has announced the much lauded Council of American Manufacturing has been disbanded.

Understandably, members of the president’s cabinet and staff who do not want to be associated with a bigoted and unstable leader are also seriously contemplating resignation. 

The inability of Mr. Trump to understand and effectively project American democracy across the United States and worldwide combined with his incapacity to comprehend how congress operates are major compelling reasons to consider taking action now.

Exercising the 25th Amendment is not an action that should be taken often or without serious thought. Yet this Amendment exists for times like this when it is painfully obvious the elected president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

American representative democracy is being tested as never before. At the very least, it is past time for congress to step up to exercise their check and balance powers with the executive branch.

Stay tuned.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Wilson City Alderman Candidacy Raises Concerns

George Wenschhof
Roger Wilson
I recently sat down with Democrat Roger Wilson to discuss his run for alderman in The City of Frederick election this year.
In 2014 he ran for state delegate in district 3-a. I interviewed Roger several times and found him to be affable with a strong desire to serve in elected office.  While, I supported his candidacy, I had opined Democrats Karen Young and Carol Krimm would likely prevail in the Democratic primary and win in the general.  I would be correct.
After Democratic candidate Jan Gardner would win the Frederick County executive contest also held in 2014, she would appoint Roger to a new position serving as government policy/affairs and liaison to work with government entities.
I would write columns on Gardner’s appointments, Changes in Personnel Rules Needed to Cover Gardner Appointments dated 12-5-2014 and Is Gardner Overreaching Her Authority? on 12-11-2014.
Basically, this position, along with a handful of other at-will plum positions were created and filled by supporters of the county executive before personnel changes had been made or the county council had approved.
I expressed to Roger the concerns about conflicts of interest he would face working as a high salaried at-will employee for the county executive and serving city voters when city-county issues would come before the board of alderman. Rumors had been deliberately circulated Roger would be running for mayor and I also asked him why he chose to run for alderman instead.
He indicated he had discussed staying in his position while running and serving, (should he win election), with county attorney John Mathias and had decided to run for alderman.
When I asked Roger if he would inform the voters he would recuse himself from the vote when it came to city-county issues, Roger would tell me “it is a little early to say that, adding I am not elected yet.”  I would say I felt it was important for voters to know his position on potential conflicts of interest prior to casting their ballot in the election.
When I spoke to county attorney Mathias, he told me he had informed Roger he could run for either position but it would be problematic to serve as mayor and stay in his current position.  Mathias would tell me he had reviewed the state constitution and the ethics ordinances in both the city and county and did not see where Mr. Wilson could not run.  However, he did say there may be occasions, should Roger be elected, he would have to recuse himself from the vote.
On November 24, 2014, I would publish Growth Battles Continue with Young Appointment.  I questioned the legality of Republican Board of County Commissioner president Blaine Young, who had lost the county executive race to Jan Gardner, being appointed to the Planning Commission while still serving as county commissioner.  County Attorney Mathias would defend the legality of this action to me in a phone interview.  I would opine "But, when looking at the appointment of commissioner Blaine Young to the planning commission, the state constitution spells out a person cannot hold two positions in which they receive compensation.  A planning commission member does receive a small amount of compensation.”
This appointment received opposition and intense legal scrutiny that was followed by Blaine Young resigning from his position on the Planning Commission.
I asked former president of the Board of County Commissioners and Maryland state delegate Democrat Galen Clagett how he viewed the city alderman candidacy of Roger Wilson while he was in an at-will position serving at the pleasure of county executive Jan Gardner.
Clagett responded by saying "Roger should have stayed out of the race. He has a problem, a real problem. It is a sticky wicket. There is a potential conflict of interest for him, especially in water/sewer issues, fire/rescue issues, tax equity.  I do not see a problem with him running necessarily, but I see a problem with him serving."
Local columnist Harry M. Covert told me "for a county official to seek a city aldermanic seat is opening a questionable matter. I believe this candidacy could well end up in court.”
Covert added "No doubt Mr. Wilson wants to serve. However if he wants to be successful he should resign his county post and put all of his time and talent seeking the city post."
I share the concerns expressed by Galen Clagett and agree with Mr. Covert, that Roger Wilson should resign from his county appointed position.  City voters would then be able to clearly hear his views on issues that matter to them.  A campaign distracted with legal challenges and concerns about conflicts of interest will not serve Mr. Wilson or the voters well as he campaigns for city alderman.
Stay tuned.
Editor’s Note: The City of Frederick primary election will be held September 12, 2017 and the general election November 7, 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Stealth-Like City Election

George Wenschhof
George Wenschhof
What if you held a municipal election and no one voted?  Well, The City of Frederick has been doing this for quite some time.  The city averages less than 25% turnout in the general election when everyone can vote regardless of political party affiliation.  The turnout is so low that the winning mayoral candidate receives a little over 4,000 votes and this in a city that likes to boast they are the second largest city in the state of Maryland with a population over 70,000.
The joke on the street is the only way you can tell the city is having an election is to hear the announcement by Jennifer Dougherty, she is running for mayor.  She has been running for mayor in every election since 1993, only skipping the 1997 election.  She has run as a Democrat and an Independent and did manage to win once out of the six times she has run to obtain the distinction of being the first woman mayor of Frederick.
However, she performed so poorly and alienated so many voters she would become the first incumbent Democratic mayor to be challenged in her own party primary election where she would lose to former four-term Democratic mayor Ron Young.
Not known as a team player, she has never endorsed or supported the Democratic candidate who wins the party mayoral nomination. This has resulted in a Republican mayoral win in a city where Democratic voters hold a solid majority.  Her unwillingness to support the Democratic nominee led her to run as an Independent in the 2013 election, but the result was the same, another loss.
Now in 2017, Jennifer is at it for the seventh time and back running as a Democrat.  Along the way since 1993 she added two more losses, one a county commissioner campaign and the other a congressional campaign.  All in all, her record is 1-8 and there are no indications to believe it will not be 1-9 after this year’s city election. Not known to be overly friendly, she has yet to discover the number one reason voters cast a ballot for a candidate; "They like them."
Lackluster and leaderless describes best Republican mayor Randy McClement, the beneficiary of the Democratic infighting.  He will be running again, hopeful for a third term.
Two term Democratic alderman Michael O’Connor has also announced his is running for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor.  However, his biggest challenge will be to demonstrate how he would be better than the mayor he consistently supported over the last seven plus years and how to overcome being labeled "McClement-like."
Other mayoral candidates will likely come forward on the Democratic side because of the perceived weakness in the two announced Democratic candidates.
Less than a handful of aldermen candidates have announced so far, partly because there is no need to announce early to campaign when so few voters participate in the election.  The deadline to register as a candidate is July 3, 2017.
The solution to a higher turnout and engagement by voters is simple and cost effective.  Move the city election to coincide with the presidential election.  This move would result in tripling the voter participation and reduce the cost the city wastes on a special election.  With this move, polling locations would stay the same for voters and they would not have to experience the hodgepodge polling locations that include churches the city uses today. This only adds to voter confusion and lower voter turnout.
The opposition to this change, including mayoral candidate O’Connor use the lame excuse, "we only want informed voters."  A phrase reminiscent of the poll tax and exams required in years past to limit voter turnout of “some” people.
Interestingly, I recently asked someone who believed this position: "Do you think voters who participate in the state and county elections are informed voters?"  Their answer was a quick “yes”.  Hmm, the state/county election has many more elected positions than the city election would have when combined with the presidential election.  In addition, I always ask, "How do you determine who is an informed voter?"  I suppose their answer would be "they voted for me."
Instead of the city election being lost in the hubbub of the presidential election, the opposite would take place with more interest among voters generated in the city election.
Another change needed to engage voters across the city would be to move to electing the aldermen from districts and to end the current at-large approach.  This would help ensure representation of all communities in city hall. Changing the name board of alderman to city council would be another helpful move.
The city is no longer the small town when I was a boy with a population of 20,000.  Much has changed and the city always destined to grow, primarily because of its strategic location in the state, has indeed grown. It has become a vibrant destination point and a place where you not only want to raise you family; you also want to retire here.
Let’s continue this positive growth by changing the city election date to coincide with the presidential election and by electing council members by representative districts across the city. This needed change is past due.
The primary election will be held on September 12, 2107 and the general election will be held on November 7, 2017.
Stay tuned.