When close to a thousand state and local officials flock to Ocean City in mid-August at the height of vacation season, the temptation is to call it a typical waste of taxpayer dollars.
In a tradition going back at least 40 years, the annual summer conference of the Maryland Association of Counties does have plenty of socializing and schmoozing. But that’s part of the point, in conjunction with scores of serious meetings, talks and seminars.
The opportunity to “share ideas and solutions with other county officials is extraordinarily valuable,” said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, MACo’s president this year, echoing past presidents. “I think there was remarkable attendance” at the work sessions over three-and-a-half days. The weather had been gorgeous — not too hot and humid — and there was a great temptation to head to the beach.
Citizens back home believe their public officials “downy oshun” were “having fun,” Leggett said, but there was “remarkable hard work” going on the kind of topics that could bore the average taxpayers to tears except when things go wrong: infrastructure, jails, information technology, budgets, zoning, waste management.
News Breaks Out
News did break out Friday morning in a session on economic development. Most of the hundreds of people in the huge meeting room probably didn’t realize it until the next day, when they heard about the newspaper stories on Housing Secretary Ken Holt’s unforced error concerning lead-paint poisoning and landlords. It earned Holt a slapdown from Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford the next day, a stern private talk from Gov. Larry Hogan and calls for Holt’s resignation from 30 Democratic legislators.
For most in the cavernous hall, it was merely a strange anecdote of a mother poisoning her own child with a lead sinker to get free housing from a landlord. The only problem was that it wasn’t true, and the governor or his staff didn’t authorize Holt’s comments.
“I think he was a little bit off the reservation about that,” Rutherford said.
Holt’s comments were taken as further evidence that the Hogan administration doesn’t care about Baltimore and its problems.
Hogan will keep Holt on for the moment, but the principal problem with the secretary’s remarks were that he didn’t know what he was talking about. The former delegate has a background in finance, raising cattle and racing horses, but little in housing.
Holt’s comments were just a blip, sandwiched between economic development secretary Mike Gill’s always upbeat view as salesman-in-chief and more local economic development concerns.
Gill was questioned about relocating companies which sought tax incentives. Gill deflected the questions by saying Maryland needs to “do a better job with what’s in our tool box.” He made no mention of Virginia’s bigger tool box of incentives.
“If you’re looking for the cheapest guy, go somewhere else,” Gill said.
Jails Emphasize Re-Entry
The MACo seminar on local jails reflected an increasing emphasis on getting convicts ready for re-entry into society. In Prince George’s County, where 12,000 inmates a year come through its detention center awaiting trial or serving short sentences, it costs $133 to house and feed them.
“It is more cost effective to implement programs to reduce recidivism,” said Mary Lou McDonough, director of corrections. The focus is on housing, addiction counseling and getting a job for every inmate who leaves the Prince George’s jail.
Howard County Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh gave a presentation on the county’s successful program with similar approaches that involve cooperation between several county agencies, such as the health department.
Stephen Moyer, Hogan’s secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, pledged his full support for the county efforts. His department includes the division of Parole and Probation, which supervises some prisoners after they leave jail. Moyer, a retired state police lieutenant colonel with experience in juvenile justice, is in charge of pulling off one of the governor’s most daring moves, the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), announced abruptly last month.
The decrepit and corruption-plagued Baltimore detention center, unlike the local jails in the rest of the state, is the only urban jail in the country run by a state.
Some of its 11 buildings date back to the Civil War, and Moyer’s department has now moved more than 1,000 detainees and other prisoners to other state run facilities in and near Baltimore.
Closing the City Jail
In announcing the move, Hogan sounded a lot like the “Do It Now”governor, William Donald Schaefer. He criticized his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, and other officials for not acting sooner.
“Frankly I cannot understand why this action did not happens years ago,” Hogan said, calling it “one of the biggest failures of leadership in the history of Maryland.”
“The Baltimore City Detention Center has been a black eye for our state for too long,” he said, perhaps “the worst prison in America,” a jail run by inmate gangs that became a “late night talk show punchline.”
Hogan piled derision on top of criticism: “Dangerous not only for workers, but the individuals housed here,” “structurally unfit,” “a disgrace and its conditions are horrendous,” “shameful,” etc.
But even this jail-closing has earned Hogan criticism from state and local officials who weren’t consulted about the move, including Sens. Ed DeGrange of Anne Arundel County and Guy Guzzone of Howard, who co-chaired a 2013 legislative task force on the Baltimore jail.
“Consistently, the governor has circumvented the Legislature, rather than working together to find bipartisan and consensus-driven solutions,” the two Democratic senators said in a statement. “Our bipartisan commission spent long hours reviewing the facility needs of BCDC in order to develop a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the facility and would have been able to provide input into this process.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing that the governor is making large scale decisions behind closed doors and without input of others,” DeGrange and Guzzone said.
Hogan dismissed the criticism and even said he didn’t read their report, but others in the administration did. In fact, Chris Shank, the head of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, served on the commission.
O’Malley, in the early days of his administration, closed the House of Correction, in Jessup, moving all the prisoners in secret after a correctional officer was murdered there. There was little criticism of the move at the time, but then O’Malley did not criticize others for not closing the 19th century prison.
While many praised Hogan’s closing of the long-troubled jail, his manner was deemed yet another instance of Hogan dissing Baltimore. In a year from now, if the closure winds up being a success, the critics lose a talking point.
Kittleman on the Dems
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman told Republicans at their Lincoln Day dinner in late July that he had “the best job in the world.”
But Kittleman used the partisan venue to take some swipes at the Democratic council members who overrode his veto of their ban on sugary drinks and snack foods. He said his veto was about “personal responsibility and freedom.”
“If you want to buy a Coke, buy it,” he said.
He also a took a few swipes at his predecessor, Democratic County Executive Ken Ulman, telling the audience, “I think you would be appalled” at some of the action taken in the last days of the administration, including a real estate purchase on Route 1.
And in the context of the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and efforts to remove the Confederate flag around the country, Kittleman noted, “The Republican Party is not the segretationist party.” He pointed out that Democrats are thinking of changing the name of their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner (named after presidents who were slaveholders and Jackson, who drove Indians out of the deep South).
“We don’t have to change our name,” Kittleman told the Lincoln dinner.