Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just Dicking Around

I had a blast last night. The Man of the Hour Roast of Dick Story was, in all respects, a huge success. The Spear Center was packed and the drinks and conversation during the cocktail hour flowed like the sludge being sucked from the bottom of Lake Kittamaqundi. The presentation and staging were top notch as well. The HoCo loco biz community turned out en masse to have some fun with the recently retired CEO of the EDA.

There were lots of hair jokes. Dick’s always perfectly coifed locks have been an endless source of amazement for those who have spent any time with him. No matter what the conditions, rain, sleet, or snow, Dicks hair rarely moves. This fact was lampooned by several people wearing Dick Story wigs, including fellow roaster Del Karfonta and Dick's new boss, J.P. Bolduc.

His old boss didn’t make it. Neither did any of the other loco Dems, as far as I could tell anyway. I did see Alan Kittleman and Greg Fox though. They were sitting at the DARS Law Group table.

There are a lot of funny people in HoCo and one of the funnier ones was the evenings master of ceremonies, Dave Bittner. The other funny people on dais were Mac Cassity, Donna Richardson, Malynda Madzel, Paul Gleichauf, Jack Gunther, and Anirban Basu.

But all the funny wasn’t on the dais either. The décor, table favors and the nine ladies who hammed it up as Dick’s Dollies complete with feather boas, set the proper irreverent tone for the evening.

The attire for the roasters was black tie so I got to pull my tux out. It’s been over a year since I’ve had the occasion to wear it and I wasn’t certain how it would fit. Thankfully, it fit, with a little room to spare. There is something about wearing a tux that always makes me feel different. Last night, despite the cold and rain, I felt good.

Federal Lawsuit Update 12

It appears that the long running attempts by Paul Kendall and his merry band of plaintiffs to dismantle the county’s land use and zoning procedures is finally over. The legal drama that has been played out in federal and state courts for almost three years now was dealt a fatal death blow on Monday when the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld an earlier ruling dismissing the case.

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, the "court ruled there are no federal constitutional issues involved in the case.”

Susan Gray, a former Democratic candidate for county executive and the attorney for the plaintiffs, had argued that the denial of the petition that sought to put  the Turf Valley Town Center retail project to referendum was equated with denying the right to vote and therefore a violation of her clients constitutional rights.

That leaves Marc Norman as the last plaintiff standing in the way of the development. After Howard County Circuit Court Judge Timothy McCrone rejected  Normans case in April last year he took his case the Court of Special Appeals. He has already exhausted the appeals in his federal case.

Norman says he will ultimately prevail despite the setback in federal appeals court. He's hoping the names on his petitions will be ordered valid under the new interpretation of Maryland's signature laws in a March 22 Court of Appeals decision in a Montgomery county case.”

That’s doubtful but since the food workers union is footing the legal bills I suppose he feels obligated to put a hopeful face on a hopeless cause

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hug Your Doctor Today

Today is National Doctor’s Day. I know this because of an insert that came with a recent bill from one of my health care providers. Apparently this commemoration officially became a “national” day on October 301990 when Bush the First signed it into law.

This news dovetails nicely with this story by Lena H. Sun in The Washington Post today. Lena writes that HoCo is one of the top three healthiest counties in Maryland along with Montgomery and Frederick.

“The reports, which rank U.S. counties and cities based on how long people live and how healthy they are, reflect disparities that are closely linked to factors outside the doctor’s office, including high school graduation rates, poverty rates and the number of single-parent households.”

So if you see your doctor today be sure to wish them a Happy Doctors Day and maybe even give them a hug, unless of course you are battling a cold like me, in which case a simple card may suffice.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dick Roast

Dick Story Celebrity Roast
The HoCo Chamber of Commerce is hosting a “Man of the Hour” Roast of Dick Story this Thursday. The recently retired CEO of the HoCo EDA will be skewered by his colleagues in the Spear Center in Town Center. Among those who will doing the skewering are Anirban Basu, Donna RichardsonMac Cassity...

...and yours truly.

Fortunately Dick and I have a long history together so I have ample material to work with. Though I count him as a friend, Thursday night I intend to show no mercy.

Post Note: I can tell that I've been stressed when I start getting dates wrong. The Dick Roast is actually tomorrow night, not Thursday night. My bad.

I think I'm a little over committed at the moment.

In addition to fighting the nasty little cold that's been going around I've been swamped with both writing stuff and work stuff. Over the past week I've been pulling together a script for the roast, hosting the podcast and facing the looming deadline for my column in The Business Monthly. At the same time I've been working on an increasingly complex deal at that has begun to take it's toll on my patience and humor.

I really don't have time to be sick right now.

NCO to HoCo

The former offices of Baltimore Aircoil on Montevideo Road in Jessup will soon house the Maryland operations of NCO Financial Systems, a credit collection agency. According to the latest issue of the Howard/Arundel Report newsletter, the Horsham, Pennsylvania based company leased 50,000 square feet of office space that was once the corporate headquarters of Baltimore Aircoil. Baltimore Aircoil moved across the street in 2006 to a new 95,000 square foot state-of-the-art R&D lab. The former offices and rail served manufacturing building were purchased by Exeter Property Group in 2007 and rebranded as the Dorsey Commerce Center.

HoCo’s gain of about 450 jobs is Baltimore’s loss. The company is relocating from the Montgomery Park development on Washington Boulevard in the city.

Monday, March 28, 2011

COPT Projects Cybersecurity Growth

Corporate Office Propeties Trust (COPT), the largest office developer in and around Fort Meade, expects the defense budget for cybersecurity to grow 9% annually for the next five years. According to this story from Citybiz Real Estate, COPT recently “updated its investor presentation to address how its tenant base will be affected by the cuts, and how its recent acquisitions fit into its growth strategies.”

They also expect “up to 10 million square feet of BRAC-related demand over the next 3-5 years.”

Of course all of this is moot unless Congress can pass a budget.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Postcard from Poplar Springs

A few weeks back, Mama Wordbones clipped a review from The Sun about a new restaurant in Mount Airy called Drovers Grill & Wine Co. What caught her eye was the fact they serve only native food from Maryland. Staying true to form, the Drover Grill also exclusively serves Maryland wines. Though I was admittedly a little less than enthusiastic about a place that only served Maryland wines I was up for the road trip.  We put it on our list of places to check out.
Last night we checked it out.

First of all, the Drover Grill & Wine Co. is not in Mount Airy. It’s in Poplar Springs. Mount Airy is across the border. Poplar Springs is in HoCo. Of course Mount Airy is a much larger community and it’s the next town over. It’s a better point of reference for anyone outside of the I-70 corridor so it is completely understandable to see why they’d say they were in Mount Airy. I mean, who’s ever heard of Poplar Springs.

Okay, I had. Back in the day when I was doing a fair amount of road biking, our Sunday group ride often scooted through this blip on the map along Old Frederick Road. Still, it could easily be described as a remote corner of HoCo. Its claim to fame is being the midpoint between Baltimore and Frederick.

Anyway, it’s a cozy little restaurant, perhaps no more than sixty seats. Apparently in a former life it was place called the Country Kettle. Perhaps in homage to its restaurant roots there is large copper kettle in the middle of the dining room that now serves as wine station.

Before dinner we stopped in the bar, adjacent to the dining room. Jennifer, the bartender from Columbia, offered a tasting of the two whites available by glass and three reds. We didn’t like any of them. Not to be deterred, I took a look at the wine list and noticed that they carried Black Ankle by the bottle. I had heard good things about Black Ankle so we ordered a bottle of Rolling Hills. It was most excellent.

Others do a much better job of reviewing restaurants so I’ll refrain from going into detail about our dinner. Suffice it to say that the atmosphere was pleasant, the waiter knowledgeable and attentive (perhaps a tad overly so) and the meal enjoyable. 
We will likely go back, if only for the Black Ankle and an artisanal cheese plate on the patio under the stars.

Weinstein Washes Out

Jon Weinstein, an Ellicott City businessman and former candidate for the House of Delegates was a phone-in guest on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me this weekend. Right off the bat he got a big laugh when he said his company “helps government organizations do their jobs better…”

The shows host, Peter Sagal, asked him if also enjoys pushing big rocks up a hill.

His challenge was to determine which of three news stories presented by the shows panelists was true. It was a tough one. Listening in I chose the wrong one and so did Mama Wordbones when I replayed it for her later.

Proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Beyond the Printed Word

To say that Valerie Gross is passionate about the HoCo library system would be an understatement. As President & CEO of the HoCo Public Library system for the past ten years she has moved the system beyond the bricks and mortar of static libraries and into the very fabric of our community. When describing the mission of the HoCo system she quickly refers to its three pillars; Self-Directed Education, Research Assistance and Instruction & Enlightening Experiences. It was enlightening to me to hear her describe just some of the libraries programs, like the online homework assistance that is available seven days a week!

Where was this when I was struggling through Algebra?

We probably could have spent more time with her and less on the news stories but it was a pretty newsy week. We talked about Columbia’s nerd ranking, the Rockburn Park bicycle skills course, Mrs America, wineries and wine legislation, Michaels Pub, Annie Burton-Byrd, novelty lighters and pot.

Before we started taping, I asked Valerie about the problem of kids hanging out in the library. You may recall that school board member Cindy Vaillancourt expressed concern about this when she was running for school board last year. Valerie didn’t seem to think this was a real problem.

Paul and I are thinking of taking the show on the road soon. Though we very much enjoy our new home at The Mall, it’s fun to occasionally do an away game like we did at the HoCo Fair last summer. We’re open to suggestions to any place that is open to the public, preferably  a place with a story to tell as well.

You can listen to the latest episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

One Foot out the Door

The new board of directors of the HoCo Domestic Violence Center has placed the troubled executive director, Annie Burton-Byrd on “paid administrative leave.” According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun the new board “is acting quickly to make changes.”

The embattled director continues to live in her own little world.

"I still believe I'm the right person for the job," Burton-Byrd said.”


Given her background it’s hard to believe she was even hired in the first place.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Courtney & Friends

Courtney Watsons first fundraiser of the year attracted a good crowd to Serafinos in Ellicott City last night. The fact that this was the second HoCo politico fundraising event this week did not seem to deter her supporters from turning out. She was also joined by her council colleagues, Calvin Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty as well as County Executive Ken Ulman. The remaining council Dem, Jen Terrasa, was not in attendance. Apparently she is battling the same bug that bought down Tom Coale yesterday.

I'm sure Courtney was happy that no protesters picketed her event.

In her brief remarks, Courtney made an impassioned plea for her supporters to pay attention to the 2012 school board race. She noted the importance of our schools to economic health of HoCo and urged everyone to get involved. Recently reelected school board members Frank Acquino and Sandra French were in attendance so presumably these are the types of board members Courtney prefers, as opposed to that other faction led by Allen Dyer.

I also spent a few minutes with Jon Weinstein. Jon was a candidate for the House of Delegates in the last election. He told me that he is going to be a phone-in guest on the NPR program “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” this weekend. If you have ever listened to show you’ll know that these guests participate in a short quiz. The winner gets to have Carl Kasell record a message for their answering machine, if anyone actually has an answering machine anymore that is. I told him I would be listening in to see how he does.

Peter Franchot, the state comptroller and potential gubernatorial candidate in 2014, was also in attendance. Peter told me that we can except to see more of him in HoCo over the next four years. Seeing as he is the states top tax collector I’m not so sure that this is a good thing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Scene This Week In…

The closing of an established watering hole signals a cultural shift in a community. The closing of Michael’s Pub in the Kings Contrivance Village Center on Monday felt like one of those shifts.
Michael’s certainly qualifies as being established. It opened in the summer of 1986 long before anyone ever heard of Looney’s Pub or Rams Head. It enjoyed a long reign as the Happy Hour of choice for folks working in the Route 32 corridor. I was one those patrons in those early years when I worked in the Crystal Heights Office Center on Old Columbia Road.

As befitting a public house of high stature, it’s closing was well covered in the HoCo loco press. The most comprehensive coverage was provided by David Greisman in Columbia Patch, complete with video.
Michael’s Pub will now join other notable Columbia pubs that have given their last call; Lucky Ned Peppers, JK’s Pub, The Last Chance and the Rusty Scupper to name a few.

For those who practice the Christian faith this is the Lenten season, a time of reflection and renewal. Perhaps no chapel is more symbolic of reflection and renewal than Our Lady’s Center on Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City. This is the third incarnation of Our Lady’s Center after the first two were destroyed by fire.
 It also lies in flood plain.

It is a beautiful setting though, tucked down in the trees behind a car dealership, nestled along a creek. It is strikingly peaceful given its commercial and residential surroundings. You begin to relax even as you drive down the long tree lined entrance road.
As good a place as any for reflection and renewal I suppose. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Two Dogs Dining

I reserve the right to occasionally post something that is just plain silly. Today, Limowire, a dog lover and a netizen of Tales of Two Cities, sent me this video. I showed it to Mama Wordbones during dinner tonight and she suggested it was worthy of posting on the blog.

I agree.

Bicycles & Drugs

Some opponents of a proposed mountain bike skills course in Rockburn Park in Elkridge believe that the 5,000 square foot course will be a haven for drug users. According to this story by Janene Holzberg in The Sun, some park neighbors are claiming the course will result in “illegal night riding and drug use.”


First of all, let’s put this into perspective. Five thousand square feet is less than an eighth of an acre. Secondly, I can’t see how a bicycle skills course could possibly be attractive to someone using illegal drugs. There are ample number of other isolated areas in the surrounding parkland for illicit activities without having to hang around an exposed fenced in place with lots of people.

This is actually a great deal for the county. The skills course will be provided free of charge and maintained by the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) as part of their efforts to promote the sport of  mountain biking.

“The 5,000-square-foot, fenced-in course would be built on an acre in the center of the 415-acre park off Montgomery Road. The course would include rock beds, raised portions of trail and fallen trees — obstacles known collectively as technical trail features, MORE member Melanie Nystrom told the advisory board.

There would also be a pump track, which is an angled path used to teach turns, weight-shifting and balance, among other skills, she said.”

Mountain biking is big in HoCo. The East Coast Adventure Guide in Explore the East describes the bike trails in Patapsco State Park as “one of the most fun trail systems in the east". Rockburn Park borders the popular Cascade trail and Morning Choice trail. This is a good thing for HoCo and should be embraced. My new friend Doug Miller agrees.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Monday Night at the Hearing

“Are you testifying tonight?”

The sad truth was that I wasn’t. I had merely come to watch. Some people go to PTA, I go to public hearings…sometimes. In fact last night was the first time I had attended one in the newly renovated George Howard building. Before the meeting started I spent a moment with the council chair, Dr. Calvin Ball. He was wondering if I was going to testfy for the proposed Hilltop Housing redevelopment land swap.

“No, you don’t really need to hear from me, you already know how I feel,” He told me that he had read my post from earlier that day.

I walked into the hearing with one of my favorite HoCo people, Bita Dayhoff. Bita is president of the HoCo Community Action Council. I believe she was planning to testify in favor of Hilltop.

I say I believe because I left at ten o’clock and they were just getting to Hilltop. I called that too. I sat next to Kimberly Kepnes who was  also there to testify in favor of the Hilltop project. She was representing the Ellicott City Business Association. When we sat down at the beginning of the meeting I told to her get ready for a long night.


“Look around. This is a big crowd. A lot people want to be heard tonight.”

It turns out that, in addition to the Hilltop project, the council was also taking testimony on CB9-2011, better known as the HoCo wineries legislation. One of those opposed to the bill, Theodore Mariani, representing a group called Concerned Citizens of the Rural West, began his testimony by declaring that since he is Italian, he’s been drinking wine since he was fourteen.  He isn't against wine but he doesn't want wineries in his backyard. According to this article by  Kellie Woodhouse in The Columbia Flier “many west county residents are still not satisfied with the bill, which allows wineries to host large events and sell their wares on site.”

I left after the wine testimony. I was thirsty.

Bye, Bye, Byrdie

Not surprisingly, the board of directors of The Domestic Violence Center has imploded under Bernie Bradleys leadership. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun the entire board “is resigning to make way for a new, county government-selected group of volunteers after several weeks of turmoil, its president said late Monday.”

“Bernie Bradley, the board president, said all but six board members resigned Friday, and she and the remaining five others plan to step down as soon as Tuesday if county officials can find enough volunteers to replace them.”

The questionable hiring in January of of Annie Burton as the new executive director of the non profit was apparently the last straw for county. The county provides a substantial portion of the groups funding and had grown increasingly frustrated with the boards leadership. Earlier Ken Ulman had frozen county funding for 2012 and ordered an audit of the organizations books.

Prior to being hired by the DVC Annie Burton had been barred from receiving federal grant money. She also has left a trail of lawsuits and judgments from her previous company, The Signature Group.

 “Annie Burton-Byrd said the trouble is the result of allegations stemming from a divorce she is seeking from her husband of nearly 20 years, Kevin Edward Byrd.”

Divorce can get nasty but that doesn’t seem make sense in this case. She was banned from receiving federal grants as a result of her former job as the director of an after school program in Baltimore. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in The Columbia Flier, “Burton-Byrd used five AmeriCorps volunteers sent to help the after-school program to work at her rental management and tree-trimming business. The “misapplication of federal funds” cost taxpayers $30,634, according to Sandy Scott, senior communications advisor to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and conducted the investigation.”

Her husband wasn’t the director of this program, she was. She was also the CEO of the companies in question.

Anyway, Larry Carson did not report as to whether Ms. Burton had resigned along with her board. If not, it would appear to be only a matter of time.

Update: Larry Carson has an update on the situation here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

EC Density Debate

Tonight the County Council will hold a public hearing about the proposed Hilltop Housing redevelopment in Ellicott City.  Stacy Spann, the Director of the HoCo Department of Housing and Community Development would like to replace the aging and money losing Hilltop Housing and Ellicott Terrace apartments with an equal mix of market rate and subsidized housing that would be self sustaining. To do so he would increase the number of units in these two projects from 98 units to 278 units. The two phase project would also involve replacing the existing Roger Carter Recreation Center with a new expanded recreation facility.

Some nearby residents are not on board with this. According to this article by Larry Carson in The Sun, the president of the Chapelview Community Association, Alix Latona told an assembled group at a community meeting about the project that “We are all so scared.”

“Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz complained that the extra apartments would add to traffic woes, while others pointed to another apartment complex nearing completion on nearby Rogers Avenue and 150 townhouses planned across the street that will make things worse.”

It’s the old density debate all over again.

The concern over increased traffic is misplaced. Increased density near the historic district is vital for the economic health of Main Street. It is called Ellicott City afterall.

It also makes sense to develop housing projects that are self sustaining. Mixing market rate units with affordable units allows the project to stand on its own without being a continuing drain on county coffers.

It should be noted however, that this project will not be developed by the same developer as the Monarch Mills redevelopment project in Columbia. The developer that the housing department selected for the Hilltop project is Stavrou Associates based in Annapolis. Stavrou has developed a couple of housing projects in Prince Georges County during the Jack Johnson administration. In this article by Ovetta Wiggins in The Washington Post, the writer claims that “Stavrou is one of the biggest recipients of HOME funds in the county over the past eight years.”

The HOME funds are at the center of the pay for play corruption probe of the former PG county executive.

Steve Moore, a vice president of Stavrou, claims that the Post story was inaccurate in the portrayal of his firm. He insists that all of Stavrou’s dealings in Prince Georges County were aboveboard and that Stavrou Associates has not been implicated in the federal probe.

Though this would be their first project in HoCo, the company has also completed successful housing projects in Harford and Anne Arundel counties.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Frisky's: FAIL

Earlier this month I wrote a post about the controversy surrounding Friskys Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary in Woodstock. I concluded by saying that three acres of land seemed small for a wildlife sanctuary with monkeys in a residential neighborhood but that I’d withhold my final judgment until I got a chance to see the operation firsthand.

That apparently isn’t going to happen. I contacted the sanctuary this past week in hopes of making a visit this weekend. I wanted to do this before the next public hearing this Thursday. I received the following response from Janice Ellis:

“We want you to visit, but unfortunately we cannot conduct a visit this weekend.  With the hearing on the 10th and another scheduled for next Thursday, it is difficult to make time to do anything that is not already part of our daily schedule.

She also wrote that “Between unexpected visits from press, curious people following this case and a seven hour inspection from USDA this week, we had to fit in meetings with our major supporters and also with reporters.”

To be fair, Janice did offer to show me around next weekend. Unfortunately, next weekend is already booked solid for me so that wouldn’t work, besides it would have been after the hearing. I informed Janice that I guess I’d have to take a pass. 

It is often said that it is far easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. I wonder if I should have just shown up as opposed to writing them first.

So I suppose I’ll just remain neutral in the Friskys debate, for now at least.

Max Needs a Home

Yesterday we bundled up all of Mars remaining pet meds, dog food, toys, bowls and leash and took them to the Howard County Animal Welfare Society on Davis Road in Columbia. Mama Wordbones had done the same thing after Lucky passed on last year.

The folks at the shelter were happy to receive them.

After handing over the supplies, Peanut and I lingered for awhile to check out the menangerie of pets. There were dogs of course along with cats, ducks, rabbits and a couple of chickens.

As we were getting ready to leave a large yellow lad bounded up to the fence. I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for labs so we circled back and asked if we could visit for a moment for the big guy.

We were told his name was Max and that he had been given up by his former owner who was no longer able to care for him due to disabilities. Prior to arriving at the shelter Max was underweight and had been chewing on his own paws. Since arriving his paws have begun to heal and he has regained some weight.

Unfortunately, I am not ready to bring on another dog right now but if I were I’m pretty certain that Max would have gone home with us. He is a sweet big guy and he melted against me as I scratched his ears. Michelle, the worker at the shelter, told me she thinks that Max is about four years old. This would be a great dog for a family.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Day for the Wearing of the Red

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph. In some Italian neighborhoods this day is honored with a parade followed by much eating and drinking in honor of the saints intervention during the Sicilian famine in the Middle Ages.  In California this is the day that the swallows make their annual return to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano.

Italian Catholics usually commemorate the day by wearing red and eating a large meal of pasta and fish. There is no meat for these celebrants since this is also the Lenten season.

As near as I can discern there are no celebrations planned in Baltimore’s Little Italy aside from the celebration of Mass. Of course Father Wally and Postman Joe will be celebrating with their Italian friends as part of their annual tribal ritual but that is the only loco St. Joe celebration I know of.

Of course here in HoCo we really don’t have any ethnic neighborhoods save for the burgeoning Asian community along Route 40. That means for the most part this holiday will go largely unrecognized within our borders.

Friday, March 18, 2011

But You Won’t Find One in Columbia…

I realize that it is the day after St. Patrick’s Day but when I saw this video it hit me that there isn’t an Irish Pub in Columbia. There are however at least two in Ellicott City

Blogger versus Homelessness

To celebrate his second anniversary of HoCo loco blogging, Tom Coale, the author of HoCo Rising has embarked on a fundraising effort through his blog to help end homelessness in HoCo.

If he’s not careful he may give HoCo loco bloggers a good name!

Seriously, Tom has long been involved in the Rt. 1 Day Resource Center operated by Grassroots which provides a wide range of services and assistance to HoCo’s homeless population. He now hopes to leverage his blog to provide additional support for the cause.

To find out more about his new initiative check out his post.

Blinded by Ivy

The hiring of Annie Burton-Byrd (AKA Annie Louise Burton or Annie Burton) to be the executive director of the Domestic Violence Center has raised serious questions about the organizations board of directors. The board, which is currently led by Bernie Bradley, had already been through two executive directors in the past twelve months before hiring Ms Burton. That rate of turnover suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the either the boards hiring process or their overall leadership abilities...or both.

In all fairness, there could be valid reasons why the first two executive directors didn’t work out. Unforeseen circumstances may have contributed to their short tenures. That being said, after losing two executive directors in such a short period of time, the board could reasonably be expected to make doubly sure that they got it right the third time.

That apparently didn’t happen. If they had done an even half way job of vetting Ms Burton it’s doubtful that she would have been offered the job. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in the Columbia Flier, Ms. Burton “misused federal grant funds in a previous position.”

“I understand Ms. Burton-Byrd asserts the allegations are untrue and has provided the County’s Public Information Officer with an email from her attorney stating that he ‘understands’ the U.S. Attorney investigated and closed the matter without taking any action,” Ulman wrote in his letter to the auditor. “But according to the Office of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service, Ms. Burton-Byrd is debarred by the federal government and therefore cannot receive federal contracts or grants.”

She also has a trail of lawsuits and judgments from her former real estate company, The Signature Groups. That information is easily attainable to anyone with a computer.

More troubling however, is if the board actually knew about these issues but choose to ignore them for some reason. Could it be that the board felt that the fact that Ms Buton is a Harvard graduate somehow outweighed these other concerns?

As they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the problems at the Domestic Violence Center run deeper than their troubled executive director and that a wholesale change in the board of leadership is also in order. For the sake of this important community organization, the sooner this occurs, the better for HoCo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Grand Day for the Irish

Tis a fine day to celebrating the Irish. The sun is shining and the mercury is headed into the sixties. I hope to drop in to J. Patricks in South Baltimore this afternoon to share a pint or two of the Guinness with my sister, the priest, and the mailman partaking in their annual St. Patrick’s tribal ritual.

Until then, here’s a little Irish music from the Saw Doctors to get the day started properly…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Who Are You?

Think you know what political label fits you best?

Take this short quiz and you may be surprised to find that you’re wearing the wrong label!

(Thanks to my podcast co-host, Paul Skalny for sharing this with me…)

Merrill Lynch Makeover

The Merrill Lynch Building in Columbia Town Center has changed hands…again. The twelve story office tower next to The Mall was originally developed by Pat McCuan and Peter Kirk in 1982 as the Equitable Bank Building. Since then the 137,000 square foot building has traded several times, most recently last month when First Potomac Realty purchased the property from BIT Investments, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

According to the Howard/Arundel Report newsletter, the new owners intend to spend $2 to $3 million in renovations to the property. It won’t be the first time for that either. The Merrill Lynch building has undergone a series of renovations over the years including several attempts to correct continuing problems with the HVAC system.

It wasn’t one of the unions’ better real estate investments. BIT paid $20 million for the building in March of 2007. The sales price to First Potomac was $11 million.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Good Dog Down

I put my dog down today. I thought I was emotionally ready to do this. I wasn’t. Though her health had declined markedly over the past week, I was reluctant to give up on her. I realize that this was really more for me than her; I that sensed she was ready. Age and infirmities had taken their toll. She no longer had the energy or strength for play.

Afterwards, I asked her vet, Michael Shulkin, if playing Dr. Kevorkian was difficult. He shared with me how he once was given permission by a pet owner to perform an autopsy on a dog that had been suffering from cancer. When he opened the animal up the insides were black as night. He imagined that the dog had been suffering for some time. This helped him rationalize that euthanasia was the most humane thing he could do for them. It even gave him some comfort when is own dog contracted cancer and he had to put him down.

Of course the dog has the easy part. Their suffering ends quickly and painlessly. It’s a far different story for their humans.

Leaving the vets office with tears streaming down my face I wasn’t ready to go home. I knew that walking into my house without being greeted by my four legged friend was going to bring on another wave of grief. I needed to go somewhere and collect myself first.

When Mars was a puppy I was living in Ellicott City, not far from Patapsco State Park. Once she was about four months old I’d take her for long walks through the woods to the park almost everyday and her first experience swimming was in the Patapsco River. That’s where I headed this afternoon .

Today, our neighborhood old dogs club lost another member. The ranks are getting thin.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Post Dumps Loco Blog Directory

The Washington Post has redesigned their website and in the process also eliminated the directory of local bloggers. Up until now, for at least the past four years, The Post provided links and feeds from local blogs throughout the metro area once a blog registered with them. Granted, it wasn’t exactly a strong effort. According to Google Analytics, over the past thirty days Tales of Two Cities has received more referrals from The Huffington Post (9) than The Washington Post (4).

I have no idea what The Huffington Post thing is all about.

Anyway, it’s gone now, in case you weren't paying attention.

Meanwhile, The Sun has become much more blog friendly, particularly to HoCo bloggers. The Sun maintains a metro area blog directory and hosts an annual blogger competition called The Mobbies. The Howard County page on the web also includes a sidebar with links to the latest posts from a handful of local blogs. It is the only county page on The Sun website that features local blogs, perhaps a nod to the robust HoCo blogosphere.

Consequently, The Sun is the second highest referral site for Tales of Two Cities (1,880) next to Google (2,108).

Pi Day

While many of us are pouring over brackets for the impending NCAA Basketball Tournament, the math geeks amongst us are also celebrating Pi Day today.
I know it’s traditional to actually enjoy some pie on Pi Day but it won’t be celebrated that way in our house this year. Besides, Mama Wordbones just made a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies yesterday.

Happy Pi Day!

Now That’s Root Beer

Yesterday I checked out the new Big Lots in Columbia Crossing for the first time. Since I am already a Costco member I didn’t feel all that compelled to check out another big box discount store. Though Big Lots promotes itself as being “the nation's largest broadline closeout retailer” I pretty much assumed that the only difference between them and Costco was that you didn’t have to buy stuff in bulk.

I didn’t expect to find Dad’s Root Beer.

The first root beer I ever tasted was Frostie Root Beer. Frostie was originally bottled by the Frostie Beverage Company in Catonsville. The bottler was later acquired by the company that made Dad's. I thought Frostie was a pretty good root beer until I tried Dad’s. Once I tasted Dad’s the other root beers just didn’t stack up. The only problem was that Dad’s was hard to find. Through the years, in all my travels, I’d occasionally get the root beer urge but I’ve never could find Dad’s. I just assumed that they'd stopped making it. When I spotted Dad’s at Big Lots I was skeptical. Could this really be the same Dad’s Root Beer I once held in high esteem or was it just some bottler who purchased the Dad’s name?

I am happy to report that it’s the real thing.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Annie Burton-Byrd and My Dog

It’s been a tough weekend. My old dog is taking her final lap. Her bodily functions are starting to fail. She wanders aimlessly in the kitchen at night, sniffing a pair a slippers, walking away and then coming back to the exact same spot and sniffing again. She’ll do this for twenty minutes…or longer. I know the end is nigh, but making the call as to when to actually pull the plug is gut wrenching. We’ve been together for over thirteen years.

Anyway, I haven’t been really been thinking about the blog this weekend. That is until I received a rather scathing comment yesterday from someone who identified themselves as “Radicalexplicittruth.” Radicalexplicittruth took issue with this post about the developing controversy of Annie Burton-Byrd and the Domestic Violence Center.

“It amazes me that you have the audacity to write a Blog in regards to Ms. Burton based on hearsay. I would advise you to get all your facts straight before you Blog and put anything on the interenet.”

Until Friday afternoon I had never even heard of Annie Burton Byrd. Before every podcast Paul and I grab lunch to go over what HoCo loco news stories we are going to cover in the show. Paul had the same Annie Burton-Byrd story that Lindsey McPherson reported in The Flier later that day. He also told me that his firm had been previously involved in action with her. His take was that the board of the Domestic Violence Center did a pretty lousy job in vetting their executive director. We decided to use the story.

Later I did a quick check on the Maryland Judiciary website and saw that there were five recorded judgments against her totaling over $800,000.00. I decided I had enough to write that she had been in “hot water.” I also wrote that she had been accused of being a slumlord and provided a link to the site that made this accusation. I just figured I'd get to the rest before the weekend was over…or not. The point had really been made already.

Radicalexplicittruth took me further to task.

“This is very irresponsible reporting and any reporter should investigate everything themselves and not listen to hearsay if you are really a Professional.”

In fact I am not a professional reporter. I am a commercial real estate broker with a social media problem. That being said I stood behind what I wrote and I intended to respond to Radicalexplicittruth, later. Right now I was dealing with canine hospice issues.

That’s where Jason Reddish came in. Within a few hours he took up Radicalexplicittruth’s challenge to investigate and found plenty of fire beneath the smoke. I am always appreciative when a Tales of Two Cities netizen takes up some of my slack. Thanks Jason.

My dog thanks you too.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Brave New World for Community Journalism

In the not so distant past, community newspapers like the Columbia Flier and The Howard County Times worked on weekly deadlines. The papers were printed once a week and everything revolved around that schedule. Today, with a large part of their audience only reading online that model no longer holds true. Today, the papers post stories pretty much as they break, particularly with events like high school sports. Paul Milton, the Executive Director of News Operations for Patuxent Publishing and our podcast guest this week has helped shape much of this transformation in the 27 years he's been with the media organization.

One of the more interesting discussions we had was the dynamic of commenting on stories. The comments made on some stories on the Explore Howard website make blog comments see tame by comparison. Paul likened it to talk radio.

Since Patuxent Publishing is in the business of local news gathering we decided to dedicate the entire show to local news. With an abundance of stories this time around like  Town Center sign guidelines, bag taxes, speed cameras, and quadruplet Boy Scouts we had plenty to talk about.

It is also interesting to note that Patuxent Publishing seems to be embracing the blogging community instead of seeing it as a threat. A healthy symbiotic relationship has been developing between the establishment press and the bloggers over the past year. Patuxent writers have begun attending the blogtail parties and even Patuxents irascible editorial editor, Doug Miller, has softened his view of the HoCo bloggers. I believe this to be a very positive development for an informed community.

We’ll likely have Paul back for another news discussion in the not too distant future but until then you can listen to the 36th episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Another Questionable HoCo Hire

No sooner has the dust settled down on the Diane Wilson affair than another HoCo loco organization finds itself mired in personal matter. In January, the Domestic Violence Center hired Annie Burton to be the organizations new President and CEO. Now, according to this story by Lindsey McPherson in the Columbia Flier, Annie “is being scrutinized by county officials, concerned about her ability to lead the organization and reports that she misused thousands of federal dollars in a previous job in Baltimore.”

“An investigation by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that Burton, in her previous position, used five AmeriCorps volunteers sent to help the after-program to work at her rental management and tree trimming business at a cost to taxpayers of $30,634, according to a USA Today news report last month.”

My sources tell me that this is not the first time Ms Burton has found herself hot water either. Some people have even called her a slumlord.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Frisky Business

Frisky’s Wildlife  and Primate Sanctuary was in the news again today. It was the subject of this column by John Kelly in The Washington Post. John reports that “Every animal at Frisky's has a story.”

“Kiko, a rhesus macaque, was given up by his human family in Iowa after he started biting people. His former owner visits Frisky's annually, sleeping on a cot across from Kiko's cage.”

Colleen Layton-Robbins, the preserve proprietor, has a total of 23 monkeys on her three acre property in Woodstock. She has other animals too.

In the rabbit room are a clutch of baby bunnies, rescued from a hoarding situation. There are pygmy goats, minks, chinchilla, parrots, squirrels, all tended by Colleen and an army of volunteers.

Frisky’s has been in a long running zoning battle with their neighbors, Julianne and Richard Wyckoff. The Wyckoffs want the monkeys to go, contending that the preserve is both a nuisance and a health hazard. Their fight has gone all the way up to the state Court of Appeals only to be kicked back down to the county. There is another hearing with the Board of Appeals tonight.

I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Colleen apparently has all the required federal and state licenses and the help of a cadre of dedicated volunteers but three acres seems like a pretty small piece of land for wildlife and primate operation.

I think I’ll take Peanut over there and check it out. I’ll report back after that.

Stream ReLeaf

The same folks that gave us free trees last year are now offering native plants and shrubs as well for select HoCo homeowners.

HoCo residents whose properties border a creek or stream are being encouraged to participate in the 2011 Stream ReLeaf Program. The program, administered by the HoCo Department of Recreation and Parks provides free native plants and shrubs to HoCo property owners who agree to plant the material within 75 feet of a stream.

“This program was initiated in 2003 as part of the implementation of the Little Patuxent River Watershed Restoration Action Strategy, but has expanded to include all of Howard County. Trees and shrubs planted along streams help prevent erosion; provide vegetative cover; and trap nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus - two major pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay.”

If you are interested in participating in this program contact Laura Miller, the Program Director at

And speaking of free trees, the little Dogwood that we got from the county program last fall appears to have it through it's first winter. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Governor Ulman

Last night a group of HoCo loco politico watchers gathered over drinks to ruminate about the future political aspirations of some our loco politico leaders. This was the third time our little fellowship has come together, the last time was in early October, before the elections. We figured it was time to regroup and take stock of things.

Probably the worst kept secret in HoCo loco politico circles is the fact that Ken Ulman, our newly reelected term limited county executive, is laying the groundwork for a run for governor. The group was divided on his chances but some felt that having Ken in the governors mansion would be good for HoCo. The last county exec to take a shot at the top state job was Chuck Ecker in 1998. Chuck was bested in the Repub primary by Ellen Saurerbrey. Ellen went on to lose a close race with the Dem, Parris Glendening.

Ken isn’t the only Dem with gubernatorial aspirations, Peter Franchot, the State Comptroller and Doug Gansler the States Attorney are said to be preparing their own runs. Of course it’s early and lots can happen between now and 2014. Someone below our radar could emerge upon the scene. In fact, I’ve heard some insiders suggest that this election could go to a woman. She would have to be a Dem of course.

The top job in HoCo is also in play. Right now, the most likely suspects are Courtney Watson and Guy Guzzone for the Dems and Alan Kittleman for the Repubs. One of the participants suggested that Guy may opt to run for Jim Robey’s senate seat instead. Jim is expected to retire after this term and Guy seems to enjoy his role as a behind the scenes power broker. On the Repub side Sandy Schrader may contemplate a campaign to retake that seat. She lost it to Jim in 2006 in a contest that got a little dirty.

Everyone had an opinion about Brian Meshkin too. The consensus was that if Greg Fox decides not to seek a third term that Brian would move to District 5 and run as a Repub for that council seat. On the other hand, if Greg does decide to seek reelection in 2014, Brian may be tempted to take a run for county executive. One of the group thought that, from now on, we should simply refer to Brian as “The Amazing.”

I still like The Amazing Meshkin better.

The public house we chose for our gathering this time was Aida Bistro and Wine Bar. It was perfect, not too crowded, not too loud and Dan, the bartender, saw to it that our wine glasses were never empty throughout the evening. I like that in a public house.

“At the Tone, the Time Will Be…”

I can’t remember the last time I used a regular phone to get the time and weather. For the past 70 years Verizon has provided residents the current time by dialing (410) 844-1212 and the current weather by dialing (410) 936-1212. As of June 1st that service will be discontinued.

In his column in The Washington Post today, John Kelly suggests that “this is no reason to mourn.”

“After all, the precise time is available on our cellphone screens. As for the forecast, there's "weather on the 8s," not to mention an entire cable channel devoted to rain, wind, sun and snow. Do we really need to employ a 19th-century technology - Alexander Graham Bell's telephone - to decide if we should wear a sweater or carry an umbrella?”

Like I said, I can’t recall the last time I used this service. In fact, until I read his column this morning I didn’t even know that the phone company still provided it. It turns out that we are one of the only places in country that still has dial up time and weather.

“This is the last area where Verizon provides the weather forecast, although you can still get the time in Massachusetts.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Fat Tuesday

I felt spring today. Mulching crews were out in our office complex, the mercury inched above 50 and I took my car to the carwash.

This month also marks the beginning of the next political season. Our county executive will hold a fundraiser on the 22nd and Courtney Watson will hold one on the 25th. Speculation abounds as to what these two are running for next.

The next school board race has started too. This week Corey Andrews announced that he is running for a seat on the board in 2012. Corey had hoped to be selected as the next student member of the board after Alexis Adams leaves this year but failed to make the short list. Presumably that would make him a high school junior. He has reached out to Allen Dyer suggesting they run a "joint campaign". Allen seems to spend a lot of time with high schoolers.

And speaking of Allen Dyer, Tales of Two Cities got credited in this story by Sara Toth in the Columbia Flier and this story by David Greisman in Columbia Patch for breaking the story about his alleged ethics shenanigans. That was nice.

In yet another sign of the beginning of the next political season, our pub politics group will gather tonight at an undisclosed public house in HoCo. We will begin the process of handicapping the races for governor, county executive, and other local races. 2014 is a long way off and lots of things can happen in the meantime but you have to start somewhere

Laissez les bons temps rouler