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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Weir Wants More Public Input on Downtown Hotel

George Wenschhof

Jane Weir recently agreed to my request for an interview about her concerns about the proposed downtown hotel/conference center located along Carroll Creek in the historic district of The City of Frederick.

A quick and brief history of this project is the idea to have a hotel located in the historic district of The City of Frederick has been around for over 30 years.  In fact, it was during the time Maryland state senator Ron Young (D) was mayor, all those years ago, the thought to build a downtown hotel was discussed for the first time.  It was at this time Young would embrace the idea to build the downtown flood control project and develop the adjoining property similar to San Antonio’s acclaimed River Walk.

Decades later, with the flood control project mostly complete, development has finally begun to take place along Carroll Creek. There is currently a mix of residential and commercial buildings. As is the case of many commercial developments, which are subject to economic whims, there has been some turnover with opening and closings of restaurants since the buildings were first built.

Since being elected mayor, Mayor Randy McClement (R) made the building of a downtown hotel/conference center the signature project of his administration.  The idea of a hotel/convention center was scrapped years ago when it was realized the infrastructure was just not there and would be too difficult to create to provide support such a large venue.  Since that time, hotel/conference center has been used.

Mayor McClement has found the going tough as he has attempted to move this project forward. Four years ago, I published a column after the city aldermen had voted to approve a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) with the state stadium authority for the amount of $1 million toward the building of a downtown hotel/conference center.  A MOU is often used by municipalities to put forward a funding request to the state legislature.

At that time, there was no site selected, no builder identified and no agreement on what the city incentives would be, including who would own the land after the hotel/conference center was built.

In my column four years ago, Maryland state delegate Galen Clagett (D) would advocate for an increase in the hotel tax and for the city to own the land where the hotel would be built.

At that time, Ron Young, who is now a Maryland state senator told me “asking county hotels to pay for competition does not make sense to me and he would not support it.”  The hotel tax increase would not pass.

Today, the site has been identified, a developer identified and a new “Memorandum of Understanding” with the state stadium authority has been approved by the city aldermen. The project is now being billed a public/private venture with nearly 50% of the financing coming from government funding sources which includes a raise of the county hotel tax and the use of a tax incremental funding (T.I.F.) district for the project.

I asked Jane, who lives in Middletown with her husband, why she was raising questions about the proposed hotel/conference center when she doesn’t live here. I also asked her what first got her involved in interacting with government, adding I had often seen a personal experience get someone involved in advocating for or against something.

Jane said her first frustrating experience with government was with the approval over a year ago of the Valley School adjacent to the home where she and her husband live in Middletown.  Se told me by the time she was aware of what was happening, it was too late for her impact the approval. 

Jane said me she and her husband moved to Frederick County over 15 years ago and feels Frederick is beautiful, adding “it is what made us move here. In regard to her questions surrounding the proposed hotel/conference center she added “we pay county and state taxes that will go toward this”.

Jane would tell me she felt this would impact everyone including the small business owners in the historic district who make it so special.

She first became aware of the proposed hotel/conference center when she saw a rendering of the project on Facebook.  Jane told me “I was shocked and did not like it!”

Jane said she wrote a message to Frederick County executive Jan Gardner (D) on her Facebook page saying she was really concerned about this, adding “it is scary looking”.

Since then, Jane said she has had a frustrating experience dealing with elected officials and staff when she has tried to get information on the details of what is being proposed to be built and the Memorandum of Understanding recently agreed to by the city aldermen.

Jane said she had read a great book entitled “Convention Center Follies” written by Heywood T. Sanders where he debunks how convention centers will spur urban economic development. She had communicated with elected officials asking them to read this book and was discouraged when she did not receive a response.

Jane told me she would reach out to several people including Janice Wiles, former director of “Friends of Frederick County”, Kim Mellon, and Jack Lynch a former candidate for mayor and aldermen, to help her set up a Facebook page so she could get information out to the public.  She was concerned others would find out too late, just as she had in regard to the approval process for the Valley School next to her home.

When I informed her, the city must have had workshops on this subject prior to voting for approval, she said the workshops were during the day and questioned how many people could attend them.

When I asked her what she did not like about the project, Jane said “the location is bad, that out of the 6 potential sites I read about, this one is the least desirable”.  She would add she felt it was too close to the historic district, and the large imposing design would dominate the area. She is also concerned about potential of it being a toxic site and questioned whether taxpayers would be responsible to remediate the site.  In addition, Jane was concerned the outcome of structures on the proposed site, one of which had been used by for a Tannery.

I would conclude the interview by asking her “What would you like to see at this point?”  Jane said she would like to see the process slow down. She added “I would like to see a process where the general public in the city and county could have an open dialogue with a public question and answer forum”. 

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


George Wenschhof
budotis.fwThe time went by quickly recently when I sat down with Frederick County council president Bud Otis (R).  In fact, I ran over by fifteen minutes the hour he had set aside for my interview.
We spoke about a lot of issues ranging from his 12 years as chief of staff for former Maryland district 6 Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R), to the proposed ethics ordinance, growth, education, and his relationship with other council members.
While we were not able to cover in depth all of the issues we discussed or even get to all of the issues I wanted to discuss, it was obvious he wants to provide good service to his constituents.  Otis told me this is a carry over of what he often found himself doing during his years working with Congressman Bartlett.
Interestingly, his election as president of the council came with the support of the three Democrats on the council with the other three Republicans supporting council member Billy Shreve (R).
Otis told me he had received close to 4,000 more votes than Shreve, but it was Shreve who was a former member of the board of county commissioners who wanted to be president of the council.
Obviously, a deal was reached where the Democrats on the council would support Otis and Democrat M.C. Keegan-Ayer would become vice president.
I mentioned to him voters were tired of the polarizing politics of Washington and Otis told me “It is not going to be polarizing here.  I’m not going to let it happen”.  He added “voters did not bring us here to argue every day; they elected us to get things done”.
I mentioned the majority of the 4-3 votes to date had found him voting with the Democrats. I added this was likely in part to the previous feud between Jan Gardner (D) and Republicans Blaine Young, Billy Shreve and Kirby Delauter.
I also brought up the recent council vote where an applicant was first approved for a county hook up for subdivision purposes and then later another vote was taken and the applicant was denied.  The applicant received testimony from former Maryland state delegate Galen Clagett on their behalf. Otis said he believed what had been presented and cast his vote in approval.  Later, after receiving information from county staff that provided contrary information, Otis brought the matter back for a vote and changed his vote to deny the applicant.  Otis told me “I did what I thought was right”.
We agreed it was no secret Clagett and Gardner did not share affection for each other.
The implementation of charter government in Frederick County saw the voters elect Jan Gardner (D) over Blaine Young (R) as county executive. They would also elect Republican holdovers from the former board of commissioners Shreve and Delauter.
I stated some of the differences today come from their relationship with Gardner.  I asked if their role as former commissioner and now as a council member also contributed to some differences.  Otis said yes, previously they had administrative responsibilities and now they are a member of the legislative body.  He added when he would discuss the implementation of charter with others who had changed to charter earlier in the state, this was a common issue that would come up with council members who had previously served as a county commissioner.
Bud said “I meet with executive Gardner every Thursday to hash out issues and I have an open door policy with the other council members”.  He added he has reached out to council members Shreve and Delauter and told them he is willing to meet with them as needed.
I asked Bud “What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment in the first year of charter?” and he said “laying down the foundation of how the council will operate”.  He told me there was very little of a blueprint from the charter document so they needed to set up policies and procedures to get the government up and running.  Otis added, “It was important to set up how to process Bills, make amendments and get Bills passed”.
During my interview I also brought up the do-over vote for the Monrovia Town Center, the proposed Ethics Bill, impact fees, education and the budget.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to discuss these issues in depth.
Otis declined to go into depth in regard to the action to re-hear the approval process of the Monrovia Town Center development, referring me to a letter (this letter was sent to me after the interview) he and council members M.C. Keegan-Ayer, Jessica Fitzwater and Jerry Donald had written.  He did add “I want this (the new review) to be an open and transparent process”.
In regard to the proposed Ethics Bill, I brought up that council member Delauter’s company doing work with the county had been an issue among many and Otis told me the bill “would not allow a council member to contract with the county.  However, a council member’s company could be a subcontractor”.  He added “the subpoena power of the council was left in the bill and citizens have a right to know their elected officials are above reproach”.
When I brought up the budget process and in particular education, Otis asked his assistant to provide me the calendar.  I received this after the interview and notice the council receives the budget from the executive in April and will approve in May.
I did ask Otis about the recent flap over the hiring of a budget analyst for the council to help them with the budget review.  He said since there was not consensus over the hiring of a former budget director, who since has removed himself from consideration, the job was being advertised as a short term position.
I followed up asking if he felt the council should take a look at how other councils in the state had organized their staffs and propose an organization chart for the council. Otis said no, he was concerned with the cost of staff, was pleased with the aides the council members have at present and did not want to add full time staff.
In regard to education, Otis said “I have a strong commitment to the school system and I am concerned Frederick County teacher salaries are rated so low in the state”.
Otis also has concerns for the small local home builder when it comes to the proposed increase in impact fees by executive Gardner, but is committed to construction of additional schools to relieve over crowded schools such as Hillcrest Elementary.  He added he is hopeful he will be able to announce a favorable outcome to this issue in the near future.
I concluded by asking him what were his goals for the next three years.  He told me “I want to make sure the county has a solid financial foundation, expand job opportunities, reduce the number of commuters, make sure teachers are paid right, that new schools are built as needed and to make sure the growth we get is done at the right pace”.
Stay tuned.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Racheff Ready to Undertake Frederick County Comprehensive Plan Update

George Wenschhof

First time elected Frederick County executive Jan Gardner (D) after spending her first year in office undoing many of the legislative actions undertaken by the previous board of county commissioners led by Blaine Young (R), has now turned her attention to an update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

How to manage growth in Frederick County, Maryland has been the main issue dominating local politics for more than two decades.

Gardner has called this Comprehensive Plan update process “Livable Frederick” and has appointed 13 members to a committee chaired by Jim Racheff.  Over the next two years, the committee is charged with developing a comprehensive plan for the county.

I sat down with Mr. Racheff recently for what turned out to be a lengthy interview to go over how he viewed the upcoming process.  Racheff is a local businessman who, as a result of being a strong Gardner supporter, was named by her to lead her transition effort after she won election. Now she has asked him to lead this effort.

Concerned over this long term pendulum swing on how best to manage growth in Frederick County, I wrote a column 2 years ago, prior to the 2014 election entitled “When will the pendulum swing stop in Frederick County?”   In that column I wrote about how the down zoning of properties by the Gardner board of commissioners had led to the election of Blaine Young who in turn rezoned many county properties.  His actions led to the election of Jan Gardner as the first Frederick County executive.

I asked Jim if this process would be a repeat of what has taken place previously. He said “I understand the process will be politically charged, of course.  I believe the way to address this is to be open and genuine”. 

He added “I want the committee to set a new tone and direction at how we look at developing a sustainable community.  I don’t care what Jan and Blaine did. I just want to do something right. This is not about fighting old battles.”

Racheff told me the comprehensive plan update is require by state law every ten years and this process does not change zoning.  It is an overlay of the county and it is the planning commission and ultimately the county council who will determine zoning.

At the end of two years the committee will present their update to county executive Gardner who can make any changes she wishes prior to presenting to the planning commission for their input. Finally, the comprehensive plan update will be presented to the county council for approval.

New to the update process is new guidance from the American Planning Association on how to deal with the unintended negative side effects of past planning.

As a result of this, Racheff said their goal will be to develop a community vision process by talking to residents to find out what they would like to see.  They will also be using new analytic tools to help understand demographics, transportation and other variables.  In other words there will be data to support the recommendations of the committee.

They also intend to use social media to receive input and feedback as they proceed over the next two years.  They already have a Facebook page and website

Racheff also would like to see the committee bring in some outside professionals to help with presentations and with outreach to the community.

He said the name “livable” should reflect community interests on how issues such as public health, changes in work environment, transportation and employment impact the quality of life.

Jim also told me “the focus should be on the desire to have a prosperous community, not a big or small one”.  Furthermore, he would like to “provide more predictability so both sides (on growth) can be satisfied”.

The first meeting of the committee will be open to the public and held on January 22 at the Browning Building in Pinecliff Park from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.

Racheff concluded with “Let’s move forward, not back and forth.  It’s time to end the pendulum swing.  My goal is whatever comes out of this comprehensive plan update process is something we all believe is a good outcome”.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Rise of Trump Highlights Need for Electoral Reform

George Wenschhof

The opening lyrics of the song entitled “For What It’s Worth” written by Stephen Stills in 1966 were “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear” is apropos again today.

The absurdity of a charlatan like Republican businessman Donald Trump receiving credible consideration of being elected as president painfully illustrates the need to review the process used to determine who will hold the highest elected office in the United States.

Reviewing how campaigns are covered by the press, how candidates are nominated by political parties and a president elected is long over do.

The present day obsession of the mainstream media with Mr. Trump clearly shows how media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is driven by their need to sustain high viewer ratings in what has become a very competitive and lucrative news market in America

Billionaires with right and left wing political ideologies have made the media their latest business investment as they try to manipulate politics in America.

Taking a look at the campaign expenditures by Republicans candidates shows Trump who is by far and away the leader among Republican candidates in all polls, has “only” spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars. While the Jeb Bush campaign has spent $41 million with the Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Senator Marco Rubio (Fla.) campaigns all exceeding $20 million.

It is not difficult to connect the media saturation coverage of the Trump campaign to his lead in the polls.

The mainstream print media and television coverage is treating the election of the president of the United States as a TV Reality Show, enabling a Flim-Flam man like Donald Trump to be given serious consideration.

While, the press coverage of the 2016 presidential election is dubious, to say the least, the amount of money allowed to be spent by candidates and their surrogate political action committees is totally out of control.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” ruling paved the way for the unlimited spending in what has become an unfathomable $2 Billion and two year race for president.

In the European Union (EU), many countries do not permit paid for television or radio advertisement by candidates.  The fear is wealthy groups could gain control of the airways during an election and fair play would be impossible.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, paid advertisement is forbidden with advertising by candidates restricted to weeks prior to the election.  An idea many Americans would gladly embrace.

There are major issues pertaining to mainstream media that need to be addressed in U.S. elections.  One is equal time being given to all candidates by news coverage and another is limiting the impact of big money on the media in elections.

How candidates are nominated by their political parties and the process for a candidate to appear on the ballot are more questions that deserve scrutiny.

In what has become a two year process to become elected president, the nominating process by the Democratic and Republican political parties is confusing, to say the least.

“Why another viable and competitive political party has not emerged in the United States?” is another question voters across the country ask.  Ross Perot was the last presidential candidate who created a viable third party. At the Billionaire’s expense he took on the herculean task of overcoming the roadblocks to get on the ballot in all states by developing the Reform Party.  His entry in the 1992 election is widely attributed to Democrat Bill Clinton’s victory over George H. W. Bush.

Clinton would win only 43% of the popular vote but capture 370 of the 538 electoral votes, more than enough to be elected president.

In the General Election, there are 538 electoral votes divvied up among the 50 states with 270 needed by a candidate to claim victory.

“Why doesn’t the majority vote determine who is president?” is another question posed by many and the common answer again is that is the way it has always been.

In the primary election, Iowa and New Hampshire, two states whose voters are hardly representative of voters across the country start off the nominating process in February of the election year.  No solid reason, again it’s just become tradition.

With media coverage dominating the election, how well a candidate does in these two early states can either catapult the candidate to front runner status or end a candidate’s hopes.

In addition, not all states hold a traditional secret ballot voting system and instead hold a open caucus which can take up to a few hours of time by a voter to participate in a very open manner. Everyone sees how everyone else is voting with the chance to even change their vote after much discussion prior to the caucus vote being recorded.

Caucuses, as you might imagine, bring out the most engaged voter with only 5.4% of the registered voters in Iowa participating in the 2012 primary.  It is mind blowing such a miniscule number of voters can have such a major impact on the nominating process for president of the United States.

Brokered or open conventions are a thing of the past and today The Republican and Democratic parties both have a primary system that involves candidates winning delegates assigned to each state.  How a candidate wins those delegates differ with some states holding a caucus election and other holding a traditional ballot election.

Democrats and Republicans would first both use a winner take all process, where whoever won the primary would receive all of the delegates assigned to that state.

Later, Democrats would split the delegates proportional to the vote by each of their candidates and eventually evolve in what they believe is a more fair two step proportional system where so many delegates are split among candidates by total vote in the state and so many delegates are split among candidates by congressional district.

However, Democrats wary of the popular vote, maintain some of the party boss rule of the early brokered convention days, by including superdelegates in the mix.  These unpledged delegates are elected members of the House, Senate, state Governors, the Democratic National Committee and party leaders. They can sway a close election.

Republicans, traditionally slow to change, would embrace the proportional system and leave the winner take all system in the 2012 election.

Further convoluting the primary election is states use different systems to determine who can vote.  There are open primaries (anyone can vote regardless of the political affiliation), closed primaries (only persons who are registered in the party of the candidate can vote), semi-open primaries (anyone can vote but those registered in the major opposition party – that would be either a Republican or Democrat) and semi-closed (voters must be a member of the party of the candidate or a Undeclared voter).

After writing all of this, I have still not covered all of the particulars of how America elects their president. It leaves even this writer’s head spinning.

Some have even suggested a fairly simple solution to the primary process by going to a one day national primary election day.  Others have suggested shortening the primary election process to 4 dates within one month with each date having the same number of delegates up for grabs.

When it finally comes to the General Election, the average voter turnout has averaged around 37-40%.

A few changes are afoot with some western states going to an auto registration voter system. Some states have embracing a vote by mail system and early voting.

But a uniformed, fair and easy process has yet to evolve in America.

Shortening the presidential election time period, creating a more uniformed voting system, limiting the period advertisement can be used by candidates, giving all candidates equal media access, and getting big money out of politics is not only an admirable goal but a necessary one.

Voters should demand the next President commission a nonpartisan study to recommend much needed changes in how Americans elect their president.

Stay tuned.