Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Friday, April 07, 2006

Thoughts on Wednesday’s Candidates Forum

Both local Republican bloggers have posted their thoughts on Wednesday’s candidates forum (HoCoMD Blog and Dave Wissing). It was a pleasure finally connecting faces with my fellow local bloggers and I hope the fourth county blogger, HayDuke, gets to join the fun next time. I want to thank Barry Tevelow and his fellow organizers from for doing such a great job and giving the public an early look at the candidates.

I arrived late because I was coming from the Downtown Columbia Focus Group meeting and thus arrived about halfway into the county exec candidates forum. Apparently I missed some controversy the Republican bloggers have been talking about regarding Ken Ulman responding to some audience member rolling their eyes at Ken when he was talking about the cancer foundation his family set up after his brother survived cancer. Now I wasn’t there, but I think any one of us who has seen a loved one go through a life threatening illness might want to respond to someone blowing that off with an eye roll. So I don’t understand what all the fuss is about other than some person in the audience clearly hasn’t been through such an awful experience.

As for the issues, shortly after I came in Chris Merdon was saying “You have to lead by example” and “in the public sector you have to manage the public”. The first comment may seem like one of the normal bland statements made by candidates and overpaid motivational speakers, but I guess I had the Monday smoking ban maneuvering on my mind when he said that. I just don’t see how he squares the blatant political maneuvering going on there with leading by example. As for the second comment my impression is that the public doesn’t like being managed. Just look at the downtown Columbia stuff for evidence of that.

I was surprised to hear Merdon say that county executive will be the last office he runs for. For someone as young as Chris I just have a hard time believing that. I think all politicians have ambitions and very few do the George Washington thing. In fact, Washington’s Presidency was even his return to politics after he had previously said he was done after the Revolutionary War.

Of course the above did not surprise me nearly as much as when Chris said that when we talk about agricultural preservation what people are really talking about is preserving open space. I wonder what Howard County’s farmers and their families think of that? I think of agricultural preservation as preserving a way of life, a way of providing for a family’s livelihood, and preserving part of our culture and county’s character. Sometimes something’s value cannot be solely measured in the abstract number of development dollars that can be generated by a property. And more importantly sometimes it is unhealthy and costly for a community to exclusively look at development dollars as the sole determiner of the land being carved up piecemeal. We need to provide a way for our farming families to use the land for farming without getting financially trapped and penalized for their good stewardship. It is a difficult thing to find the right solution to, but the first step is listening and understanding the issue. Don Dunn, one of the County Council District 5 candidates seemed to get it, but I don’t think Chris understands.

Ken Ulman had already left due to a prior commitment he had before the agricultural preservation issue came up, but I hope he listens to our counties farmers and listens to Don Dunn. Ken before he left did bring up his success at saving Merriweather, which is something he should be rightly very proud of and is something that is a good example of listening and finding solutions to use with both farming families and the people of Columbia who clearly feel the current plan for downtown doesn’t reflect what they said at the charrette and isn’t yet a workable plan.

To HoCoMD Blog’s comments:

In the opening statements the best line was Chris Merdon’s “Quality of life is not measured by a line item in the budget.” Mr. Ulman said later on that he didn’t like that comment.

A line item on a budget is one of the tools to achieve quality of live. A budget is both a product of and a window for voters into politicians’ values. It is shows where they choose to put one of the main resources of the community.

Harry Dunbar was sadly yet again what Dave Wissing called “comic relief”. What I find most troubling with Harry is his failure it seems to grasp governments function. What is his governing philosophy that he would use to weigh policy choices? Among other things Harry said was that education eats up to much of Howard County’s resources. I just find myself baffled by statements like this. Our school system is one of the prides of this county and one of the major factors in keeping property values up and business coming to the county.

On the District 5 County Council Forum, Livesay seemed to need some more preparation. He clearly knows the police department from his many years as a county police officer and now as chief, but I think he could use some more time sitting down with Charles Feaga or Jim Robey learning about the rest of county government. One nice thing is he seems to understand very well the connection between a quality school system and crime prevention. Yet the one thing that took me aback the most was when he said safe driving was the number one priority of the police department. Really? Safe Driving? I know we have a low crime rate in the county, but it seems like other things should be at the top of that list. At the very least I would put petty burglary above safe driving. If we can catch criminals who commit petty burglary and get them off the street before they move on to other crimes we might be able to prevent other crimes.

I had first met Greg Fox in 1998 at the Wilde Lake Bagel Bin when he was running for County Council District 4 (mainly West Columbia). He was in there with his campaign t-shirts on with his wife and a young kid in a stroller and I went up to talk to him. He impressed me as a very intelligent, charismatic, centrist candidate. I was curious that his literature didn’t say what party he was, but he seemed at the time from what he told me very much in line with the politics of Columbia. It wasn’t my district and I didn’t think much about it at the time. The person I saw at the candidates forum Wednesday shocked me. Either he was telling voters what he thought they wanted to hear or he has completely flip-flopped since 1998. He talks about the need for predictability in development, but says we should give tax cuts when we run a surplus which means we will constantly have to be raising and lowering taxes as we go though the economic cycle. That is neither tax predictability nor fiscally responsible. If you don’t pay down debts and take care of long term needs when you have a surplus you will never have the money to do so without having to raise taxes. In 1998, Greg was talking about fiscal responsibility and investing in quality of life issues in the county when I spoke to him. Let’s just say I was very surprised and that I will need to hear more.

The other thing Greg said that really disturbed me was when he compared energy price caps to caps on land prices. This seems to show a Harry Dunbar level of failure to understand the market economy. Energy transmitted over power lines is a natural monopoly. It is inefficient to run and maintain multiple lines from many competitors. Since there is then no competition, the market doesn’t function and government has a role in allowing a profit, but preventing gouging. Land is not a natural monopoly unless you are in Columbia with General Growth being the sole petitioner for zoning changes (in fact in the case land in Columbia is not a “natural” monopoly in any respect, but a unnatural man-made monopoly in need of fixing). Owners can buy and sell and there is no reason for caps. In fact in the case of land caps get in the way of the market.

I was very impressed with Don Dunn. Obviously it is very difficult for a Democrat to win in District 5, but Dunn struck me as a man with a good head on his shoulders who has lived in western Howard County for decades. He seemed to understand the challenges facing farm families and the challenges presented to the community by development better than any of the other candidates in any of the forums. In addition he came across as a solutions oriented fighter for the community with a long track record working in the community and listening to the community. His sincerity was a breath of fresh air. I think he knows he is in a very difficult district and feels he is just going to go out and say what he thinks and tell it straight up how he see it.

Of the candidates for Board of Education it is still early and at this point I don’t have a solid feel for anyone of them. There are 7 running for 5 spots up for election this year. Will anyone else be getting in? I think I hope so. Picking 5 of these 7 will be difficult. I think I will do what I have done for the last two elections and personally interview the ones I am most interested in. I am very happy Barry organized a Board of Ed candidates forum this early.

So Barry, what other forums do you have planned?

And to everyone else, what did you think?


Blogger Greg Fox said...

Evan...It was nice seeing you again. I thought you looked familiar, but that was 8 years ago.

Don't expect to see me responding to everything I disagree with you about (and yes I disagree with you on some of your other comments / interpretations). However, I will respond when I see inaccuracies in what was reported. I think you might have missed what the question was due to the answers that were given by the other candidates. The question was not "what would you do when you end up with a surplus at the end of a fiscal year?", but "do you believe the government should be running continued surpluses?" The actual text of the question was (pasted from the Howard County Blog):

"The Spending Affordability Committee projects that the County will continue to realize revenue growth in the next fiscal year and beyond. In fact the County is projected to run a $20 million surplus this fiscal year. Granted no one wants to run deficits, but what is your opinion on County Government running surpluses, and what should be done about it? For example, would you support increasing the operating budget in order to meet projected revenues?"

My answer was along these lines...I did look at the Spending Affordability Committee's Report and it does appear that we have a sustainable surplus. Therefore, I believe that we should cut taxes. I also referenced 8 years ago (your memory serves you correctly) when I believed the surplus was a bubble created by the capital gains tax / stock market bubble and, at the time, was the only candidate that was encouraging one time expenditures and / or paying down debt versus new programs or tax cuts (note: I was right back then. Unfortunately, those elected increased spending to meet estimates, the bubble burst, and we spend the next few years raising taxes). I made it clear that we need to make sure the surpluses are sustainable (or that other spending cuts could be made) so we are not going back and forth. The key, like with growth, is predictability and it appears that a sustained surplus is there to provide a sustained tax cut.

Feel free to contact me. Thanks for taking the time to come out to the forum.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I was at the candidates forum Wednesday night, and I was so impressed by how many politically active bloggers there were in the county. I'm working on an article for the Baltimore Examiner about all of you. Could I interview you for my story? you can email me at or call me at 410-533-1943. I need all the interviews by Sunday to make this work! Thanks, hope you are interested,
Laura Greenback
Baltimore Examiner

5:08 PM  
Blogger Evan said...


Thanks for commenting. It is nice seeing you again and I am glad I was remembering our conversation from 8 years ago correctly. Your answer 8 years ago did impress me, because it was nice seeing a politician recognize we were likely in a bubble and that the projections were likely not to be sustained. I guess my question to you is what makes you more confident in the current projections? I am concerned we are in a housing bubble and that our property tax revenue is likely to level off or dip when the bubble bursts while our demand on services increases (as it always does in economically more difficult times). Wouldn't paying off debts and taking care of upcoming capitol improvements earlier (or creating an endowment to cover these projects into the future) be more fiscally prudent while these projections remain uncertain.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Evan said...


Yes, the growth of local bloggers is I think one of the most interesting developments in modern politics. I would be happy to be interview. I just emailed you.


3:28 PM  
Blogger jeff said...

What did everyone think of the 17 year old running for BOE?

2:53 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I think it would be great to have someone with such personal first hand experience with the school system as the graduating senior on the school board. Personally I want to hear more about all the candidates before I decide, but there is no one who understands the school system better than the students and teachers.

1:04 AM  

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