A tone-deaf city government

It took several months longer than anticipated – and we don’t yet know exactly what the toll will be – but last night 80 percent of Salisbury City Council gave 100 percent of local property owners another tax to pay by approving a stormwater utility on a 4-0 vote, with newly-appointed Jack Heath being absent.

Council President Jake Day “doesn’t expect” the fee to be more than $20 a year for homeowners, and expects to raise $1.25 million annually from the “rain tax” – and yes, I think the moniker is appropriate given the business fee will be determined by the amount of runoff they produce. According to the latest Census data, though, there are 13,401 housing units in Salisbury so my public school math tells me that businesses are going to pay almost 80% of the total, to the tune of almost $1 million annually.

Interestingly enough, I was quoted in the Daily Times story from last Thursday from a post I wrote in February when the idea came up, and I think the point is still valid: we don’t know what impact there will be from this tax hike on the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay. It seems to me that the timing isn’t very good on this one, particularly as the state and county are working to make these entities more business-friendly and new taxes tend to work in the opposite direction.

I was curious about something, so I took a look at the city’s latest budget that was adopted in May. In it, Mayor Jim Ireton points out that “(t)his budget shows levels of monetary surplus at incredibly healthy levels for both the City’s General Fund and the City’s Water and Sewer Utility.” But it also is using some of the proceeds from the wastewater treatment plant settlement on sewer infrastructure, so why do they need this new tax now? Granted, it’s also stated in the budget that ratepayers get a 2.5% break on water and sewer rates this year, but the extra $20 fee will likely eat that savings up and then some.

The budget also makes the case that the $100 a month, give or take, that a residential property owner pays in property taxes provides a cornucopia of services, a palette which includes stormwater management. So we’re already paying for the service with our property taxes, but instead of adding the penny or two that would cover the additional services the city wants to create a new special fund. Currently the Water and Sewer Fund comprises roughly 1/3 of a city budget which runs about $50 million, with property taxes chipping in about $22 million toward the General Fund. With the city of Salisbury increasing the tax rate regularly, it’s doubtful we’ll see a corresponding decrease in property taxes to offset the new fee.

And while I’m not an expert on the city charter by any means, my question is why can’t the purview of the Water and Sewer Utility (which has a large surplus) be simply expanded to stormwater? Generally infrastructure improvements to the stormwater system involve changes to the remaining utilities as well, so the same work may well come out of two (or three) different funds given the city’s idea. It may be more efficient and less taxing on the city’s residents to amend the charter to add stormwater to the existing water and sewer utility.

So let’s review: the fee would cover something which is already supposed to be paid for, in an amount we haven’t quite determined yet, to achieve projects for which we don’t know the scope but are supposed to address a problem Salisbury contributes little to and is only compelled to deal with because the state refuses to stick up for itself and tell the EPA and Chesapeake Bay Foundation to go pound sand. What could go wrong?

Just remember all this come Election Day next year.

Update 11/26: I actually stumbled upon this as I was researching some items for my next post today, but it’s worth pointing out that Salisbury has justified its adoption of a stormwater utility by saying the town of Berlin has one in place.

The same group, called the Environmental Finance Center – which is part of the University of Maryland but serves as a regional hub for an existing EPA program – did studies to justify the need for Berlin (2012) and Salisbury (2013). The results were pretty much the same, although the suggested fee was higher in Berlin than it was in Salisbury, where they recommended a $40 annual fee for homeowners. Notably, the Salisbury report also recommends fee increases after a period of years – see the chart on page 15. So the problem won’t ever be solved and the program will run an annual surplus that likely won’t be rebated to taxpayers. Moreover, unlike a property tax from which religious-based entities have traditionally been exempt, they have to pay the fee as well.

Also, the fingerprints of the notoriously Radical Green folks of the Town Creek Foundation are on these reports. It’s a group which believes:

We think that true sustainability and resilience – in an increasingly unstable, crisis-prone world – will depend on fundamental transformations of the systems (including the value systems) by which everyday life is organized. These include the systems by which we make and consume energy, food, and materials, and the systems by which we make and enforce social decisions.

We’ve already seen the results of a national “fundamental transformation” over the last six years, and many millions would like to transform back to where we were. But a tone-deaf government just wants to take more out of our pockets rather than prioritize existing resources.

Catching my breath

After a tremendously busy last few days, I’m finally able to catch my breath a little bit and take stock of where we are.

At the top of my site since last Thursday is the reporting on early voting trends. To me, this is key because it’s not something Republicans have adapted to despite the pleas from the state party – until this year. As a whole in the state, Republicans and Democrats are utilizing early voting at the same rate which indicates turnout may be a tick or two better than expected for the GOP. And remember, polling is released based on a turnout model that they attempt to predict will hold true for the election, but there are so many variables. At this stage weather doesn’t appear as it will be a factor, though.

I just finished downloading the last of the pre-election financial reports for most of those on the ballot locally in contested races. There may be a minor scandal here because I noticed District 37B candidate Rod Benjamin didn’t have a report on file yet – he’s submitted affidavits of limited contributions and expenditures through his campaign, but still has to file timely or face a $20 daily fine that comes out of his own pocket. In the last few days before the election I’ll distill the numbers and see if any new trends develop.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the irregularities in voting machines in some areas; a phenomenon addressed by the state Board of Elections. But how about irregularities in support? Some local Republicans are outraged about two photos which have appeared on Facebook.

The photos were reportedly taken at a recent fundraiser for current Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt, who is a Democrat. In the top photo second from left is outgoing County Council member Stevie Prettyman. In the bottom photo is, left to right, County Council members Matt Holloway and John Hall along with Pollitt and Salisbury City Council president Jake Day. All three Council members pictured are Republicans, a trio which generally votes opposite Republican County Executive candidate Bob Culver (who is one of two to consistently oppose Pollitt.) While Prettyman is leaving, Holloway is in a good position to be re-elected since only one Democrat filed for two at-large posts, and Hall is unopposed for a District 4 Council seat.

My take on this: of course I’m disappointed with these Republicans attending a fundraiser for a Democrat, but the time to address this will be 2018 primary. Just file it in the memory bank.

And then we have this which just came to my attention from the Maryland Pro-Life Alliance.

Contrast that, if you will, to opponent Mike McDermott’s support for pro-life causes such as the recent Eastern Shore Pregnancy Center dinner.

Jim Mathias has spent thousands of dollars – much of it money from PACs and out-of-district – trying to convince District 38 voters he’s “always working for you.” But the question is whether simply voting for or against a particular issue is “working.” As a member of the majority party, he’s in the position where his negative vote can be made with little consequence except to placate the people back home. He doesn’t stick his neck out and publicly testify at a pro-Second Amendment rally or participate in a pro-life march, despite the fact his district would welcome that with open arms. We’re just supposed to count the effort and not the results.

But there are more important items to deal with – I’m watching Game 7 of the World Series.

Cohen out, so who will be in?

August 6, 2014 · Posted in All politics is local, Delmarva items, Politics · 3 Comments 

It came as a surprise to many that Salisbury City Council member Terry Cohen resigned with a little over a year left on her term. Citing her family’s “major life changes” she’s resigning as of August 8.

Cohen was originally elected as part of a reform-minded slate in 2007, and found a natural ally in then-Council member Debbie Campbell. And while those who advocated for reform eventually turned on Louise Smith, who was one of the two new Council members elected in 2007, the real change in Salisbury came when current Mayor Jim Ireton was elected in 2009. Campbell and Cohen became more reviled as the obstacles to Ireton’s agenda, eventually leading to Campbell’s defeat by Jake Day in 2013 as well as Cohen’s removal as City Council president, where she served from 2011-13, to be replaced by the newcomer Day.

Of course, the blogs which focus more on local politics are already aflame with comments and suggestions for a replacement for Cohen, with the situation further complicated by Day’s required military reserve service occurring this week – however, they have until September 5 to name a replacement and they’ll begin accepting applications Monday. That replacement will have just 15 months to serve out Cohen’s term before he or she stands for election, if desired.

Two of the names most bandied about to fill Cohen’s seat are Josh Hastings and Muir Boda. As most locals know, Hastings is already running for a County Council District 3 seat as the Democratic nominee while Boda ran at-large and finished third in the Republican primary behind Matt Holloway and John Cannon – respectively, present and former County Council members. There are others who are being mentioned, mainly on the Democratic side, so the obvious question is whether the Democratic-dominated City Council will stay loyal to party or not.

Yet what do I always hear from Democrats when the Republicans are in charge – we need to have bipartisan consensus, they say. Well, here’s an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and select the best candidate out there. (Worth noting: the city elections are non-partisan.)

I believe in having everyone at the table.  All are stakeholders in this city whether you are a homeowner or business owner, landlord or renter, employer or employee, you have a right to be heard.  We all have a stake in this community and passing it on to the next generation better than we received it is not just the right thing to do, it is our duty.

Join me as we bring forth a positive message of healing, reaching out to our neighborhoods that are disenfranchised and opening up our doors for business.  We have so much work to do and it is going to take all of us putting aside our differences to do what is best for Salisbury.

These were Muir Boda’s words in 2011, just before the general election where he finished fourth – it was the same election where Terry Cohen retained the seat she’s vacating, along with Laura Mitchell and Tim Spies. For the most part, the message rings true still today.

As the city moves into a phase where the downtown may be revitalized, I want to make sure that’s not at the expense of the neighborhoods. As a homeowner in one of the city’s most transient neighborhoods – most homes on his block are rentals – Muir has an interest in maintaining the sometimes-neglected corners of the city. I think he would be a fine choice for this sudden vacancy.

Twenty bucks is twenty bucks

The “rain tax” is probably coming to Salisbury.

Eager to jump on that bandwagon, the Daily Times reports that Salisbury City Council unanimously agreed to move a bill to create a stormwater utility forward for final approval at a future meeting, a date to be determined but likely in the next 60 days. All five of the Salisbury City Council members are Democrats, as is Mayor Jim Ireton, who backs the proposal. Jeremy Cox’s story quotes City Council president Jake Day as saying “There’s no good argument for not having this in place, to have a funding system to pay for things.”

Bull.

There’s a great and very simple argument: we have no idea if what we would be doing will have any significant impact on Chesapeake Bay. As vague as the Phase II Watershed Implemetation Plan for Wicomico County is in terms of how many assumptions it makes, there are two things it doesn’t tell me: the overall impact of Wicomico County presently on the health of the Bay, and the economic impacts following the plan will have on business and our local economy. Does the $20 I would spend each year make a dent, or is it just another way for government to reach into my pocket for dubious benefit? Less than national average fee or not, it takes away from my less-than-national-average salary.

The argument by Brad Gillis also rings true. Because the state requires most new development to adhere to overly strict stormwater guidelines, those who have will still be paying the rate on top of the expense others didn’t put out. Stormwater retention isn’t cheap.

And, of course, there’s the very real possibility that the $20 of 2015 will be $35 after 2017 or $100 sometime after that. Once enacted, I’ve rarely met a fee or a tax that’s decreased and because the goal is so open-ended this just seems like another excuse to reach into our pockets in perpetuity.

This is a state where I pay bridge tolls to subsidize a superhighway I’ll probably never drive, pay a gasoline tax out here in the hinterland to prop up a boondoggle of a public transit system in the urban core (complete with pie-in-the-sky light rail lines many of those along the route don’t want), and get to watch a governor for whom I didn’t vote – twice – play whack-a-mole with expenses that pop up by “borrowing” from dedicated state funds and floating bonds to make up the difference. Why should I trust the city of Salisbury to be prudent with my money when the regulatory goalposts are sure to shift? Ask David Craig about the state and what happens when they change their mind.

Several years ago I proposed a moratorium on new Chesapeake Bay regulations so we could figure out whether all that we had put in place would work. Of course, for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Town Creek Foundation, and other denizens of Radical Green there’s too much money for their coffers at stake to ever agree to such an idea – and it’s such fun to figure out new offensives along our flanks in the War on Rural Maryland.

Needless to say, my reasoning probably won’t change any minds on Salisbury City Council, or that of the mayor. I know Jim Ireton, Jake Day and Laura Mitchell to a greater or lesser extent, and they’re decent enough people, but they seem to have this idea in their head that government central planning is the solution and for every need there has to be a new fee to pay for it. When the “need” is a mandate from on high, that’s where I object. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks for the tapped-out homeowner, but those who are job creators will likely pay a whole lot more and it’s just another incentive to locate elsewhere, in my estimation.

The gradual takeover

It’s been awhile since I talked about the concept of Smart Growth, but some relatively recent developments caught my eye and I figured it was time to talk about them. One of these items has been sitting on my top bookmarks for a few weeks now.

Last spring, against my advice, the voters of Salisbury elected Jake Day to their City Council. Since that time, Day has joined with nine other local elected officials around the state as part of an advisory board for Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. This is a collaboration between the rabidly anti-growth 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Smart Growth America.

Now allow me to say that downtown development is just fine with me. My problem with so-called Smart Growth legislation – such as the Septic Bill which mandated counties provide tier maps for approval by the state, usurping local control – is that it eliminates options local landowners may choose to use. If there is a market for people who wish to live in a rural area, it should be served; moreover, many parts of the region are already off-limits to development because the land doesn’t drain properly. At least that restriction makes sense.

Developing Salisbury’s downtown is important for the city, but not squeezing rural development is important for Wicomico County.

Another recent development in the city is the adoption of designated bicycle pathways, which in Salisbury are marked by “sharrows.” Since I frequently drive in Delaware, I’m familiar with their custom of designating bicycle lanes on the shoulder of the highway, as that state seems to take the concept farther than their Maryland neighbors. But sharrows have a different purpose, simply denoting the best place to ride in a shared lane. In theory, however, a group of bikes moving along the shared lane could slow traffic down to their speed. It may seem extreme, but this has happened in larger cities.

Granted, the designated bicycle ways in Salisbury are somewhat off the beaten path of Salisbury Boulevard, which also serves as Business Route 13 in Salisbury. But the anti-parking idea expressed in the American Spectator article is a dream of Salisbury bicyclists, who want to eliminate one lane of on-street parking when downtown is revitalized. With the lower speed limits common along downtown streets, the bigger danger for bicyclists comes from a driver of a parked car unwittingly opening a car door in the path of a bicyclist rather than the large speed difference common on a highway with a bike lane.

This also works with an anti-car movement called the Complete Streets Coalition, which believes that “incomplete streets (are) designed with only cars in mind.” Instead, they fret that:

(Incomplete streets) limit transportation choices by making walking, bicycling, and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive, and, too often, dangerous.

Changing policy to routinely include the needs of people on foot, public transportation, and bicycles would make walking, riding bikes, riding buses and trains safer and easier. People of all ages and abilities would have more options when traveling to work, to school, to the grocery store, and to visit family.

Making these travel choices more convenient, attractive, and safe means people do not need to rely solely on automobiles. They can replace congestion-clogged trips in their cars with swift bus rides or heart-healthy bicycle trips. Complete Streets improves the efficiency and capacity of existing roads too, by moving people in the same amount of space – just think of all the people who can fit on a bus or streetcar versus the same amount of people each driving their own car. Getting more productivity out of the existing road and public transportation systems is vital to reducing congestion.

Just think of how much control we can have over people’s movement if we could only get them out of their cars. Oh, sorry, was I reading between the lines?

Many of these concepts were outlined in Day’s plan for Salisbury. It’s not that the city doesn’t need changes, but it’s my belief that giving too much weight to less efficient modes of transportation or those who create the need for dependency on the schedule of public transportation is counter-productive to good development. Retail, for example, depends on the ability of customers to have close, convenient parking.

But more important to me is liberty – the freedom to do what you wish with your property or to move about as you desire. Regulations from our overlords in Annapolis enacted over the objections of local government usurp the principle that the best government is the one closest to the people. The push toward mass transit at the expense of the automobile removes a vital travel option from the traveling public – Maryland already spends a disproportionate share of gasoline tax dollars on mass transit as opposed to maintenance and improvement to the highway system, and that inequity threatens to become more pronounced with the Red Line and Purple Line in Maryland’s urban core.

Above all, these should be local decisions. The problem with Smart Growth and its tentacles creeping into government at higher levels is its reliance on central planning. Maybe we’d trust Annapolis more if we thought they had our best interests at heart, but past performance doesn’t bode well for future results.

Update: I was researching a more recent post and came across this nugget from Montgomery County, which wants to usurp a car travel lane for buses on certain routes.

Joining the fray the Eastern Shore way

It’s a scenario of “better late than never”, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler will spend time on the Eastern Shore as part of his announcement tour next week.

While he officially started up yesterday across Chesapeake Bay, the Gansler tour will spend the early part of next week working its way down the Eastern Shore, beginning in Centreville at 9 a.m. Monday and proceeding through a noon stop in Easton, a 3 p.m. appearance in Cambridge, and wrapping up at 6 p.m. at Salisbury University. It will be interesting to see who greets him there, given that five local elected officials (County Executive Rick Pollitt, County Council member Sheree Sample-Hughes, and Salisbury City Council members Jake Day, Shanie Shields, and Laura Mitchell) have publicly backed Anthony Brown for governor.

The Eastern Shore tour concludes on Tuesday, October 1 with a noon stop in Ocean Pines.

Gansler is working from a large polling hole, at least according to a internal Anthony Brown poll released this week (h/t Maryland Juice.) The GarinHartYang poll found Brown had support from 43% of the 608 likely Democratic primary voters, with Gansler at 21% and Heather Mizeur lagging far behind at 5%.

But I noticed a couple vulnerable spots. Among those who feel the state is on the wrong track, the O’Malley record seems to be sticking to Anthony Brown because he and Gansler are tied among that group. Moreover, the fact that not even 3 of 5 DEMOCRATS think the state is on the right track should be of concern to Brown and his backers. It will be interesting to see if Democrats still give Martin O’Malley a 73% approval rating as they did in the Maryland Poll back in January; if not, that’s a crack in the Brown armor.

So it may be worth listening to what Gansler has to say on this leg of the tour, particularly since Anthony Brown didn’t make a point of including our part of the state on his initial announcement tour (although his surrogate would gladly take money.)

The new Salisbury ‘Dream Team’ – Day and Ireton

It probably wasn’t a big surprise based on the primary results and the perception that this election was a tag team match between Jake Day and Jim Ireton vs. Debbie Campbell and Joe Albero. But the preliminary results are in, and it’s all but official that the Day/Ireton side won handily: Day picked up just under 72% of the vote in routing two-term incumbent Debbie Campbell while Jim Ireton managed just 68% of the vote in defeating Joe Albero and winning a second term.

Campbell was the only one of the three incumbents to lose, as District 1 Council member Shanie Shields won a third term with just 48% of the vote – a quirk in the City Charter allowed both challengers to advance through the primary. Cynthia Polk received 3 more votes than April Jackson did this time.

So where will Salisbury go now? Later this month it appears we will find that the 3-2 majorities which always seemed to stymie Ireton’s key initiatives will now become 3-2 votes in favor, with Day joining incumbents Shields and Laura Mitchell to provide a pro-Ireton majority. And I’d love to get a hold of Debbie Campbell’s green-highlighted copy of the Day plan just to see how many of these items indeed cost city taxpayers.

But another question may be the fate of River’s Edge, which was touted by Campbell as one of her achievements. While the money from the state is probably still going to be there, will the plans have to change to accommodate the retail aspect Day wants to bring to the city? (It’s still pretty sad that taxpayers all around the state are going to be paying a subsidy for a artisan community, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Still, given the primary results none of these results were completely unexpected. Both Day and Shields actually improved their percentages from the primary – which was not surprising to me because people like to back a winner. Day gained 723 votes from the primary while Campbell picked up only 292. Over 71 percent of the new votes went to Day, reflective of the final margin and perhaps a result of the (somewhat undeserved) negative reputation Campbell acquired over the years.

Of course, it’s too early to tell what the future will hold for the losers. While April Jackson was a first-time candidate in District 1, Cynthia Polk has now lost twice. And while Debbie Campbell can look back at eight years where she went from the reformer darling against the “Dream Team” in 2005 to being portrayed as the Wicked Witch of the West on one local blog, Joe Albero literally relocated himself to an apartment inside one of the properties he owns a year ago to establish city residency after living outside Delmar, Delaware for several years. Is he through with Salisbury?

For all the talk about attracting businesses in this campaign, it should be noted that Jim Ireton is a financial supporter of the man who has all but single-handedly turned Maryland into one of the most hostile states toward business in the country, Martin O’Malley. His redistributionist policy is one of the greatest handicaps to making Salisbury into a jewel, and we can’t do anything to change that until next year.

And so another election season comes to an end in Salisbury, but the work for those of us who believe in liberty begins now. It’s time to find a conservative slate of candidates willing to stop the subsidies, cut the red tape, and truly place the “open for business” sign in Salisbury – hopefully working in conjunction with a like-minded state government in Annapolis ready and willing to roll back the excesses of the O’Malley era. This city can thrive, but it needs the right people in charge to do it.

Weighing in on the Salisbury races

Yes, I know it’s Easter Sunday, so I wish my believing readers a happy Easter – He is risen!

But on Tuesday, Salisbury voters will head to the polls to elect their mayor and two of five City Council members in the last partial election before changes in 2015 would require all Council members and the mayor be elected simultaneously. So in essence we are picking some of these Council members and mayor for a half-term to be completed in the fall of 2015.

Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter who gets elected in District 1 because they will be advocates for the city’s minority population getting theirs rather than necessarily the benefits of the city as a whole. I heard a lot of complaining from the three women who are running about what the city didn’t do for their district, and while we all want the benefit of good jobs their district in particular is the product of people who made a lot of bad life choices. We also all want a thriving minority community, but it should be in the context of a thriving community as a whole. Moreover, in 2015 that district will double in size and become home to two Council members if the plans remain the same.

But while I can dismiss the District 1 race quickly, I have a lot to say about the mayor’s race.

In 2009, Jim Ireton told us that help was on the way. Well, the city isn’t exactly thriving, and it’s spent a lot of money just to maintain its place on the treadmill. Furthermore, it appears that even more money will have to be spent thanks to government mandates to clean up Chesapeake Bay – despite the fact millions have already been spent on what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant. Meanwhile, Jim touts a lot of “accomplishments” which any halfway decent mayor should have been able to do in his sleep. This is what Jim lists on his website as “Improving Salisbury”:

Third Friday, The city’s first Latino Festival, lowering business capacity fees, people returning to downtown, the city dog park, improvements at Bateman/Onley Road. These are just a few of the important improvements to Salisbury that have happened while Jim has been Mayor. Coalitions across Salisbury have worked with Jim and city staff to move projects forward. Jim led the way on the city’s comprehensive plan, fought for and won a 60% reduction in business capacity fees, and hasn’t raised property taxes his entire time in office.

Jim has aggressively used the city’s revolving loan fund program to help businesses like Mojo’s, and he’s ordered the demolition of five slum properties and worked to close and demolish the Thrift Travel Inn.

Well, no wonder MoJo’s donated to his campaign! I’m just surprised they didn’t max out. But when you think about it – is that a worthy resume of four years in office? Oh, and he claims violent crime dropped 41 percent and he hired the first female chief of police.

But the city still struggles with the same problems it did four years ago. Some things are different and some things are changed, but we still seem to be only treading water. The situation was ripe for a good opponent; instead, we got Joe Albero.

Joe Albero claims to be a successful (now-retired) businessman who would bring that experience to Salisbury. Yet I have to question that because I’ve never seen any of the businesses he created – it’s not like I drive by any of them in my daily rounds as I would a restaurant, a haberdashery, or a manufacturing plant. From what I have gathered, the business he owns works in the lighting field but there are no local jobs being created that I’m aware of. One would think he would point with pride to these businesses and say, see what success I have achieved? But he doesn’t even have a functional “Albero for Mayor” website.

Now I will say Joe has a website which apparently attracts a fair number of readers and is chock full of ads from local businesses who supposedly pay $100 a month for the privilege. If you want to count that as a successful business I suppose you could but consider how he got it to be a successful business – it wasn’t through good customer service or promoting a quality product. I’ve spoken to observers who liken visiting the site to seeing highlights of the 14-car NASCAR pileup – you know it’s wrong, but you can’t help but watch.

So those are Salisbury’s choices for mayor for the next 31 months. I really can’t recommend either of them; although Albero talks a good game I simply have a trust issue with him from past experience.

Yet on the City Council District 2 side, I can provide you with a clear choice.

I can’t fault Jake Day either for trying or for having some sound ideas; moreover, he’s the only candidate who knocked on my door. But I’m troubled by a number of items in his elaborate plan for Salisbury.

I don’t believe one can force the market to adapt to retail, nor can we goose a demand for downtown/urban housing without some kind of subsidy. Day seemingly envisions a Salisbury where all the new housing in certain areas is attached to retail below – of course, the question is whether there is a market for either option considering we have a number of these housing units already available. (One example is the building Albero lives in, which insofar as I recall hadn’t had its apartments leased in several years until Albero himself moved in.)

And while it would be nice to create a Salisbury Boulevard which is more attractive, I have to wonder where the money for these improvements will come from and also how it will affect traffic flow. Day advocates for an expansion of mass transit between Salisbury University and downtown, and seems to focus most of his energy on building up the central city.

He’s also an advocate of LEED design, which is great for energy efficiency but not so good for property rights or inexpensive building. As I’ve often stated, I like a payback period for investment in energy savings of five years or less and, although I haven’t kept up with the LEED field over the last few years, it was heading in a direction even more disdainful of property rights and toward central planning. The words “transit-oriented development” may not mean much to you, but to me it means attempting to do away with the automobile and the freedom it provides.

Over the last few weeks, it’s become apparent that Day was Jim Ireton’s handpicked minion for City Council, and I didn’t support Jim Ireton the first time he ran.

Me, I would rather have a fiscal watchdog on City Council:

Yes, it’s a video which isn’t all that slickly produced and, to be quite honest, I’m not sure how River’s Edge isn’t going to be the same black hole that’s already sitting on the site, just a little farther along. Color me skeptical.

But when the word “no” is justified, I want someone who knows how to say it. Consider Debbie Campbell as a check and balance to the far-left intentions of Jim Ireton. I’ll be quite honest: I didn’t vote for her the last time she ran because I thought Muir Boda would do an even better job, and it’s too bad he didn’t run this time. I was hoping Jack Heath would finish in the top two (and I voted for him, despite his somewhat lackluster campaign) so I’d have a better, more conservative choice than I have with Day in the field; alas, it was not to be.

Will the infighting on City Council continue with Campbell remaining in place? Sadly, the answer is probably “yes.” But I’d rather have a little friction and the assurance someone is watching out for my interests than smooth sailing toward oblivion. I honestly suspect all of the realtors and contractors who have donated to Day will be lined up looking for their palms to be greased later this month if Day is sworn in.

Unfortunately, that joining at the hip of Day and Ireton has also led to the thought that Campbell and Albero are, too. But I haven’t seen Campbell and Albero out campaigning together, and while they may share some of the same goals I’m not taking the package deal. I’m hoping those of us on the local Republican Central Committee can work on getting a better, full slate of candidates before voters in 2015, since it would be a four-year term (and perhaps five separate districts, a Day idea I could endorse.)

But overall the choice for District 2 is clear: let’s get some honest-to-goodness business going in Salisbury, not pay-for-play. Vote for Debbie Campbell on Tuesday.

Final Salisbury city election forum only mildly contentious

Normally I try to do a blow-by-blow of these events by question but instead this time I want to do it by candidate. Many of the questions concerned an issue I also think is paramount, and that’s economic development. Small wonder when the local Chamber of Commerce is the co-sponsor.

And as an executive editorial decision, summarizing by candidate also gives me the opportunity to comment on their final release of financial statements prior to the election.

I want to begin with District 1, a fight in which I have no dog in because I live in the city’s other district. Through a quirk in the City Charter, we found out the primary election did nothing but act as a poll as to relative position in the race. We found both April Jackson or Cynthia Polk would need to find perhaps 80 to 85 votes to get to victory while Shanie Shields only needs around 60 (based on 2009 results, where just over 250 total votes were cast.) But District 1′s pathetic turnout means it’s quite possible the first to 100 votes wins.

I’ll begin with April Jackson, who attended this forum after missing the PACE event in February and almost missing the cutoff in the primary. Her 53rd and tying vote was practically the last one counted in the final canvass.

Her business vision was one of creating a five-year plan to bring in business and tourism, stating “I have no doubt in my mind” the city could succeed. Among the successes she would like to work on if elected is the North Prong/Lake Street neighborhood, something which is currently “a complete eyesore” but could be revitalized.

April also felt that the way to a better business environment was to find out what the city wants or needs. But something the city didn’t need was the enhanced disclosure form argued about by City Council, a document Jackson called “totally unnecessary” and “not feasible.” Moreover, she believed we do need a full-time city attorney.

She also contended, on the question of consolidating city and county services, that we should all work together – I gathered she was more open to the idea than most. In the end, Jackson advocated for a clear vision, smart planning, and open dialogue and vowed to serve with “dignity, direction, and determination.”

Through two reports Jackson has raised just $945, with most of it apparently coming from supportive family and friends. Her chief expenditures have been signage and a radio ad running on local gospel station WDIH-FM.

Fellow challenger Cynthia Polk pledged to bring “the power to listen” to City Council, advocating herself for “active listening.” Yet while she spoke about “the power of no,” Cynthia noted that “every no don’t mean no,” quoting her grandmother. And even on the question of a full-time city attorney, she was noncommittal: “I would have to go and listen.”

She was more decisive about and critical of the much-discussed disclosure form, though, calling it a “borderline invasion of privacy.” Polk was “leery” of exceeding the state requirements for disclosure on a city form. She was also concerned about the consolidation of services with the county, citing the level of service and the budget as factors.

However, Cynthia was willing to create jobs – her “top priority” – through collaboration with local universities and expanding the enterprise zones to include more of District 1. She also pondered how we could attract more Ocean City-bound traffic and tourism – but she seemed a little bit hesitant to embrace mayoral candidate Joe Albero’s claim he would double as the city’s economic development director, jumping in on a mayoral question to note economic development “is a specialty.”

Polk did believe the River’s Edge project, which is near her home, would “give the whole area a lift.” The city needs innovation, and an opportunity to restore that area to the prominence it once had instead of the question “why do you live over there?” Cynthia noted in her closing her shortcomings as a public speaker, but that answer proved she could speak clearly and passionately when needed. “I’m the candidate for the rest of us,” she concluded.

After not filing a full financial report in the primary because she didn’t meet the $600 threshold, Polk revealed she had raised $550 – exactly half of that self-funded – and spent most of her funds on signage. She’d also leaned heavily on three volunteers for distributing the flyers, claiming 34 hours of in-kind services from them at $8 per hour. (One of those volunteers and contributors was former City Council member and 2010 Delegate candidate Von Siggers.)

Incumbent Shanie Shields could obviously lean on her eight years on City Council, but opened up by saying she was “ready to move Salisbury forward.” But two things she wanted in her next term were “a better political climate” and “civility” – for her, the last two years have been “stressful.”

Indeed, she was very critical of the current rendition of City Council. Citing the disclosure form as an example, she revealed it was just 23 taxpayers who wanted the ordinance, with two bothering to testify. It’s “another example of not including stakeholders,” according to Shields. “We need to bring stakeholders to the table,” she would later stress in response to another query.

A second bone of contention with the city’s legislative body was the city attorney. Shields jumped on a statement by District 2 challenger Jake Day about the city attorney, charging that the city hadn’t seen a legal bill since October. “If the previous city attorney had done that we would have his head,” Shanie charged.

On the mayoral question of a full-time economic development director, Shields added her remark that she couldn’t support the hiring of one before other current city workers received raises. Her budgetary concerns extended to the idea of consolidating services with the county, a concept she believed could be handled through mutual aid pacts. Like Jackson, Shields advocated for the idea of developing the North Prong, adding in the concept of extending the existing Riverwalk to that area. She also believed the area of Germania Circle should be converted over to a park, citing how flood-prone it has been.

Not surprisingly, the incumbent has raised the most money in the race, a total which has now reached $3,170. Much of that has come from the building and rental industry – local architect Keith Fisher, realtor Michael Weisner, GNI Properties, and Investment Properties are among contributors which donated at or near the maximum $250 limit. And while she’s spent her money on the regular campaign fare of signs, radio spots, and a handful of shirts, Shanie should also be commended for spending a little bit on feeding her volunteers.

Yet while the District 1 contenders chose to try and sell themselves, the two District 2 candidates who survived the primary were running against something: Jake Day against a Council which he claims needs more collaboration and openness and Debbie Campbell against an opponent versus whom she’s several hundred votes in arrears.

Jake Day, as the leading primary vote-getter, could afford to lay back and call out the need for a business environment that’s “all about collaboration, all about openness.” That included reducing barriers to investment, creating an EDU-free zone, and “making an investment in” an economic development office and business incubator. On the other hand, when the subject of Urban Salisbury came up before the mayoral debate, Day added his belief that Urban Salisbury wasn’t structured right nor was it focused on the right things.

His vision for downtown was one with mixed-use development, something which could be worthy of being called “the capital of the Eastern Shore.” It takes a changed culture, though.

Jake was critical of the disclosure form, decrying the $1200 of city staff time in arguing over the points of an “absurd ordinance,” but one which is a “good idea, executed poorly.” Day also pointed out these and other ideas, like a proposed “lockout law”, came before Council thanks to its president, which served as a subtle dig at Council as composed. That extended to the expenditure of $110,000 Jake claimed had been spent on a city attorney. The 2,500 voters who signed a petition to revisit the city attorney question were right, added Jake. And when questioned about the 2,500 signatures by opponent Debbie Campbell, who pointed out they weren’t certified, Day said “I knocked on doors using that list.” He added that “the county is in a great place” with its internal counsel.

But on other questions, Jake was more receptive. “We have to keep our mind open” to the possibility of combining city and county services if it’s efficient.

In his closing statement, Day pointed out this would be the last gathering of the candidates. “This has been an incredible experience,” he said, adding his admiration for former Council aspirant Jack Heath. When we set our sights on goals, we have the people to accomplish them, Day concluded.

Financially, Day eclipsed the five-figure mark in his latest statement, raising $10,535 thus far and leading all candidates. Included in that was $250 in PAC money from the Realtors PAC in Annapolis. Day has also spent the most on radio ads and fundraisers of any Council candidate, by far.

On the other hand, and by virtue of her distant second-place primary finish, Debbie Campbell had to be more aggressive in her approach to the forum.

She repeated her belief that businesses trying to engage the city should be treated like they’re checking into a five-star hotel, and reminded voters that there had been no tax increase “yet.”

On the subject of the disclosure form, though, Debbie saw it as a way of addressing the “veil” of LLCs over public money. It “creates transparency,” she argued. This contentiousness extended to the mayoral discussion of a proposal to adopt a more stringent “lockout law.” Campbell contended it could be enforced for an unregistered firearm, and the idea was from the mayor’s office.

Debbie also chimed in on a question which turned to the subject of Urban Salisbury, making the contention that they funded the organization “for years” but never saw the desired results. “Sometimes ‘no’ isn’t the popular answer, but it is the right answer,” said Campbell.

She also spoke at some length about the consolidation of services, reminding the audience of about 75 that “the political will did not exist” to keep the human resources and IT departments together between city and county. She also noted that consolidating public safety was “deemed not sensible” but “perhaps” the public works departments could be combined.

Debbie’s vision for the city was one of increasing our tax base, stating that “we don’t need more subsidized housing.” While we have “righted the ship,” said Campbell, we still need good jobs. She was also proud of the River’s Edge project.

Toward the end of the forum, though, Campbell became more critical of her opponent. Holding up a highlighted copy of Jake Day’s 44-page plan for the city, Debbie charged “everything in green (highlighter) costs money…you have to have somebody to say you can’t afford it.” Interestingly enough, that plan is no longer available online. (Apparently there was an issue with access from certain browsers. Jake let me know it was working, and I verified this afternoon.) But I have the (non-highlighted) draft copy.

Download (PDF, 581KB)

She also believed the question of a fulltime city attorney needed to be studied on a cost/benefit basis, where she alleged the 2,500 signatures were not certified. (They weren’t because the threshold for petitioning to an election in the city requires more than 2,500 signatures.)

Debbie’s key point was her status as a fiscal watchdog – “I’ve watched your money,” said Campbell – but she was also critical of the PAC money Day has received. Holding up copies of a mailing paid for by the National Association of Realtors Fund, she cried “is our city for sale?”

Whether it’s for sale or not, Campbell still faces an uphill financial slog in her race. She’s raised $3,466 so far and her fundraiser with Jimmy Merchant was a mild success, although he and the venue cost the campaign $600, while another fundraiser cost $500. She’s also spent money on signs, but no media.

And then we come to the mayor’s race.

Did Joe Albero change his mind? Some believed so regarding the Salisbury Zoo, but a careful reading of this post some observers pointed out showed he only wanted it out of city control. One could consider it privatization. “I don’t recall making that statement” about shutting down the zoo – “no way” would he do so.

But Albero would be happy to comply with the disclosure law. “I have no problem exposing information that’s being required,” said Joe, instead chiding the “overbearing” lockout law.

Joe’s prime platform plank, though, is economic development. “I will become the next economic development director of Salisbury,” said Joe, who added that a $51 million business wouldn’t be run part-time, so neither should the city. We have to market Salisbury on the western Shore, Joe contended, pointing out the difference in costs between the two areas.

Yet, under Ireton, nothing has been done in four years, Albero charged, later extending the idle time to 16 years. “How’s that working out for you?” he asked. If elected, said Joe, there will be no more fingerpointing. He also pledged two key things: “I will not raise taxes” and “we will revitalize downtown Salisbury.” But downtown as a district now was “long on arts and short on entertainment.” We need to think big and make it a destination location, added Joe.

The loss of business “needs to change,” said Albero.

What may also need to change before the election is Albero’s financial status. Two of the five entities which donated to Albero in the second phase of reporting were local businesses, while two others were based out of Delaware. Joe has raised just $600 in the most recent period, bringing his overall total to $7,150 – with $5,000 being his own seed money. Two other oddities about his latest statement: no recorded expenditures and the series of sheets notes him as a “Candidate for City Council.” (The first report was properly shown as “Candidate for Mayor.”)

Jim Ireton has the advantage of incumbency, but it also yielded him tough questions. For example, the idea of false alarm fines, which was so unpopular that Ireton promised to send it back to Council for a work session. He added “I don’t have a vote” on it. The same was true about the “overwhelming” disclosure law being discussed.

In terms of economic development, Ireton bemoaned plans that have just sat there for thirty years, and stated you need “some money spent to make money.” Moreover, City Council “cut Urban Salisbury to the bone” despite the contention by Jim that they brought in $6-7 for every dollar spent. “What happened to Urban Salisbury is a tragedy,” said Jim.

“No one has fought harder for the city,” Ireton said when asked about his plan. He also jumped on Albero for his lack of political experience, saying “you have to know what an RFP is (and) you have to move forward in reality.”

When asked about new projects, Jim stated “I already think Salisbury is a wonderful place.” We needed to use its assets to create prosperity. He wrapped up his presentation by stating some of his accomplishments: moving the barges off the North Prong, a 40% drop in crime, and being selected as an All-American City among them. Indeed, Jim claimed “I have tried to say yes” but “my two opponents” have done otherwise – Ireton was lumping Albero with Campbell; however, he did not mention his own endorsement of Campbell opponent Jake Day.

While Albero and Ireton were roughly even after the first report, Ireton has also eclipsed the five-figure line in donations, gathering $10,148.65 in contributions. One noticeable aspect of Ireton’s contributors, though: over half hail from outside the immediate area, including State Senator Richard Madaleno, another openly gay politician.

Also, while Ireton has spent the usual money on radio ads, print media, and coffee – plenty of java from Main Roots Coffee here in town – it’s also notable that he and Jake Day shared the cost of an election night event at River’s Edge. While it’s not the worst-kept secret that Jim Ireton would like Debbie Campbell ejected from City Council, one has to wonder how the city will be run if Campbell is flipped aside for Day and the 3-2 logjam swings away from current beneficiaries Campbell, Council President Terry Cohen, and Tim Spies.

Next month, we may just find out. Moderator Ernie Colburn noted at the end that “there are no losers here.” If the wrong choices are made, I think he will be wrong and Salisbury will drift further along toward obscurity.

A Hall of Fame fundraiser

Being in the political world, I know a normal political fundraiser provides the opportunity to meet, for a price, at least one candidate for office (like this example from 2010 or this one from last year.) Sometimes the candidate in question will have another more prominent speaker to draw more interest.

Bur it’s not that often that political fundraisers use music as a draw. Certainly I’ve attended my share of benefit concerts over the years but they are normally put together for a cause like the misfortune of someone close to the sponsor’s heart, our veterans, or fighting against breast cancer. While it could be argued the beneficiary of an upcoming fundraiser has her own misfortune of needing to make up a deficit of over 500 votes in a city election, she’s obviously going to pull out all the stops to win.

I’ll talk about the musician first; this comes from the release put out by the campaign:

Jimmy Merchant of the ‘50s doo-wop group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers will headline a fundraiser for Debbie Campbell for City Council. For a suggested contribution of $20, community members can enjoy a live performance by a music legend, best known for the hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”

The release goes on to reveal the date, time, and location: Friday, March 15 at 6 p.m. at Chesapeake East, 501 West Main Street in Salisbury. (This is an art gallery and cafe owned by local artist Dana Simson.) Debbie attempts to tie this into Third Friday fairly well, although the location is a little bit remote from the main Third Friday festivities being held this month in the Powell Building.

And indeed, thanks to his participation in the group, Merchant is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But in writing this piece I found he doesn’t play all that often anymore, living in semi-retirement down on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. (I say semi-retirement as the website hasn’t been updated in over five years.)

With just 2 1/2 weeks remaining in the campaign as of Friday, I would presume anything made on this fundraiser will be plowed right back into a media blitz; a desperate effort for Debbie to keep her job against a candidate who’s not made any major errors so far and has no record to pick apart, let alone a reputation as the queen of “no.”  Campbell’s fundraiser appeal ticks off a number of accomplishments: improving safety at the Onley-Bateman intersection near Salisbury University, contributing to the development of the Safe Streets Initiative, backing salary increases for local police officers, and improvements to the River’s Edge project.

But Debbie carries the burden – fairly or not – of being the poster child for a dysfunctional City Council, a reputation made that way by an occasionally petulant mayor who generally can only count on the backing of two of Council’s five members. If Campbell loses to Jake Day, that balance of power would shift in Jim Ireton’s favor, assuming, of course, that he wins re-election.

So it will be interesting to see how her fundraiser goes, since it will also be a barometer for how people perceive her odds of victory. If it’s one where only a handful show up, the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that people are looking to be on the winning side and it’s not hers.

It’s a primary rerun in District 1

March 9, 2013 · Posted in Campaign 2013 - Salisbury, Delmarva items · 2 Comments 

If you want to find the person who most believes every vote counts, look no further than Salisbury District 1 Council hopeful April Jackson.

On the night of the primary election, she trailed Cynthia Polk for the second and final spot in the District 1 Council race by one vote, 40-39. Adding in the first wave of absentee and provisional ballots left her still one vote in arrears, 53-52. But the handful of absentee votes which are left aside to mix with any late votes coming in from overseas (legal as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day) proved to have that one vote Jackson needed to draw the race for second to a 53-53 tie. The City Charter states that in such a case all those who are tied for the last spot advance, so all we accomplished in the primary election was the elimination of Jack Heath in District 2. (By the way, the 218 votes Heath received were more votes than the total cast in District 1, which was 176. District 2, which is 4/5 of the city as currently constituted, drew 1,384 votes in the aggregate.)

So what does all of this mean? Obviously with two opponents to split the anti-incumbent vote, it may bode well for Shanie Shields to keep her job in District 1 – but with so few motivated voters in that district (judging by the puny percentage which bothered to turn out for the primary) a concerted effort by any of the three could swing momentum their way.

On the other hand, District 2 voters would have to embrace Debbie Campbell once again in a big way for her to retain her seat. Even if she receives all 218 Jack Heath supporters into her camp (I suspect she will draw the majority of them) she’s still in search of 308 votes to catch Jacob Day. It’s definitely his campaign to lose.

And the dynamics of the mayor’s race may play into the general election for Council as well. The general perception is that Debbie Campbell is in the corner of mayoral challenger Joe Albero, while Day and Ireton seem to draw from the same left-wing support base. Shanie Shields seems to be the proxy for Ireton in District 1, and Cynthia Polk could well be an Albero supporter from that same district – Albero and Campbell signs dot the front of her Kim Star Designs business, with the caveat that the building is also shared by another company.

But whether Albero will be a lifeline or albatross for Campbell (or vice versa) has yet to be seen.

Salisbury elections: incumbents advance

February 26, 2013 · Posted in Campaign 2013 - Salisbury, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off 

Update 2-28: Comments from Jacob Day below.

With the votes almost all counted – aside from a handful of provisional and absentee votes  - it looks like both incumbents will advance in City Council voting; however, one incumbent has a steep uphill battle to maintain her seat. Turnout for the election was pathetic, coming in under 10 percent although absentees may push turnout to double-digits.

In District 1, it’s not yet clear who will face Shanie Shields on April 2. While Shields has a comfortable lead with 55 votes, Cynthia Polk is just one vote ahead of April Jackson, by a 40-39 count. If Polk wins it will set up a District 1 rematch from 2009.

District 2 voters, however, would seem to prefer a new member of City Council. Jacob Day overwhelmed the field with 803 votes, an astounding 63% of the votes cast. Incumbent Debbie Campbell appears to have enough of a margin over third-place Jack Heath (271-197) to be the second place finisher, but she enters the general election campaign already 42 percentage points in arrears to Day, who has thus far run an aggressive campaign of signage, mailings, and door-to-door activities (including mine.) Perhaps sending in answers to my questions was the charm for Jacob.

For the pair who are eliminated, it could be a story of lost opportunities, although a one-vote difference means Jackson and Polk will be on pins and needles for several days. If April Jackson comes up short, there will always be the question of whether she would have prevailed had she not dealt with health issues in the critical final days.

As for Jack Heath, I just don’t think he ran much of a campaign. He never seemed as comfortable on the stump and didn’t have a lot of funding to get his name out there, particularly when compared to his much younger fellow challenger, who received a lot of money from the building community. Of course, there will be a group who complains that the local Republican Party did nothing to help Jack, based on the fact he came to a Republican Club meeting and had financial support from former GOP candidates, but as recently as 2010 Heath was an unaffiliated voter. In terms of messaging, Heath’s “Working Together” tagline was fairly blah and didn’t express a sense of leadership or change that’s needed.

So now the general election campaign begins; five weeks where the fighting for votes will probably take a more bitter turn.

Comment from Jacob Day:

It is energizing and encouraging to see so many people send such a clear signal that they want a change in the culture of negativism, discord and pessimism in our City government. Moreover, the message is that they want things to happen in Salisbury and we showed them that – if elected – that I will work diligently to make things happen.

I am so grateful to all of my volunteers, supporters and voters that sent this message. I am uplifted and I believe the City is as well. I want to thank Jack Heath for stepping up as a community leader, working hard in this campaign and remaining a role model throughout. I’m eager to discuss the challenges our City faces with voters and my plan for overcoming them over the next month. I am more assured than ever that we will restore partnership to Salisbury’s City government and we will restore pride and prosperity to Salisbury.

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