baltimoresun.com

May 6, 2011

Healing Northeast's neighborhoods and families

Residents of Northeast Baltimore, an area long regarded as a mostly placid, middle-class enclave of stable neighborhoods and small businesses, are understandably upset over a spike in crime that has left the district leading the city in homicides. As The Sun’s Justin Fenton reported this week, shootings and other violent crimes in Northeast are up more than 20 percent at a time when homicides in Baltimore as a whole are at a two-decade low. The worst-hit communities have been Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Lauraville along the Harford Road corridor and the Belair-Edison neighborhood astride Belair Road.

All three saw their fortunes rise and crash with the housing bubble, and the resulting foreclosures and evictions have frayed the social fabric in a way that social scientists say is all too predictable. What to do about it, however, is a much harder question.

Last month, for example, the police department deployed 15 officers from its Violent Crimes Impact Section to Coldstream-Montebello and Belair-Edison in an effort to augment the 20 foot patrol officers already there. Yet, at best, they’ve had mixed success in stemming the current crime wave — and in reassuring anxious residents. The area saw two brazen shootings in late April, one in Coldstream-Montebello, the other in Belair-Edison. Both were fatal, and both occurred in broad daylight. Meanwhile, nonviolent crimes have also soared, including a 32 percent increase in burglaries.

Long-time residents of Belair-Edison say their neighborhood’s problems reflect in microcosm the economic dislocation and social disarray that are affecting much of Northeast, which they trace to the boom-and-bust housing market of the last decade and the sudden loss of jobs from the recession. That’s when they first began noticing that foreclosures and evictions were increasing in a community where unemployment was already relatively high. It’s also when they started to see police installing blue-light cameras on the streets to monitor drug activity.

Continue reading "Healing Northeast's neighborhoods and families" »

Posted by Glenn McNatt at 11:42 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Law and criminal justice
        

Standing up for the environment

Lawsuits brought by government and private parties to address damage done to the environment long ago became a necessary fact of life in this country. Perhaps in a perfect world nobody pollutes, or at least those who do are immediately and appropriately corrected by a government agency, but the real world sometimes requires court orders.

It is in that context that Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s recent decision to file notice of intent to sue Chesapeake Energy Corp. over a recent spill of hydraulic fracturing fluid in Pennsylvania is entirely appropriate. The April 19 incident in north-central Pennsylvania may prove to have been the worst spill of its kind in the state.

Federal and Pennsylvania authorities may yet take action against the drilling company, but it is Mr. Gansler’s job to look out for the interests of the Maryland portion of the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay where polluted waters in eastern Pennsylvania eventually flow. The “fracking” fluid used to recover natural gas from the Marcellus Shale deposit may contain any number of toxic chemicals that could easily find their way 200 miles downstream.

Mr. Gansler has demonstrated a willingness to tackle controversial environmental issues before. As a candidate five years ago, he promised that if elected he would use the authority of the attorney general to protect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. He eventually held a series of outreach meetings to hear community concerns over polluters.

More recently, he supported legislation to give environmental groups greater “standing” in court to bring lawsuits against polluters and balky regulators. The state legislature approved such a bill two years ago, although Mr. Gansler had actually endorsed a stronger alternative that was preferred by the green community.

So it is more than a little ironic that while Mr. Gansler is leading the charge against fracking in the Keystone State, he is simultaneously being far more cautious about such civil actions in the Old Line. Last month he filed a brief in Maryland’s highest court that environmental advocates believe could limit standing in a case where the distance between a polluter and his alleged victim is only 81/2  miles.

The case, Patuxent Riverkeeper v. Maryland Department of the Environment, turns on whether the plaintiff has the right to challenge a wetlands permit that allowed construction of a bridge over a stream as part of a commercial development in Prince George’s County. The claim is that its construction harmed the Patuxent River and that runoff from the site continues to cause damage downstream.

How could Mr. Gansler crusade for a 200-mile case in Pennsylvania but not for an 81/2 -mile dispute within his own state? According to attorneys in his office, the brief filed in the matter does not take sides but merely clarifies existing state law.

Environmentalists see it differently. They believe the filing reveals a very conservative interpretation of the law inconsistent with an attorney general looking for polluters 200 miles away. Nor do they see it as impartial, noting its claim on page 30 of the 34-page filing that the bridge in question has not “created sedimentary effects downstream from the site.”

Clearly, it’s easier for an attorney general to take action against a polluter with no apparent ties to the state. And Mr. Gansler’s office has the unenviable task of having two masters: The voters who elected him and the Maryland Department of the Environment which issued the permit. The interests of the two parties don’t always align.

Mr. Gansler may argue that his office is merely giving neutral legal advice, but if so, he doesn’t appear to be following the same advice in Pennsylvania. The 2-year-old state law on legal standing is essentially identical to the federal law that allows his potential fracking lawsuit to move forward.

Reasonable people can differ on what the law allows. But we would also like to believe that when Mr. Gansler promises aggressive action against polluters, that includes pollution taking place closer to home or under the authority of a state agency.

Continue reading "Standing up for the environment" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 11:23 AM |
Categories: Chesapeake Bay
        

Government contractors and secret campaign spending

It didn’t take long for Republicans to seize on President Obama’s proposed executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations to third-party groups as Chicago-style, bare-knuckled Democratic politics. That’s right, to the GOP and its supporters, expecting companies to admit to spending money on elections is a low-blow.

But that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has wrought. Corporations and their allies now expect to spend unlimited sums on elections, funneling the money through groups that support or oppose federal candidates. To them, anything less is simply un-American.

What the White House is considering is no solution to the myriad problems created by the court’s regrettable decision, but it could go a long way toward fixing them. Congress tried to pass a solution last year, the DISCLOSE Act, introduced by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, but it was hung up in the Senate under the threat of a Republican filibuster.

What’s particularly galling about the criticism of the proposed executive order is that it’s been cast as an example of “pay-to-play” politics. The Republicans claim Democrats could make sure those applying for federal contracts are not donating to GOP causes.

In reality, transparency requirements like those proposed by the White House actually protect against pay-to-play by forcing contractors to reveal their donations. Without that requirement, a Halliburton or other firm can direct millions of dollars to get a member of Congress or president elected without anyone but those involved knowing about it.

Is it possible that Democrats are motivated by self-interest? Absolutely. Republicans are far more likely to be the chief beneficiaries of backdoor corporate largesse. That’s why the executive order is causing such a fuss with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its ilk.

But that doesn’t make secret political donations right. If Republicans want to level the playing field, let them pass a campaign finance reform law in Congress that covers not just federal contractors but all who give to third-party groups, including unions and other traditional Democratic allies.

Of course, that raises the most nonsensical of GOP objections to the proposal: It would chill free speech. Again, the implication is that a contractor who reveals a third-party political donation to the wrong cause (by which they mean giving to Republicans while a Democrat is in the White House) would be made to suffer.

Really? If Joe Bag-of-Doughnuts gives $50 directly to a candidate for federal office, that modest donation must be disclosed to the world. That’s the law. Why should corporations be able to hide behind third-party groups when they give $50,000 or $50 million? Exactly whose free speech is being slighted? Wouldn’t any favoritism shown to companies that make political donations and subsequently land government contracts only be revealed by disclosure? The converse is also true — if the Obama White House suddenly stopped giving contracts to firms that donated to Republicans, it, too, would become public knowledge.

Continue reading "Government contractors and secret campaign spending" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 10:36 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Elections and voting
        

May 5, 2011

Inner Harbor Eiffel Tower?

No doubt that the city and the Baltimore Development Corp. are right that the Inner Harbor, like any tourist attraction, needs updating every now and then. But some of the proposals they've gotten for a new signature structure feel a bit random -- more like the latest version of the Man/Woman sculpture at Penn Station than Baltimore's version of the Eiffel Tower.

A 13-story tall "aerophare" that would take a dozen passengers at a time up to an observation point near the Light Street Pavilion would be striking but alien. There is nothing about it that says "Baltimore." The same goes for a giant Ferris wheel (that's either Chicago, where the first one was constructed for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, or London, where the Eye is a now famous part of the landscape).

Some of the other proposals are for lower-key entertainment destinations, like fancy mini-golf courses, carnival rides, wall climbing and beach volleyball. Those are all fine ideas and have the advantage of being temporary. We could have mini-golf for a year or two, then a ropes course or rock climbing. Those would be fine regional draws, and enough to convince a family to mosey from Camden Yards down to the harbor before or after a game. 

Continue reading "Inner Harbor Eiffel Tower?" »

Posted by Andy Green at 11:08 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: City talk
        

The Talk: Bin Laden death -- execution or justice?

Dan Rodricks goes a bit against the grain (and our editorial on the matter) by saying today that the killing of Osama bin Laden wasn't justice, it was an execution. Justice, he writes, would have meant bringing him to trial.

We've gotten several letters debating the propriety of the celebrations that followed bin Laden's death. Some consider them deplorable, but others -- particularly those who were young on 9/11 -- have a different view.

And we argue on the editorial page that those claiming that bin Laden's death shows the value of torture are seriously misguided.

We also take stock of Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein's courtroom debut. He didn't score a resounding victory, but his case against three police officers accused of misconduct was important nonetheless.

Continue reading "The Talk: Bin Laden death -- execution or justice?" »

Posted by Andy Green at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: The Talk
        

May 4, 2011

Tortured arguments revisited

What a sorry spectacle to see the usual suspects — a veritable coalition of the willing-to-torture crowd from the Bush era — seizing on the death of Osama bin Laden as evidence that enhanced interrogation techniques work. It is a leap of logic on par with justifying the U.S. invasion into Iraq on false pretenses of hidden weapons of mass destruction and then claiming vindication because terrorist groups subsequently became involved in the conflict and, well, weren’t we in the business of fighting them?

If water-boarding was such an effective technique, then why did it work so poorly on the most prized prisoner of all, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who underwent the procedure some 183 times and frequently misled his interrogators? If torture works so well, shouldn’t Osama bin Laden have been captured or killed shortly after the U.S. Justice Department’s John Yoo wrote his infamous memo justifying such brutal treatment? If “shortly” sounds too ambitious, how about within a half-decade?

Instead, Mr. Yoo is left to writing in the National Review that the operation against bin Laden was made possible by then-President George W. Bush’s willingness to employ torture against detainees. After all, one of those tortured apparently identified bin Laden’s courier and, according to a New York Times account, another detainee treated similarly provided a “crucial” description of him. (Although whether either revealed this information because of water-boarding or simply at some point after it was administered is not clear).

But here’s the problem with the pro-torture argument: It still doesn’t prove that the exact same information might not have been obtained by more traditional — and proven reliable — methods. And while the tip provided by the suspects may have been helpful, it was no smoking gun that lead straight to bin Laden’s door. The real work of tracking al-Qaida’s leader required years of painstaking intelligence gathering, eavesdropping, standard questioning of prisoners and analysis by hundreds if not thousands of individuals, not to mention the heroics of a Navy SEAL team.

Yet there was Rep. Peter T. King of New York telling reporters in Washington that water-boarding was how the U.S. got its man, at best a huge overstatement of the facts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney could barely contain his inner medievalist, darkly warning that the U.S. must give its intelligence professionals “all the tools” necessary to do their job — apparently that’s a table, a towel, some rope and a bucket of water.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t wash. Those who made their pact with the devil and justified the use of such repugnant and ineffective interrogation techniques will just have to go on living without any vindication to assuage the latent feelings of guilt we hope they have (but suspect they don’t).

Continue reading "Tortured arguments revisited" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 2:09 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Terrorism
        

Bernstein's mixed debut

The thrust of Gregg Bernstein’s campaign against longtime incumbent Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy was that her office was badly managed and too often produced incompetent performances in the courtroom. In that context, his pledge to personally try cases if he was elected — in part to share the prosecutorial load but also to show the lawyers on staff how it’s done — served as an important symbol of confidence and hands-on leadership. A successful private defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, he promised to get convictions in cases that his predecessor wouldn’t touch.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from Mr. Bernstein’s courtroom debut in recent weeks, it’s this: Easier said than done.

The case he took on revolved around what Judge Timothy J. Doory described as a central, inescapable fact — that on a dark and rainy night, a 15-year-old boy was found without shoes 11 miles from his home — but Mr. Bernstein mustered convictions of only two of the three police officers accused of taking him there, and those two on the least of the charges they faced. The prosecutor found himself hampered by unreliable witnesses, forcefully challenged by skilled defense attorneys, and faced with myriad legal complications that are bound to be grounds for appeals.

Continue reading "Bernstein's mixed debut" »

Posted by Andy Green at 12:17 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Law and criminal justice
        

More hazardous waste days

Long lines of cars snaked around Baltimore Polytechnic Institute last Saturday during a one-day collection of household hazardous waste. Some 1,800 vehicles inched their way through the school’s parking lot so the drivers could dispose of their cargo — solvents, paint thinner, pesticides and the like, materials that are too dangerous to pour down the drain or toss in the trash. It was slow going; many drivers had to wait in line for over an hour.
The Saturday slog was evidence both that Baltimore has plenty of household hazardous waste and that its system for collecting it needs improving.
Since there was no hazardous waste collection in 2010, some of these materials had been sitting in city basements for two years. This one-day event came to fruition largely because citizens requested it from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The turnout was overwhelming, greater than city officials anticipated, thus the long lines.
There seems to be a pattern of underestimating the environmental interest of Baltimoreans. Recall the Saturday in December 2007 when the four locations distributing the city’s new recycling containers were swamped. The weather was frigid, the delays were long, and the supply of $6 and $5 containers ran out, leaving some folks cold and empty-handed. A spokesmen for then-Mayor Sheila Dixon characterized the large crowds of people clamoring for recycling containers as a “sign of progress.” Nice try.
It should be easier to be green in Baltimore. It is in the surrounding counties. Residents of Howard County, for instance, drop off their hazardous wastes any Saturday from April to November at the Alpha Ridge Landfill. Baltimore County residents can deposit their household hazardous wastes at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Solid Waste Management Facility in White Marsh Mondays through Saturdays from April to November. The county also organizes once-a-year drop off days at its Cockeysville and Halethorpe facilities, events that county officials say each draw about 1,000 cargo-carrying cars. Anne Arundel County has a rotating schedule of drop-off days for landfills in Glen Burnie, Sudley and Millersville.
Collecting household hazardous wastes is more complicated than collecting newspapers and bottles. Expertise is required. Governments hire private companies that specialize in classifying and safely disposing of household hazardous waste. Some of the materials, for instance, are incinerated at private facilities. That costs money. Howard County spends about $450,000 a year to dispose of household hazardous waste. Anne Arundel County, according its website, spent close to $205,000, and Baltimore City officials estimate it cost about $100,000 for Saturday’s one day effort.
It is money well spent. Collecting household hazardous waste at a recycling center is less expensive than paying for the damage it could cause later if people dump the materials improperly and they enter streams, ground water and other parts of the environment.
Strapped for cash, Baltimore is looking around for sponsors who would pay for another hazardous waste collection day. Another idea being tossed around is charging a fee — pay as you dump — to users who drive through. That could raise funds but could have the unfortunate effect of discouraging folks of lesser means from properly disposing of their hazardous wastes. Moreover, collecting payments on site caused considerable delays during the recycling bin fiasco. Seeking contributions in advance from environmental groups and manufacturers of the most commonly disposed-of chemicals makes the most sense.
Residents can also take some steps at home to convert hazardous waste, such as cans of leftover latex paint, into routinely picked-up, trash. Latex paint can be solidified in the paint can by removing the lid, stirring in an absorbent material such as cat litter or saw dust, and placing the open can in the sunlight to dry. This should be done in a safe, well ventilated area away from children and pets. The lid should be kept off the paint can so the trash collector can see that there is no liquid inside.
In Baltimore County residents have the option of carrying their leftover latex paint to White Marsh, where workers recycle it, sending large vessels of the blended paint out to area nonprofits. Another tactic encouraged by all the local jurisdictions is to avoid purchasing hazardous materials, or to buy them in small amounts.
But for the real “bad boys” such as insecticides, herbicides, solvents and furniture stripper, there is no at-home solution. The only option is taking them to a licensed household hazardous waste collection site, like the one set up at Poly last Saturday. By now city officials should know that if they organize such an event, the crowds will come.

Posted by Rob Kasper at 8:00 AM |
        

The Talk: Debating the mayor's development strategy

The Talk is back from a vacation-induced hiatus with a roundup of commentary about Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's advocacy for several big development projects around town.

In case you missed it, the mayor wrote an op-ed for Sunday's paper titled "What would Schaefer do?" in which she argued that the legacy of the late William Donald Schaefer was to bring people together to support major projects that improve the city over the self-interested objections of a few. Time to stop suing and start doing, she wrote.

Two of her opponents in the mayor's race immediately sent in replies.

Otis Rolley says the mayor is misinterpreting the Schaefer legacy, and that he put the people's interests first in a way the current mayor does not.

Jody Landers says Mayor Rawlings-Blake's strategy appears to be to publicly antagonize people, whereas Mayor Schaefer had a personal touch that overcame obstacles.

Continue reading "The Talk: Debating the mayor's development strategy" »

Posted by Andy Green at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: The Talk
        

May 3, 2011

May flowers not so great

Surely the worst example of junk science is that old canard about April showers bringing May flowers. The showers came, but the evidence of any additional blooms is anecdotal at best. Better the ditty should go something like, “April showers bring May sinus infections.”

Our rain-soaked April doesn’t look all that bad on paper: Less than one-inch more rain than is customary during the month and an average daily high temperature well above the historic average, according to the National Weather Service data gathered at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, so it was warm enough.

And Maryland residents ought to be happy to have dodged the horrific tornados that plagued much of the Southeast. It’s one thing to be stuck indoors in a downpour, it’s quite another to suddenly lose one’s possessions or, worse, a neighbor, friend or loved one.

But when lumped together with a cool, rainy March, the overall effect has been to make the Mid-Atlantic’s spring seem wet and miserable by any standard. Baseball games postponed, yard work behind schedule, dreariness seemingly in abundance.

Given that reality, the latest forecast is grim, indeed. The 3-month outlook, according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, is for a summer that is both cooler and wetter than the norm.

Did we really need to hear that? Not that the agency’s pronouncement makes weather a certainty or anything, but c’mon. We could use a little sunshine to brighten up our day in the Old Line State. This is not what the doctor ordered.

Oh, we could list the good things that a cool, wet June, July and August could bring, like bumper crops for farmers and lower air conditioning bills for the rest of us. The region’s reservoirs are brimming with water, so drought restrictions seem unlikely this year. Fewer 100-degree days is always welcome. A little rain does wonders for air quality, too.

But the best things about summer in Maryland are days on the Ocean City beach, sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, sitting in Oriole Park at Camden Yards on a starry night, or eating steamed crabs on an outdoor picnic table. Dampness brings little to the party.

Complaining about the weather changes little, of course. Better to complain about the forecasting. Perhaps the National Weather Service is an ideal place for Congress to further cut the budget. Ignorance can be bliss.

Continue reading "May flowers not so great" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 11:58 AM |
Categories: Environment
        

Roadblock for graduates

April is the cruelest month: It’s the time of year when the state’s high school seniors anxiously await those long-anticipated college acceptance letters in the mail. As they focus on their futures, they have enough on their minds without having to worry about whether their high school guidance departments have sent academic transcripts and other required information to the schools they hope to attend in the fall.

Yet that’s what appears to have happened to at least a dozen of Western High School’s 186 seniors this year. City school officials say they are still looking into how and why the students’ transcripts and other documents never got where they were supposed to, leaving some students with no college acceptances at all. The school didn’t discover the problem until mid-April, after it became clear that many kids who should have gotten into college hadn’t.

Someone at Western fell down on the job, and the students are paying the price. That’s not fair to young people who have worked hard for four years preparing themselves to go to college. Western’s guidance department and teaching staff not only need to find out exactly what went wrong and fix it but also to do everything possible to repair the damage by helping these kids find suitable alternatives to the schools they missed out on for the fall semester.

So far, officials at the school department’s central office seem at a loss for what caused the breakdown, which happened despite an early-warning system that is widely used among college admissions boards today. Normally, when a college needs certain documents to made an admissions decision, it notifies the applicant that their file is still incomplete by email, phone or letter, usually by late February or March. The information is passed to high school guidance counselors or other school staff, who are responsible for making sure the colleges get what they need.

Continue reading "Roadblock for graduates" »

Posted by Glenn McNatt at 11:48 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Education
        

May 2, 2011

What needed to be done

Ten years, two wars, and countless false starts and wrong turns after the most terrible criminal act ever committed on American soil, the man responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, has been killed. It is unlikely that ever before in history have so many resources been committed to bringing one man to justice, and on Sunday, with a deadly precise raid on a compound deep within Pakistan, a group of Navy SEALs acting after years of work by the entire American intelligence community, erased years of failure and changed the face of the war on terrorism.

Upon the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, crowds gathered outside the White House, on the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, and elsewhere, chanting “USA! USA!” and singing “Na na hey hey kiss him goodbye.” President Obama gave an address in the East Room of the White House late Sunday night in which he said, “today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

The moment was indeed historic, but it was not a time for jubilation. The president’s words made it sound as if killing bin Laden was a testament to America’s can-do spirit on par with the completion of the transcontinental railroad or the moon landing. This was not a triumph of America, or a credit to the glory of mankind. It was a grim but necessary piece of business, one that does not begin to erase all the evil done by bin Laden or those who killed in his name. But for the sake of the families of the thousands he killed on Sept. 11, in the embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and in other acts of terrorism throughout the West and the Muslim world, it had to be done. For the sake of the civilization he sought to destroy, it had to be done.

Continue reading "What needed to be done" »

Posted by Andy Green at 2:00 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Terrorism
        

Mothers' garden update

On The Sun's gardening blog, Susan Reimer writes an update to her column today about the Mothers' Garden in Clifton Park, which was dedicated by William Donald Schaefer to his mother but which has fallen into disrepair. There's a new effort underway to save it, Susan reports.
Posted by Andy Green at 1:50 PM |
Categories: City talk
        

April 29, 2011

Best of enemies

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict underwent another evolution this week when the Fatah-backed Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank, and Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that rules the Gaza Strip -- announced they would put aside their differences to make common cause for an independent Palestinian state. Whether the two groups can really end years of mutual enmity and distrust remains to be seen, but the mere fact that they are talking about cooperating again could spell trouble for U.S. diplomacy in the region.

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have been at each other’s throats since 2006, when Hamas won a disputed election in Gaza which the Palestinian Authority refused to recognize. The following year Hamas militants forcibly ejected their rivals from Gaza and took control of the territory; then in 2008, the Israeli military briefly invaded and occupied the strip to prevent militants there from launching rockets across the border at towns in northern Israel.

Unlike the Palestinian authority, which accepts the principal of a two-state solution in which Arabs and Israelis live side by side in peace, Hamas has never recognized the legitimacy of Israel and is sworn to its destruction. Israel calls it a terrorist organization and refuses to negotiate with its leaders, while at the same time insisting that any deal it reaches with the Palestinian Authority also be binding on Hamas.

That would be a sufficient recipe for diplomatic disaster even if Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu hadn’t also threatened to break off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, too, if renewed its ties with Hamas.

Continue reading "Best of enemies" »

Posted by Glenn McNatt at 12:23 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Mideast mix
        

April 28, 2011

The majesty of marriage

Millions of Americans are destined to rise at an hour best suited for dairy farming tomorrow to watch the televised wedding of Britain’s Kate Middleton and Prince William. The TV networks are certainly milking the royal nuptials for all they are worth, having dispatched hundreds of reporters and producers to the scene to capture every pomp and circumstance.

It’s hard to see the harm in this shared moment of Anglophilia, aside from what envy it may generate from those impressionable youngsters watching it all on the family big screen TV with visions of wedding ceremonies half as lavish. Fathers of potential brides may want to temporarily sever satellite and cable hook-ups for a day.

Like second marriages, royal weddings may well be the triumph of hope over experience. Princess Diana’s day in Westminster Abbey three decades ago was quite the spectacle, but so was the dissolution of her marriage to Prince Charles — although in quite a different way. The family has known troubles; let’s leave it at that.

But if there is something more productive to be gained from this pop culture moment than breathless descriptions of the bride’s wedding gown and veil, perhaps it is this: Let this day be a celebration of the institution of marriage.

After all, those people in this country and around the world aren’t tuning into CNN or the BBC to watch William and Kate move into a flat together as singles and see how things work out. The couple is getting married and making a serious commitment to each other, a legal contract that carries with it centuries of tradition and societal importance.

The arrival of same-sex marriage hasn’t changed that. The equality debate may have actually elevated marriage’s importance in people’s minds. Admittedly, the U.S. divorce rate is still high (about half of marriages end in divorce) but it’s significantly lower for the wealthy and better-educated, of which the royal couple are prime examples.

Preserving the institution is important and not just because of the obvious boon it presents to florists, dressmakers and Duff Goldman, or even for the tax break. Married people are better off financially and live longer and healthier than their single counterparts. Their children are far more likely to succeed in life than those who are the product of cohabitation. Studies also consistently show the risk of violence is lower in a married household (to both spouses and children), and married couples even report more happiness with their sex lives.

Continue reading "The majesty of marriage" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 3:02 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Health and mental health
        

Baltimore, home of the branch office

It’s never a good thing to lose a corporate headquarters, particularly the last Fortune 500 company in town. None of the purported benefits Constellation Energy Group is trotting out to pretty up its proposed sale to Exelon Corp. of Chicago changes that fact. But it is also no surprise that Constellation would be sold. CEO Mayo A. Shattuck III has clearly been aiming for such a deal for years, and has tried it twice before. It’s only a matter of time before he succeeds, and this deal, at least, is not so bad for Baltimore as it might have been.

When people talk about the importance of having corporate headquarters in a city, beyond the matter of civic pride, they are usually talking about charitable contributions and community involvement. Exelon and Constellation are promising they will keep up Constellation’s $10 million in local charitable giving for at least a decade. But far more important than that is the idea that a company headquartered in Baltimore would keep in its heart a desire to boost the region, to see its future as being tied to that of its home. This is a particularly resonant notion when it comes to a utility, the kind of business that builds cities.

Or at least, it’s the kind of business that used to aim so high. Baltimore Gas & Electric is a grand old company that has its name on manhole covers and electric meters across half the state. It’s fortunes and central Maryland’s fortunes were one and the same. But since the state’s 1999 decision to deregulate the electricity market, that has changed. Constellation, BGE’s parent company, is a national energy trading firm. It makes its money generating power (or buying contracts for power somebody else generates) and selling that to regulated utilities — including BGE — and to industrial and corporate customers. Its fortunes are tied only tangentially to Baltimore’s, and it has long acted accordingly.

Continue reading "Baltimore, home of the branch office" »

Posted by Andy Green at 2:45 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Business
        

Reforming Prince George's

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III took office this year pledging to clean up the county’s reputation for government corruption and a “pay-to-play” culture that, if federal indictments are accurate, forced companies to offer officials bribes as a cost of doing business there. Among Mr. Baker’s first acts was to appoint a task force charged with recommending steps the county needed to take in order to restore its tarnished image and the public’s trust in government. This week that body spoke, and Mr. Baker and the Prince George’s County Council would do well to heed its advice.

The task force, chaired by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, urged Mr. Baker and county officials to create an independent inspector general’s office as a watchdog on county government. The new agency would be in addition to the County Council’s already existing Office of Audits and Investigations, which is appointed by the council and therefore has an inherent conflict of interest when its members are involved.

The five-member Prince George's County Board of Ethics, a separate watchdog body appointed by the county executive and approved by the council, is nominally responsible for hearing and ruling on complaints of public corruption, but in practice it has little power to hold wrongdoers accountable. For one, it can’t act on its own but instead must wait for a formal complaint to be filed, even if it has reason to suspect government malfeasance. On top of that it lacks the power to subpoena witnesses, has no full-time staff, no regular meeting schedule and no budget. Nor does the county have a comprehensive ethics code that specifies what acts are prohibited.

Given the board's relative weakness compared to the powerful political and business interests it is supposed to oversee, it’s no wonder it hasn’t made a dent in the county’s corruption problem. How ineffective it has been can be judged by the fact that during the entire three-year federal and state investigation that led to the arrest in January of former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife on corruption charges, the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil ethics board failed to hold a single meeting on the matter.

Continue reading "Reforming Prince George's" »

Posted by Glenn McNatt at 8:30 AM |
Categories: Law and criminal justice
        

Truancy and the courts

When a student is chronically absent from class, school officials rightly hold parents responsible. Because school attendance in Maryland is compulsory until age 16, parents have a legal obligation to make sure their children show up for classes. If they don’t, the courts can step in and compel them to comply with the law’s requirements.

But a case reported this week by The Sun’s Erica Green demonstrated what happens when that is taken to an extreme. The city has hauled more than 400 parents into court this year because of their children’s chronic truancy, and in a dozen cases, the parents have received sentences. In very rare instances, as with the mother of one 15-year-old student this year, the parents are actually sent to jail.

No doubt that conveys the seriousness of the matter to any parents who missed the message during the repeated interventions that led up to that point. But it’s hardly the most effective or desirable way to keep kids in school. Educators know there are better ways to handle such situations, and that they also have an obligation to work with parents to find solutions to the problem.

Continue reading "Truancy and the courts" »

Posted by Glenn McNatt at 7:30 AM |
Categories: Education
        

April 27, 2011

Conspiracy theory

The release of Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate today probably won’t quiet all the so-called carnival barkers out there, but it ought to make a dent. As the president observed, the political sideshow over the his place of birth and citizenship had become too great a distraction of late not to at least make the effort.

Make no mistake, President Obama didn’t prove this morning that he was born in Hawaii. That was already accomplished several years ago when he released his short-form birth certificate, the one that is standard issue in the 50th state and that Republican and Democratic governors had already confirmed matched the information on the longer document.

That there was ever even an inkling of doubt over the authenticity of this routine documentation speaks volumes of the power of conspiracy theories and the regrettable tendencies of some Americans to refuse to accept a black man named Barack Hussein Obama as a countryman. To them, he is different, an outsider, the son of an African and someone who has even lived briefly outside the United States in a (shudder) Muslim country.

The president had it exactly right when he said the country “doesn’t have time for this kind of silliness” when there are so many serious issues to be addressed. He might also have observed that it hasn’t just been New York billionaire media whore Donald Trump doing the barking. Birthers come in all shapes and sizes, and cowardly Republican leaders had only recently tried to distance themselves from the conspiracy theorists.

Even Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is not exactly a President Obama fan, cautioned against her party’s self-destructive tour down wacko road earlier this week. “It’s just something I believe is leading our country down a path of destruction,” she told an interviewer on CNN while explaining her choice to veto a bill that would have required, among other things, a presidential candidate to submit early baptismal or circumcision records.

It’s sophistry to complain that the White House could have deep-sixed the birther movement months ago by petitioning Hawaii for this added documentation earlier. The birth certificate was already public record, and presidents usually have better things to do than respond to every crackpot who makes outrageous claims without a shred of evidence to back them up.

But when critical decisions over the nation’s debt and budget deficit become overshadowed by such nonsense, Mr. Obama had little choice but to exhaust every resource available to him. Once again, the president has positioned himself as the lone grown-up in the room focused on the welfare of the country and not on the rantings of the right-wing conspiracy crowd.

Will the release finally derail the birther movement? Probably not. Hardcore skeptics will believe want they want to believe without letting facts stand in their way. The Sun received a letter to the editor minutes after the president released the document claiming it was obviously fake because Mr. Obama’s father’s race is listed as “African” rather than “Negro,” which the writer assumes would have been standard practice in 1961. And so it continues.

Continue reading "Conspiracy theory" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 1:06 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: National politics
        

A better plan for Baltimore slots bidding

If Maryland’s experience so far with slot machines tells us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too excited that the state Video Lottery Facility Commission is about to issue a new request for proposals for a Baltimore City casino. The theoretical timeline for bids, license review, awards, permits and construction — if all goes well, ground could be broken early next year — shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Although the city and state have so far prevailed in all of the litigation related to the developer who failed to secure a slots license in the first round of bidding, there’s no telling how much he may be able to delay the process, or what other litigation could surface.

That said, the way the city and state are going about the bidding this time is much smarter. While there are no guarantees, the prospects for robust bidding and a good deal for the taxpayers are much better than they were when the license for the city’s slots site were first put out for bid two and a half years ago.

Continue reading "A better plan for Baltimore slots bidding" »

Posted by Andy Green at 12:03 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Slots and gambling
        

April 26, 2011

Arundel's haves and have-nots

Anne Arundel County budget hearings don’t begin until Monday, but the County Council is already indulging in an uncommon level of bickering. But it’s not next year’s budget — and its controversial tax increase — that is causing tempers to flare.

Instead, it’s the bizarre way the previous County Council chose to slash their own compensation. As a result of last year’s actions, different members of the council are receiving different health benefits, an incongruity surely unique to the county.

Republicans Derek Fink and John J. Grasso publicly chastised fellow council members G. James Benoit and Daryl Jones, both Democrats, for accepting health insurance benefits that new council members (five of the 7-member body) are denied by law. Councilman Benoit, in turn, is angry that they would attack him for merely assuring the care of his chronically ill 7-year-old daughter.

The rhetoric has recently escalated, with Councilman Grasso suggesting the Democrats were “sucking the blood” of Anne Arundel County residents and Councilman Benoit promising Councilman Fink that he will respond “tenfold” if the health care issue is used for political gain.

The Republicans are correct in at least one respect: The previous council, including Messrs. Benoit and Jones, should never have approved eliminating health care benefits for new council members while grandfathering their own. Setting up such an inequity was remarkably foolish.

But it wasn’t the only silly action taken by the previous council, which embraced a number of spending cuts for political show but minimal budgetary help. For instance, they eliminated county-owned cars for themselves and such positions as the county’s state’s attorney and the head of the county’s public works department.

That may look sharp to tea party types, but these are jobs where people actually do get a 3 a.m. emergency call to conduct critical county business. Is it really an indulgence for the county to ensure that they can respond without hailing a cab?

The recession has certainly forced cutbacks and tough choices at all levels of government. But stripping council members of health care — the same benefit provided to the county’s 4,100 full-time employees — is idiotic. What would be the point, to make sure that nobody runs for office who is not rich or employed full-time by a company that provides health insurance?

It is often said that government needs to be run more like a business. This is the polar opposite of how businesses treat their leadership teams. No CEO or senior manager of so large an organization loses basic health care benefits when times are hard. That only guarantees you get a worse CEO and management team and worse financial problems in the future.

Unfortunately, it’s become fashionable in these times of populist politics to regard compensation of any kind given any elected official as a questionable expense. Certainly, there are excesses (pension benefits being the most common example), but basic health care insurance should not be regarded as some kind of political scandal.

Continue reading "Arundel's haves and have-nots" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 2:03 PM |
Categories: Anne Arundel County
        

Legal ethics and the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act

The decision by a national law firm to drop its contract to defend the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of the U.S. Congress in the face of criticism from gay rights groups, and the subsequent resignation in protest of the partner assigned to the case, raises thorny issues about legal ethics and the effective pursuit of justice. DOMA, as the law is known, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legally sanctioned by the states and frees states that do not allow gay marriages from recognizing those performed elsewhere. It is an odious law, and the Obama administration was right in concluding that it is unconstitutional and ordering the Justice Department to stop defending it. And Gay rights groups were perfectly justified in criticizing the firm, Atlanta-based King & Spaulding, for taking on the case.

But Paul Clement, the former U.S. Solicitor General who quit the firm over its decision, also makes an excellent argument: Even unpopular clients deserve quality legal representation, and a lawyer’s personal beliefs are irrelevant to his advocacy. If lawyers dropped clients just because the public didn’t like them, the justice system would collapse.

So who’s right here?

Continue reading "Legal ethics and the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act" »

Posted by Andy Green at 12:10 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Law and criminal justice
        

April 25, 2011

Beware the snake oil pitch

Prices at the pump are rising, and Americans are none too happy about it. Small wonder that President Obama’s approval ratings have fallen like a sack of hammers in recent weeks: Nothing annoys voters quite like a $75 fill-up at their local service station.

But if paying $4-a-gallon for regular wasn’t painful enough, filling station sticker shock has launched a deluge of nonsensical proposals to lower the price of gas. Perhaps the most dishonest of these is a renewed call for domestic oil drilling.

While anyone is welcome to argue the merits of increased U.S. production — well-paying jobs in oil-producing states like Texas, for instance — lowering gasoline prices isn’t one of them. That’s because the amount of oil involved is no more than a drop in the bucket compared to worldwide demand and production.

Drilling in the U.S., whether it’s off the coast of Florida or the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, could no more affect global oil prices than a thunderstorm in Dundalk affect the price of bottled water around the country.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has 21.317 billion barrels of oil that could be tapped inland or off-shore, compared to 1,342.207 billion barrels available worldwide. That’s 1.6 percent. And the nation’s appetite for oil is far greater than what domestic oil producers could ever supply.

So “drill, baby, drill,” may sound good as a campaign slogan, but it’s nonsensical in reality. Even the impact on imports or the country’s imbalance in foreign trade would be marginal at best.

But that hasn’t stopped Republicans on Capitol Hill who want to take advantage of the wave of anger that accompanies energy price increases. Their recent efforts to gut environmental regulations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s overdue greenhouse gas rulemaking show little sign of abatement.

Clearly, the GOP would rather risk a repeat of last year’s disastrous Gulf oil spill than ensure producers like British Petroleum are held to the highest possible safety and environmental standards. So House leaders are pounding away at the Obama administration for not letting big oil treat the East Coast as their own big rig camping ground and toxic waste dump.

The best U.S. strategy for lowering the cost of energy is to use less oil through conservation and the development of alternative energy. But that’s the kind of “eat your vegetables” answer that’s tough to sell to consumers who would rather drive a big honking SUV than switch to a more fuel-efficient vehicle or ride public transit or bike to work.

That’s probably why the Obama administration announced last week the launch of a Justice Department work group to investigate price manipulation and the influence of commodity trading on energy costs. Conspiracy theories are far easier for most people to digest than the unpleasant reality of energy dieting.

Continue reading "Beware the snake oil pitch" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 12:53 PM |
Categories: Energy
        

Whether a hate crime or not, community must support victim of McDonald's beating

Until more of the facts are known, it is impossible to say for certain whether the beating of Chrissy Lee Polis in a Rosedale McDonald’s was motivated by her sexual identity — she is a transgender woman — and whether the two women accused in the assault should be charged with hate crimes.

But the attention the case has received — a video of the beating has been watched hundreds of thousands of times online — demands a response beyond the criminal justice system. McDonald’s seems to get this; the restaurant chain issued a statement condemning the beating, and the owner of the Rosedale franchise fired the person who took the video. But Baltimore County officials so far don’t seem to understand that their community is now being held up worldwide as home of bigotry.

State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger is limited by his role in how much he can say, but that does not prevent Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz or other county officials from standing up in support of Ms. Polis. They need to send an unambiguous signal that all are welcome in our community and that intolerance will not be tolerated.

Continue reading "Whether a hate crime or not, community must support victim of McDonald's beating" »

Posted by Andy Green at 11:55 AM | | Comments (71)
Categories: Baltimore County
        

April 22, 2011

Intolerance and the mentally ill

Community meetings don’t usually attract the disinterested or curious. The average person has a busy enough schedule, so such events tend to be packed with vocal opponents of whatever is being proposed.

At least that’s the kindest explanation available to excuse the recent outbreak of community-based hysteria involving Sheppard Pratt Medical Systems’ proposal to turn a Ruxton mansion in an upscale rehabilitation facility to help those under treatment for mental illness make a transition back to living at home.

Because if Ruxton believes their “family” neighborhood currently lacks eight people (the most that will ever occupy the planned rehab center) diagnosed with a mental illness, then they are — to put it mildly — delusional. The only difference here is that the handful of folks who would be living on Labelle Avenue would be supervised and receiving treatment.

How dare opponents compare the neighborhood’s “plight” to the recent controversies involving group homes in communities like Woodlawn and Randallstown. What arrogance. Those facilities generally serve juvenile delinquents who have committed serious crimes, and the communities involved have been forced to embrace a lot more than one or two of them.

Sheppard Pratt is a highly respected private, non-profit mental health care provider. Its main campus on Charles Street is less than two miles from the site in Ruxton. It’s the kind of place where millionaires and celebrities often go when they are suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or a host of similar maladies.

No sexual offenders, no criminals, no people with a history of violence would ever be housed at the rehab center. Could the rest of Ruxton say the same?

It isn’t as if the occupants would be poor or even middle class. These are self-paying customers. In other words, this is exactly where most Ruxton residents would want to go if they required mental health treatment.

This much criticism is probably deserved: Officials at Sheppard Pratt did not do a very good job of reaching out to the community. Proponents should have been talking to community leaders and local elected officials before they signed a contract on the property two weeks ago — if only to educate them on the nature of their plans.

Nevertheless, exactly where would the residents of Ruxton prefer such a transitional facility be placed? Name a residential area that isn’t a “family neighborhood.” It’s clear some Ruxtonites simply don’t want it in their own backyards, and that’s just not a good enough excuse. Federal and state housing laws prevent discrimination against this sort of facility for a reason.

Continue reading "Intolerance and the mentally ill" »

Posted by Peter Jensen at 2:05 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore County
        
Keep reading
Recent entries
Archives
Categories
Contributors
Mike Cross-Barnet, who spends most of his time running The Baltimore Sun's Commentary page, has been known to opine on whatever strikes his fancy. International politics, immigration, religion, culture and social trends are just a handful of the topics you may find scrutinized in this space.

Andy Green has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government. His reporting has taken him to every county in Maryland as he's tracked issues ranging from slot machine gambling to electric rates. As an editor, he oversaw coverage of crime, education, the environment, health, science and more.

Peter Jensen, former State House reporter and features writer, takes the lead on state government, transportation issues and the environment; he is the board's resident funny man and capital schmooze.

Glenn McNatt, who returned to editorial writing after serving as the newspaper's art critic, keeps an eye on the arts, culture, politics and the law for the editorial board.
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun opinion
Editorials
Commentary
Readers Respond
Readers Respond
The Sun welcomes comments from readers. All comments become the property of The Sun, which reserves the right to edit them. Comments should include your name and address, along with day and evening telephone numbers. E-mail us: talkback@baltimoresun.com; write us: Talk Back, The Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278-0001; fax us: 410-332-6977
Baltimore Sun columnists
Marta H. Mossburg
RECENT COLUMN

Susan Reimer
RECENT COLUMN

Dan Rodricks
RECENT COLUMN

Thomas F. Schaller
RECENT COLUMN

Ron Smith
RECENT COLUMN

More Baltimore Sun columnists
Sign up for FREE Sun Opinion text alerts*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for Sun Opinion text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Breaking News newsletter
When a big news event breaks, we'll e-mail you the basics with links to up-to-date details.
Sign up

Charm City Current
Stay connected