Monday, June 30, 2008

Give Them a Raise!

Folks, I have been in the labor movement for almost 14 years and rarely have I seen a more oppressed group of workers. They are vastly underpaid compared to their peers. They work extremely long hours with no overtime payments. They toil in cramped, noisy worksites with constant chaos all around. Their employers are brutal, never thanking them for good work and always flogging them for more output. Worst of all, when they screw up, their bosses drag their names into the newspapers.

Am I talking about carpenters? I could be, but not in this column. How about construction laborers, roofers, bricklayers, janitors or domestic workers? No, not this time. I’m talking about workers who are, in their own way, almost as exploited: the members of the Montgomery County Council.

OK, I just heard you yell, “Adam must be eating too many bon-bons again!” But please bear with me.

Montgomery County Council Members are paid $89,721 per year. The Council President, an office that rotates annually, is paid $98,693. That’s barely a middle-class income in this county. Just look at our housing costs. As of a year ago, the average price of an existing detached single-family home in Montgomery County was $540,000. If you assume annual property taxes of $3,000, an interest rate of 5.75% and $40,000 down, then 42% of a Council Member’s pre-tax salary would be required to make the monthly payment. So we don’t pay our Council Members enough to allow them to afford a house!

Now look at their peers. D.C. Council Members earned $115,000 each last year. There’s thirteen of them serving just over half the population that our nine Council Members cover. Maryland state legislators start at just over $43,000 for three months of work. And there are even quite a few county government staffers that make more money than their superiors on the Council.

And what do our Council Members get for these crumbs? For starters, they get over a hundred emails a day. (I get about that many, but most of them are scams or porn.) They endure endless meetings with wild-eyed activists. (I can hear my wife laughing.) The particularly unlucky Council Members are hauled into Marc Elrich’s office for long lectures on growth policy.

Want more? How about nasty phone calls at home. And pickets in front of their houses. And just to add insult to injury, voters approved a 2006 ballot measure to designate Council Members as “full-time” without raising their pay.

Now if you’ve ever met these Council Members, you know that they are all smart and capable. All of them could be earning far more in the private sector. Take Valerie Ervin. She has 25 years experience in the labor movement plus five more in local government. Any international union would be on its hands and knees to hire her as a political director for more than twice her council salary. She could be flying out to conferences in Palm Springs and Disney World and eating fist-sized shrimps with U.S. Senators if she wanted. Just think about that the next time you’re yelling at her over a cracked sidewalk! And good luck finding anyone who was smarter or worked harder than the late Marilyn Praisner. If she had stayed at the CIA, Osama bin Laden would be on the business end of a bunker-buster by now.

If ever a group of workers needed a union, this is it. So let’s get organized! Every Council Member should wear a button that says, “Pay me what I’m worth!” (Can you imagine the reaction at town hall meetings?) We’ll set up a picket line outside 100 Maryland Avenue. And maybe we’ll have to call a strike. That will stick it to those miserly residents!

Council Members of MoCo, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Blackberries!

End of Column

(Psst… OK, all the readers have left their computers, people. I held up my end of the deal. Now let’s talk about that pedestrian tunnel project…)

Friday, June 27, 2008

The State of Maryland Blogdom, Part Five

Remember our landmark interview with Senate President Mike Miller last January? I described a weird scene as nine liberal bloggers, some with pony tails, others with earrings and several in T-shirts were summoned to a rare audience with the most powerful man to never serve as Governor in the history of the state. It was a heady time for the blogosphere. The special session had driven Maryland political blog readership, both on the left and the right, to record levels and the Annapolis leaders had finally recognized our reach.

As far as I know, of the bloggers who participated in that meeting, I am the only one who still posts on a near-daily basis. Almost all of the rest are gone.

The fundamental building blocks of a political movement are not money, slogans, literature pieces or hired consultants. They are IDEAS and the people who generate them. Maryland is not a blue state because of Mike Miller’s personal power or Martin O’Malley’s campaign war chest. It is blue because residents want a stronger economy, quality education, widely available and excellent health care, a clean environment and, above all, social justice. They want to know how we will get there. And that takes creativity, willpower and risk.

We cannot leave these tasks to our politicians. They are ill-suited for them. The vast majority of the state and local politicians I have met are intelligent, possess superior people skills and are individuals of good will. But they are often cautious by nature and tend to balance their beliefs against their electoral needs. They function within a system that encourages incrementalism and seniority and punishes provocateurs. Many of them can and do implement good ideas but few create lots of them. Those people who do are seldom viable candidates for office.

Red Maryland, possibly the most-read political blog in the state, is a seething lava-pit of ideas, criticism, debate and above all hunger. Its contributors are outsiders. They have little access to money, influential officeholders, mainstream media or any of the conventional tools of political power. All they have left are ideas – lots of them. And thousands of their readers share them with their friends and spread their message. This is exactly what William F. Buckley, Paul Weyrich, Milton Friedman and many other conservatives did before the Reagan presidency. This is how to build a movement.

What about the left? We control every political resource in the state and assume that the right will never be competitive. There are many people on our side who would be excellent bloggers. But they are mostly current officeholders, staffers, lobbyists, activists who work within the system or national players. We hear from them by press release, newspaper soundbite, fundraiser speech or often not at all.

In its prime, Maryland’s liberal blogosphere provided an intellectual vigor that kept the Democratic Party in fighting form. With the decline of many liberal blogs, the ideological field of battle has been nearly abandoned to the right. This is complacency at its worst. It is very dangerous for the Maryland Democratic Party and the state’s political left in general. It must be reversed.

So if you are a progressive and have an idea for something better, write it up. Put it on Free State Politics, start your own blog or email it to us at Don’t assume that someone else will come up with it. They probably will not. Maryland’s blogosphere is wide open and thousands of liberals across the state are waiting to hear what your idea is. Ladies and gentlemen, now is an excellent time to blog.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The State of Maryland Blogdom, Part Four

Political blogs in Maryland really began to roll in 2006, an election year. Back then, a lot of blogs sprang up to cover state and local campaigns, especially in Montgomery County. Remember MoCo Progressive, MoCo Politics, Outside the Beltway, On Background, Sprawling Towards Montgomery, Quid Pro MoCo and the notorious MoCorruption? Most were run anonymously (with Michael Raia's Outside the Beltway the exception) and all offered frequent posts with mostly liberal viewpoints. And now all of them are gone.

Then came the era of Free State Politics. Isaac Smith’s grand experiment set up a common forum in which liberal bloggers from around the state, some open and others anonymous, could post on any state or local issue they wanted. The bloggers fed off each other, shared their experiences in online diaries and elevated the quality of left-wing discourse across the state. Red Maryland, now possibly the state’s most-read political blog, was founded in July 2007 as a counterbalance to Free State Politics.

At its peak last fall, Free State Politics boasted an all-star line-up including Smith, Eric Luedtke, Andrew Kujan, Paul Foer and others, often posting multiple times per day. Free State’s coverage of the special session rivaled the mainstream media, led by Luedtke’s near-daily reporting from Annapolis. Red Maryland bloggers sometimes began their posts by denouncing one of Free State’s contributors (usually Smith or Foer) and much smack-talk was exchanged.

But Red Maryland surpassed Free State in visit count starting in October 2007 and soon had twice as many visits. Luedtke, Kujan and Foer stopped posting and left Smith to battle on alone. Free State has been resurrected in the past and may be revived again, but Red Maryland has won the lead for now.

Like the conservative blogs, the liberal blogs peaked because of the special session and the last general session. MPW, Free State, Bruce Godfrey’s venerable Crablaw and the now-dead MoCo Politics together recorded 8,000-11,000 monthly visits between July and November 2007. Combined visit counts spiked to 21,894 in February before falling to 12,124 last month. That fall is mostly due to Free State’s 66% decline in visits – from 8,892 in February to 3,013 in May. MPW, with 7,320 visits last month, is now the biggest liberal political blog in our dataset.

One blog for which we do not have data is Jim Kennedy’s Vigilance blog. Kennedy is President of Montgomery County’s Teach the Facts group, which advocates for a liberal, open curriculum on gender identity issues in the county’s schools. Kennedy acts as a patient ringmaster in the Chuck Barris mold while dozens of mostly anonymous liberals and conservatives battle it out on everything from nature vs. nurture to the origins of religion. MPW friend Dana Beyer even made news there by announcing her 2010 candidacy for District 18 delegate against a crowded forum of hostile anons. Vigilance must get tons of visits judging from its comment counts but Kennedy seldom strays into non-gender issues.

The decline of the liberal blogs is an important event in the state’s blogosphere. We will discuss the consequences of the left’s fall in Part Five.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How the Planning Board Vote Went Down

The Gazette reported the County Council’s selection of Joseph Alfandre and Amy Presley to the Planning Board yesterday. But the details of the vote are more interesting than the results.

By law, the council had to select one Democrat and one Republican to fill the two vacancies created by the departure of Allison Bryant and the death of Gene Lynch. On the Democratic seat, the first vote taken by the council resulted in four votes for Action Committee for Transit President Ben Ross (from George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin, Duchy Trachtenberg and Phil Andrews), three votes for Kentlands developer Alfandre (from Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner and Mike Knapp) and two votes for former Prince George’s County Director of Parks and Recreation Marye Wells-Harley (from Nancy Floreen and Don Praisner). Since no candidate had a majority, a run-off vote was held. Ms. Floreen and Mr. Praisner supported Alfandre, giving him a 5-4 victory.

The interesting fact here is the nature of the two voting blocs. Many observers expected the five slow-growth Council Members (Elrich, Andrews, Trachtenberg, Berliner and Praisner) to decide on one candidate. This group has been sticking together, more or less, on votes on the budget, free parking at libraries and demolishing the Hillmead house. But that did not happen this time even though the selection of a Planning Board candidate is about as critical a development decision as the council will ever make. Council Members Leventhal, Ervin and Trachtenberg are known to be enthusiastic Purple Line supporters and perhaps that was one reason why they supported Ross. But most of the others concluded Alfandre was the better overall candidate. Most surprisingly, anti-development bad boy Marc Elrich and former End Gridlock slate member Nancy Floreen agreed on the same Planning Board candidate – and a developer no less!

This is a very positive event for a rather rancorous county government. What else might Mr. Elrich and Ms. Floreen agree on? Perhaps they should find out. I for one would love to see the product of an Elrich-Floreen alliance, if only because its very existence would bewilder the rest of the council!

Legendary Clarksburg activist Amy Presley was expected by everyone to win the other seat. But her move to the Planning Board creates some challenges for her Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee. Clarksburg has been a mess in recent weeks with the filing of multiple lawsuits and an apocalyptic showdown in which residents turned against each other in front of developer Newland Communities. (As an activist, I can tell you that there is nothing worse than seeing your own troops go to pieces in the face of the enemy.) Presley’s successors must find a way to get the best deal possible from Newland while keeping their own people together. That is going to be a challenge.

A word on outgoing Planning Board Member Allison Bryant. I will not soon forget how Bryant nearly fell out of his chair with roaring laughter at the sight of our Crossing Georgia video last winter. I have testified many times before many panels and have often wondered whether some of the presiding officials were paying attention. I never asked that question of Bryant, an engaging man who delighted in sparring with speakers. I did not always agree with him, but the Planning Board will not be the same without Bryant’s rolling eyes and thigh-slapping good humor. Planning, politics and life are more enjoyable if you can have fun, a valuable lesson taught by Allison Bryant to the rest of us.

Delegate Gutierrez Wins Progressive States Network Award

On Monday night, the Progressive States Network honored District 18 Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez for her work in defeating anti-immigrant legislation in Maryland. We carry her acceptance remarks below.

The State of Maryland Blogdom, Part Three

With only two of eight Congressmen, 14 of 47 state senators, 37 of 141 state delegates and no statewide officeholders, Maryland’s Republican Party is in bad shape. That cannot be said of the state’s conservative blogosphere. Right-wing blogs have established a loud, robust, and active online conservative community that eclipses the state’s Republican establishment.

Of the 25 state blogs for which we have collected statistics, twelve are conservative political blogs. Prior to the fall of 2007, these twelve blogs saw a combined 16,000-22,000 visits per month. But the special session and the 2008 general session caused readership to explode to a peak of 39,917 visits in February. Since then, visits have dropped to 30,411 in May – down 24% from the peak, but still much higher than a year ago.

Red Maryland is the most widely-read blog among all those for which we have data. The site had a peak level of 14,614 visits in January before falling to 9,839 visits last month. Red Maryland is a common site shared by 20 conservative bloggers, many of whom cross-post from their own individual blogs. With so many contributors, the site offers multiple posts on many days and acts as a one-stop shopping center for Maryland conservatives. Whether free-state right-wingers want quick-and-dirty Democrat bashing or more detailed critiques of liberal policies, they will find it on Red Maryland.

Other leading conservative blogs include the Baltimore Reporter (4,000-5,000 monthly visits), the often-national issue Pillage Idiot (3,000-5,000 monthly visits) and Howard County (also 3,000-5,000 monthly visits, but declining). No other right-wing blog for which we have data reliably cracks 2,000 visits per month but that is deceiving. Many of these blogs cross-post to Red Maryland and so many readers no doubt receive their content there rather than click on multiple sites.

One important blog for which we do not have data is the infamous O’Malley Watch. There is no policy debate or prescription here: it is pure and endless bashing of the Governor, thrown out as blood-dripping red meat to his legions of enemies. While calling for transparency and open government from O’Malley, the blog’s author hides behind anonymity and does not release visit data. But since the blog’s posts often receive over 100 comments each, mostly from anonymous readers, its visit count must be high. In fact, the venomous O’Malley Watch may be the most-read blog in the state, a sad comment on the politics of the free state’s blogosphere.

In Part Four, we will look at Maryland’s left-wing blogs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The State of Maryland Blogdom, Part Two

Maryland political blogs generally fall into one of three categories: liberal, conservative or local. Today, we will focus on the local blogs.

Liberal and conservative blogs are self-explanatory. Local blogs tend to cover a specific area, like Baltimore, Silver Spring or Howard County. They are sometimes not directly political in the sense that the author does not have a strong ideological bias. But they often touch on political issues as they apply to a particular local area. The Silver Spring blogs, for example, offered outstanding coverage of last year’s photography dispute on Ellsworth Drive and the recent debate over the Birchmere/Live Nation project.

Of the 25 blogs for which we have obtained visit statistics, nine are local blogs. Of those, Inside Charm City is the most widely-read with a peak of 16,267 visits in April. Inside Charm City is a general news blog reporting on events in and around Baltimore. Jeff Quinton has established himself as perhaps the city’s most prominent blogger since founding the site in April 2007.

Dan Reed’s Just Up the Pike ranks second with a peak of 6,331 visits in April. In a previous post, I proclaimed Dan the “best interviewer in MoCo blogdom.” He is that and more. Dan chronicles often over-looked East County and occasionally branches out to Downtown Silver Spring and Wheaton. Dan is an architectural student and often comments on development-related issues. He is one of a handful of MoCo bloggers who has kept his blog alive since the summer of 2006. Before I started with MPW, I was a guest-blogger on Just Up the Pike and I continue to read it daily.

Rethink College Park wants Maryland’s biggest college town to become “a walkable, inclusive, and dynamic city.” The site peaked at 7,977 visits in December 2007 and now draws around 4,000 visits a month. Authors David Daddio and Rob Goodspeed have a style similar to Dan Reed’s: highly detailed, very local and forward-looking.

The nine blogs for which I have data have grown steadily in visit counts. Prior to the fall of 2007, they drew combined monthly visit counts in the low twenty thousands. Now they are drawing around thirty thousand visits a month. But that understates their influence because I do not have data for some of the most prominent local blogs including the Pocomoke Tattler, Delusional Duck (in Charles County), Salisbury News and most of the other Silver Spring blogs. Silver Spring, serviced by not only Just Up the Pike but no fewer than three other long-running, frequently-updated blogs is probably the blog capital of Maryland.

Local blogs offer a mix of news, opinion, humor and detail that are indispensable supplements to mainstream media (MSM) sources. That is why demand for them is rising steadily and surely. The only constraint to their growth is the time demands on the bloggers themselves. That is an important constraint (as I can testify!) but enough people have overcome it to make this sector of the blogosphere a serious factor in the state’s political scene.

In Part Three, we will cover Maryland’s conservative blogs.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The State of Maryland Blogdom, Part One

Like many MPW readers, I am a heavy consumer of blogs. Yes, I am addicted to information in general. It’s difficult for me to go an entire day without checking the Post, the Sun, the New York Times and several other mainstream media (MSM) sources at least once each. But blogs (at least the good ones) offer something of value beyond the MSM: a fresh take blending fact and opinion from informed, involved observers – and sometimes players – in the scene they cover. Over the last two years, blogs have become an important but largely intangible part of the Maryland political scene. In this five-part series, I present my best shot at measuring the reach of Maryland’s blogs for the first time.

Now there are many, many blogs in Maryland and everywhere else in the world. They range across every interest imaginable: music, art, food, travel, sports, professional issues, medical issues, and on and on. Our focus in this series will be on blogs that relate to Maryland politics. (Hence our name!)

We exclude from our focus “blogs” that are essentially extensions of corporate media outlets. Maryland Moment, a “blog” that often carries short versions of Washington Post stories, is one example. PolitickerMD is another, as we exposed last year. So are the countless other “blogs” run by the Post, the Sun and other MSM sources. While these sites contain useful information often provided by capable professionals, they are for-profit sites controlled by editors and operated for the benefit of corporate entities. That makes them news sites but not truly independent blogs.

Regular readers know that I am a stickler for measurement and that is the biggest challenge for evaluating blogs. How many people read them? Who reads them? How much influence do they have? These are very difficult questions to answer.

Bloggers, and website operators in general, can use a variety of tools to measure traffic on their sites. Most of them identify IP addresses that connect to the site and access its pages. These tools can then aggregate the visit and page view data and report it back to the blog owner. Some blog owners make the aggregate information public while others do not.

The most common traffic measurement tool used by Maryland bloggers is Sitemeter. Sitemeter describes its measures on its website:

Sitemeter tracks page views and visits. You may also have heard the term “hits.” When someone comes to your site, they generate a “hit” for every piece of content that is sent to their computer. Viewing a single web site page would generate one hit for the page and one hit for every individual graphics file that was on the page. A single page could easily generate a dozen or more hits. When you are browsing a site, every time you follow a link, it is treated as a single “page view.” Sitemeter defines a “visit” as a series of page views by one person with no more than 30 minutes in between page views.
The definitions of both “visits” and “page views” leave a lot to be desired. Visits are not unique; one user accessing the blog in the morning and the evening would be counted twice. And page views are a better measure of use intensity than the number of users. But the virtue of examining statistics from Sitemeter is that it applies the same imperfect standard to every site it measures. Blog-to-blog comparisons can be made and trends can be determined over time. This is a far more transparent standard than that applied by BlogNetNews, which declines to release its criteria for selecting the “highest influence” blogs on the grounds that they are “proprietary.” Imperfect though it may be, data from Sitemeter may be the best available option for measuring and comparing the state’s blogs.

We collected data from Sitemeter or a comparable service for 25 Maryland blogs related directly or indirectly to state or local politics over the last year. In Part Two, we will begin reporting our results.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Trying to Get it Right on Traffic

Remember our description of Montgomery County’s screwed-up system for measuring traffic congestion? Remember our proposal for accurately measuring congestion through massive usage of GPS devices? Well, it turns out that the country’s largest traffic measurement company agrees with us.

INRIX is a traffic measurement firm based outside Seattle that was founded by two former Microsoft executives in 2004. The company just released a report ranking traffic congestion all over the United States. (The Washington area ranks fourth-worst after Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.) How does the company gather its data? The company states:

The raw data comes from the historical traffic data warehouse of the INRIX Smart Dust Network. Since 2006, INRIX has acquired billions of discrete “GPS-enabled probe vehicle” reports from commercial fleet vehicles – including taxis, airport shuttles, service delivery vans, long haul trucks – and cellular probe data. Each data report from these GPS-equipped vehicles includes at minimum the speed, location and heading of a particular vehicle at a reported date and time.

INRIX has developed efficient methods for interpreting probe vehicle reports that are provided in real-time to establish a current estimate of travel patterns in all major cities in the United States. These same methods can aggregate data over periods of time (annually in this report) to provide reliable information on speeds and congestion levels for segments of roads. With the nation’s largest probe vehicle network, INRIX has the ability to generate the most comprehensive congestion analysis to date, covering the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas.
How do they measure congestion? The company calculates a “reference speed” based on how fast GPS-equipped vehicles travel on a road in the middle of the night. Presumably, that reflects driving time in non-congested conditions. Then the company draws on more GPS data to calculate average speeds in each hour of the day for every day of the week. Then the company divides the reference speed (representing free flow) by the average peak-hour driving speed to calculate a Travel Time Index. The higher the index, the greater the congestion. For example, an index value of 1.3 indicates that a peak-hour trip will take 30% longer than a free-flow trip because of congestion.

Is INRIX’s congestion formula the right one? Maybe yes, maybe no. But more importantly, their calculations are based on billions of actual trips recorded by GPS devices in commercial vehicles all over the U.S. Unlike Montgomery County, INRIX does not base its statistics on fluky critical lane volume measurements that are taken once every four years or so and, according to Park and Planning’s own research, do not actually measure congestion.

Folks, we have to be able to measure traffic congestion accurately in order to plan successful mitigations, including road improvements and transit. Here’s a private sector company that is getting a ton of real-world data and giving it their best shot. So if INRIX is doing it, why can’t we?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Democratic Democracy

By Delegate Heather R. Mizeur (District 20).

Neutrality guided my thinking as an uncommitted superdelegate during the recent Democratic nominating process, largely because I prefer building the Party to picking horses. Voters decided that Senator Barack Obama should be our presumptive Presidential nominee.

Sure, superdelegates came out to break the deadlock, but they opted for the candidate who had earned the most pledged delegates. Based on the rules that were in place, the nominating process came to its appropriate conclusion.

That’s different than saying the system worked.

Like any idea committed to paper but unproven in the real world, the flaws in our process only became evident when it was put to the test.

The last eighteen months have made it clear that there are many improvements needed, and that reform means more than preventing superdelegates from becoming the central front of another nominating process. Here are some of the things we should consider.


The idea of superdelegates – or, more officially, an unpledged party leader and elected official (PLEO) delegate – strikes many as undemocratic. Many proposals aimed at curbing their influence center on making their votes more dependent on how the voters in a Congressional district, state, or the whole country voted.

Among these ideas was one I heard from many of Senator Obama’s supporters in Maryland, who believed superdelegates should pledge to vote the way their state (or Congressional district) voted.

The trouble is, Democratic superdelegates aren’t evenly distributed around the country – by population, by percentage of the nationwide Democratic primary vote, or by any other means. Several states – including Maryland and the District of Columbia, won by Senator Obama, and California, New York, and Massachusetts, won by Senator Clinton – are overrepresented by superdelegates. Others states are underrepresented.

This inequity happens for a number of reasons. Many superdelegates are appointed to be at-large DNC members, representing a particular constituency – Young Democrats, African-Americans, GLBT Americans, etc. Former Presidents, Vice Presidents, and some other high-ranking officials also continue to be superdelegates. Wherever these superdelegates live, they are counted with that state’s delegation.

If this logic had been followed by everyone, and all superdelegates had voted the way their States voted, the final numbers would have been much, much different – and this would have probably helped Senator Clinton more than Senator Obama.

Later in the campaign, as the process was nearing its end, I began to hear another argument emerge, mainly from Senator Clinton’s supporters: superdelegates should pledge to support the winner of the national popular vote. But this argument, too, is more complicated and problematic than it seems.

First – in addition to the disagreement about whether (and how) to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida – there was a lack of consensus about whether (and how) to count the votes cast by Michiganders and Floridians. Second, the contests weren’t all held on the same day, making the national popular vote a “photo montage” of the electorate rather than a snapshot. Third – and most importantly – the caucuses held in just over a dozen states do a poor job at capturing “popular” sentiment (more on that in minute).

For these reasons, using the national popular vote for a nominating contest would be as flawed as requiring superdelegates to vote the way of their state or district.

What does it all mean? What should we do about superdelegates?

We could require them (or certain categories of them) to remain neutral until after the primary contests have all concluded, as I did. We could devise a system to bind them (or certain categories of them) to primary vote totals in a way that wouldn’t give some states an outsized influence. We could reduce the overall number of superdelegates, making it less likely that they would exercise as much influence on the nominating process.

Or we could do away with superdelegates entirely.


After Senator and Michelle Obama move into the White House and we’ve secured expanded majorities in the House and Senate, the DNC needs to review whether or not we continue allowing states to hold caucuses. Though cheaper to hold than primaries, they are an imperfect way of nominating a President.

First, and most obviously, caucuses are a bizarre creature in a democracy that values secret ballots. But they also depress overall turnout, and skew what turnout there is away from older voters, working-class voters, voters with disabilities, and other who have trouble making it to a caucus site and staying there, sometimes for hours. There are no absentee ballots for caucuses, and so voters with unmet child care needs, voters who make a living through shift work, deployed members of the military, and voters without reliable transportation are shut out of the process.

We should invest in our democracy by requiring primaries, not caucuses.

A Rotating Regional Primary System

If only Michigan and Florida had followed the rules, their influence on the nominating process may have been greater. But they were only marginally more ambitious than most states in trying to increase their influence on the primary process. (See: Tuesday, Super)

It is past time to allow more states an opportunity to hold the first in the nation primary. We should strongly consider fundamental reform to our party’s nominating contest, taking a close look at a regional primary system. The DNC could carve up the country into 5-8 regions and then use a lottery system to determine the contest dates for each region. This would allow new, different voices to be heard.

Hindsight is always 20/20. Let’s use what we’ve learned from this extraordinary nominating contest to make further improvements for years to come.

Editor's note: This guest post is the second part in a two part series describing Delegate Heather R. Mizeur’s (D-Takoma Park and Silver Spring) status as a Democratic superdelegate in the recent Presidential nominating process.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On the Sidelines but in the Fray

By Delegate Heather R. Mizeur (District 20).

The Washington Post recently ran an article detailing my fifteen minutes in the superdelegate spotlight.

I hope it’s the last fifteen minutes I’ll have to spend there.

Like a couple hundred other Democratic superdelegates around the country, I remained – as the Post put it – “adamantly, stubbornly undeclared” throughout the primary season. And so for nearly six months, the Clinton and Obama campaigns each lined up a small legion of surrogates, who dutifully called to sway my vote one way or the other.

And that’s the story the Post ran, the story most Americans wanted to read about uncommitted superdelegates: phone conversations and meetings with Governors and Senators, encounters with friends and neighbors on the Metro, and – of course – Melissa Etheridge calling.

But my experience is more nuanced than that.

The night before the article ran and my support for Obama’s candidacy became official, he had become our presumptive nominee by reaching the number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

The timing of my decision prompted questions by people who posted online comments, emailed me, or blogged about the article. Why did she wait so long? Why now?

Fair questions – what I haven’t ever articulated well enough was why I stayed on the sidelines.

It’s quite simple: I wanted the voters to decide.

We have never had an election like this one, and we may never have another. Since their creation in 1982, superdelegates had never played a significant role in choosing our Party’s nominee for President.

Even when it became clear that we might be forced into that role, there was no rulebook to guide our decision-making process – or the campaigns’ and the public’s efforts to sway our votes.

I became a superdelegate when the Maryland Democratic Party chose me as one of its representatives to the Democratic National Committee. When I was elected as a Committeewoman in 2005, I pledged to work hard for our Party, to grow our base, to shape our platform, and to support our candidates. Since then, I have remained neutral in Party primaries, which isn’t always easy in a state and a county boasting a bumper crop of talented Democratic leaders.

Last fall, when faced with a heavily contested presidential nominating process, I decided to remain neutral until at least after the Maryland primary had concluded. Doing so lets me be an unbiased resource connecting voters and activists to all Democratic campaigns. It also allows me to advocate and assist all our candidates.

I held a house party for Bill Richardson, and offered to do the same for the other candidates. I volunteered at rallies for Barack Obama and John Edwards. I drove elderly voters to the polls for Hillary Clinton. I took pride in helping other Marylanders do the same.

As Maryland’s primary concluded, it seemed increasingly likely that the contest would remain close and the national dialogue would continue to unfold and flourish. My gut told me that it was important to let that conversation run its course – that Superdelegates should not prematurely end this race. Though my resolve to remain uncommitted was sometimes tested, it was never broken.

Along the way, I was encouraged to declare my choice for the Democratic nominee by both sides of the contest – campaign surrogates, advocates in Maryland and across the country, neighbors, and the candidates themselves. Sometimes it seemed that there were as many rationales as there were pundits to deliver them.

These were oftentimes compelling, but none ultimately convinced me that I should abandon my neutrality. And so I remained “adamantly, stubbornly undeclared,” waiting for the process to play itself out.

On June 3rd, it had ended. The last primaries and caucuses had been held, the last votes had been cast and counted. Senator Obama and his campaign had masterfully developed and executed their national strategy and he emerged as our presumptive nominee.

Never has staying out of a fight proved to be so bruising.

Committing my support when I did has been misinterpreted by some as political opportunism; remaining undeclared through the end of the races has been misconstrued by others as a self-interested joy ride. While I can probably do very little to change these opinions, I would like to offer some insights.

The Democratic Party, Senator Barack Obama, and our candidates up and down the ballot are stronger than ever as a result of this primary season, and we stand ready to defeat Senator John McCain and the failed policies of the Bush Administration in November.

Because the process was allowed to play itself out, each state played an important role and we sent organizers to states and cities where Democrats normally do not compete. Because the process was allowed to play itself out, tens of millions of people voted and we registered record-breaking numbers of new voters. Because the process was allowed to play itself out, Senator Obama is ready to win in November, and we are all ready to help him.

And finally, because the process was allowed to play itself out, America decided – instead of me.

Editor's note: This guest post is the first part in a two part series describing Delegate Heather R. Mizeur’s (D-Takoma Park and Silver Spring) status as a Democratic superdelegate in the recent Presidential nominating process.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert (1950-2008)

By Charles Duffy.

Tim Russert died suddenly on Friday. The news stories of his death are already being pushed off of the front pages as other breaking news happens.

I did not know Mr. Russert although I met him once and he was kind to me then. From watching him on TV I could tell he was a person who was always well prepared and always gave his best. Those are qualities that I value greatly.

I read an interview that he gave a while back and two things he said have stayed with me. One was that he always reminded himself, while hosting Meet the Press, that his own views were not what was important. Unlike many political interviewers on TV these days, Mr. Russert was most concerned with presenting and highlighting the views of his guests.

Another thing that he said was that he did not "dislike any of the political figures that [he] interview[ed]." He was an ardent Democrat once who worked years ago for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Governor Mario Cuomo but yet he could still see the goodness and humanness in all of his guests, no matter which party they were from or what views they espoused.

Mr. Russert was not an Ivy-leaguer and he was not born on third base. He went to John Carroll University and was from a working class family in Buffalo. I loved when he would joke about the Buffalo Bills football team at the end of a Meet the Press Show after having just finished a tough interview on some consequential issue of the day. It would remind me that there is more to life than the serious side of things and also, that it is alright to embrace ones past and take pride in being from a place like Buffalo ... or Pittsburgh (where I'm from).

Also, his love for his father, which he wrote about in his book "Big Russ and Me," was a special thing. Hearing him talk about his Dad always triggered in me thoughts about how much I admired and loved my Dad, Roger F. Duffy, who passed away last year.

Tim Russert died way too young but he lived life to the fullest while he was alive and taught much through his work and actions.

Editor's Note: Charles Duffy is the host of Political Pulse, Montgomery County's premier political interview show.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Good List and the Bad List

I suppose it was inevitable that the Clintons are keeping an enemies list. After all, someone has to show Richard Nixon’s fans how this is really done. Well, I’ve got two lists: the people who make me happy and the ones who don’t.

The Good List

Mike Miller
Big Daddy’s decision to conquer, err, run again is the best news of the month. He is a blogger’s dream and has given us a lot of great material over the years. I am so pleased that he is coming back that I am even willing to forgive him for proposing that dreadful blogger tax.

Dana Beyer
Another politician that just keeps on giving back to bloggers. Whether it’s chasing away shower nuts, taunting right-wing zealots with campaign announcements or running amok on Teach the Facts Vigilance blog, Dana just can’t stop herself from raising Hell regardless of whether it’s good for her politically. If Robin Ficker had joined the County Council staff, I would be sitting in the council lobby with a video-camera every day to watch him go at it with Dana.

Rich Madaleno
He is my State Senator and will one day build us a new Forest Glen Metro entrance, so he has to be on this list. Hmmm… I guess that came across the wrong way. No Rich, you are here because we really, really like you!

Marc Korman, Bob Fustero, Sharon Dooley, Alan Banov, Eric Luedtke, Joe Davidson, Dana and the Rest of You
We really appreciate everyone who regularly reads and comments on this blog. It is both encouraging and necessary that we get feedback, good and bad, on our posts.

The Bad List

Planning Department Transportation Managers
Knowingly relying on a congestion measurement system that their own research proves is flawed is really intolerable. The new Planning Board members, whoever they are, must deal with this issue.

Montgomery County Council Member Marc Elrich
I like Marc and he should not be on this list. But Marc is not happy unless someone is mad at him, so here he is. I’ll come up with a reason for his inclusion later.

They haven’t done anything lately and that’s the point. They used to give us tons of great stuff in the good old days. But recently they have been so quiet and even constructive that I have been reduced to the sad fate of actually praising them. Come on, Central Committee Members, go back to your old ways and help a blogger in need!

And the Worst of the Worst…

My Blog Brothers
David has re-appeared, but what about the rest of you? Why are you making me do all the work?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

4 Bethesda Metro Center Heads to the Planning Board

The Planning Board is holding a hearing on 4 Bethesda Metro Center today, the new office building on top of downtown's Metro station. The Post covered the issue today but left out a couple things our readers should know.

In a previous post, I detailed how the Bethesda CBD Master Plan uses Floor Area Ratio (FAR) to set the density level of the area around the Metro station. FAR is gross building area divided by lot area. But Meridian, the applicant for the new 16-story building, persuaded the planning staff to include half the width of several roads around the project, including Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, in the FAR calculation. Why? Because supposedly the roads were once Indian trails associated with the property and Meridian is arguing that they should count towards lot area. Forget the fact that the Indians did not keep deed or plat records.

Furthermore, the project's opponents are alleging that the inclusion of undedicated road area in FAR has occurred several times before, but only when project applicants were represented by Linowes and Blocher. Charles Claxton and Jerry Pasternak, representing Clark Enterprises, wrote to the Planning Board:

It thus appears that this whole theory of the "prescriptive dedication" of Indian trails is not an historic practice, but the recent creation of Linowes and Blocher, the attorneys who initiated this application for Meridian and who first argued that Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road should be included in FAR calcuations for Bethesda Metro Center. Recent history has shown that the fact that Linowes and Blocher can convince staff to accept its concepts of zoning compliance is not necessarily a good thing.
But Claxton and Pasternak actually go further, baldly stating that the dispute amounts to a repetition of the Clarksburg scandal:

We have seen this scenario before - a developer gets too cozy with staff at the Planning Board and staff enables the developer to violate plans and the law. In Clarksburg I, there was no opportunity for the Board to prevent the integrity of the process from being shattered and citizen confidence in its government undermined. This Board, however, has the opportunity to prevent "Clarksburg II" and should do so by denying the application.
The irony of attorneys for Clark, which is a general contractor, developer and construction manager, deploring developer "coziness" with staff is rich. But then what does Rollin Stanley, the new Planning Director, do but add new ammo to the opponents' arguments. According to the Post:

Stanley criticized the opponents during a speech Friday to members of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. He suggested that they are too focused on minutiae and don't see the big picture, which he said is a growing need for more housing and jobs near public transit as gas prices skyrocket.

"Planning shouldn't be about sitting in a room with five lawyers talking about the road in 1781. When you get to that level... something has gone wrong."
The role of the Planning staff, including its Director, is not to criticize a development applicant or any other parties expressing views on an application. The staff's role is to offer its best professional guidance to the Planning Board. Stanley, who over-ruled lower-ranking staff who originally recommended against the new office building, is treading dangerously close to the line on this project.

Stay tuned folks - this dispute is just getting started.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Planning Board Applicants Narrowed Down to 12

The Montgomery County Council has selected 12 interviewees from 29 applicants for two positions on the Planning Board.

The council’s press release states:

Montgomery Council Sets Interviews for 12 To Fill 2 County Planning Board Positions

ROCKVILLE, Md., June 10, 2008—The Montgomery County Council has set interview dates with 12 applicants seeking to fill two vacancies on the Montgomery County Planning Board.

The term of Allison Bryant, a Republican, will expire on June 14. Mr. Bryant has served two terms and is not eligible for reappointment. The other vacancy was created by the passing of board member Eugene Lynch, a Democrat, on Jan. 31. Mr. Lynch’s term will expire on June 14, 2011.

Interviews are open for public observation. They will be conducted at the Council Office Building at 100 Maryland Ave. in Rockville. The interview schedule is as follows:

Patrick Ryan June 12, 2008 1:30 PM
Benjamin Ross June 12, 2008 2:00 PM
Gerald Roper June 12, 2008 2:30 PM
Goldie Rivkin June 12, 2008 3:00 PM
Cary Lamari June 12, 2008 3:30 PM
Marye Wells Harley June 12, 2008 4:00 PM
Carol Placek June 19, 2008 1:30 PM
Alan S. Bowser June 19, 2008 2:00 PM
Joseph Alfandre June 19, 2008 2:30 PM
Paula Bienenfeld June 19, 2008 3:00 PM
Amy Presley June 19, 2008 3:30 PM
William Mooney June 24, 2008 8:30 or 9:30

The Planning Board has five members. No more than three members of the Planning Board may be from the same political party, and all members must be residents and registered voters of Montgomery County when appointed. Members serve four-year terms and are limited to two full terms. The positions can be filled by a Democrat; a Republican; a voter who declines to affiliate with a party; or by a member of another party officially recognized by the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
Several of these applicants are well known in Montgomery County. Pat Ryan and Cary Lamari are former candidates for the County Council. Amy Presley was a leader in the fight to expose misconduct at the Planning Department in the development of Clarksburg. Ben Ross is the current President and a longtime board member of Action Committee for Transit. Joseph Alfandre was a developer of the Kentlands in Gaithersburg. William Mooney is a former staffer at the Planning Department and was a business partner of Planning Board Member Gene Lynch.

Of the twelve finalists, Alfandre, Bowser, Harley, Lamari, Mooney, Placek, Rivkin, Roper, Ross, and Ryan are Democrats and Bienenfeld and Presley are Republicans. Since the Planning Board will have only one Republican (former District 15 Delegate Jean Cryor) after Allison Bryant leaves, either Bienenfeld or Presley must be picked to fill one of the two vacancies.

We suggest that all the applicants read this series as preparation for what they will be encountering from the Planning Department!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Best of Political Pulse

Charles Duffy of Chevy Chase is the best local political interviewer on television and you are about to see why. In our exclusive package of excerpts from his Political Pulse show, Charles sits down with Chris Matthews, Madeleine Albright, Martin O'Malley and more. Duffy is an old school interviewer who plays it straight. Enjoy everybody!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Montgomery College Adjunct Professors Vote for Union

In a victory for some of the D.C. Metro Area's lowest-paid professionals, Montgomery College's adjunct faculty voted by a 365-105 margin in favor of representation by SEIU Local 500. We covered the struggle waged by the adjuncts to get an election over the last couple months. Following is the press release from SEIU announcing the victory.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

John VanDeventer, (202) 730-7758

By an overwhelming majority, instructors vote to join together for quality education

Montgomery County, MD – The Maryland Division of Labor and Industry announced this morning that an overwhelming majority of part-time faculty at Montgomery College (MC) have voted to join together with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500. Instructors voted over three to one in favor of the union.

“This is a win for the entire county,” said part-time faculty member Alan Stover in response to the election results. “The part-time faculty members at Montgomery College want a stronger voice for quality education for our students. We’re going to work to protect and improve the valuable resources we provide to our community.”

Part-time faculty members teach about half of all courses offered at MC. Recent surges in enrollment, coupled with strains on available funding, have forced adjuncts to do more with less to meet the increased community demand.

To address their growing concerns, the part-time faculty filed a request for a vote on representation with SEIU Local 500 in early March. Since that time, the instructors have received an outpouring of support from both students and community leaders. Over 400 students at MC signed a petition in support of the part-time faculty’s efforts to organize and elected officials from both county and state government have reached out to congratulate the instructors’ victory.

“It is your passion for excellence that has made Montgomery College such a valuable asset to our community,” wrote Montgomery County councilmember Valerie Ervin in a statement to part-time faculty at the college. “And I know that same passion drives you to unite together for a stronger voice in the services you provide.”

This vote is a first for part-time instructors in Maryland and only the second such effort in the Washington, DC metropolitan area after George Washington University voted to unite together with SEIU Local 500 in 2004. The instructors at MC hope this will start a trend for more adjunct professors in the region.

“The opportunities we now have to win improvements for ourselves and our students are endless,” said part-time faculty member Terilee Edwards-Hewitt. “This experience has been a real eye opener as far as the positive things we can accomplish for ourselves, Montgomery College, and our students when we unite together for a stronger voice.”


Service Employees International Union Local 500 represents over 17,000 women and men working in education, public services, community services and child care in Maryland and Washington, DC. Local 500 members serve the public at the Montgomery County Public Schools, Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, The George Washington University, Head Start organizations (Anne Arundel County, Howard County, Rosemount), Maryland Child Care Providers, National Children’s Center, Oxfam International, Public Citizen, and the United States Student Association.

Hellbent in Hillmead

Neighbors of Hillmead Park in Bethesda want additional green space. Advocates for the homeless want additional housing. Why can’t both sides get what they want?

The saga of Hillmead Park began two years ago. Phyllis Piotrow, who lived on a 1.3-acre property next to Hillmead Park off Bradley Boulevard, planned to sell her property and move to New Hampshire. Neighbors blocked her plan to sell the property to developers, so Ms. Piotrow sold it to the county for $2.5 million instead. The county intended to add the property to the adjacent 4.3-acre Hillmead Park but questions arose about the fate of Ms. Piotrow’s residence. The county had been experiencing trouble finding homes for large homeless families, so the Department of Health and Human Services proposed using the Piotrow residence to house a 14-member homeless family. The family would be required to pay 30% of its income in rent. The remaining one acre of the property not occupied by the house would be added to Hillmead Park.

The neighbors revolted against that idea. They want the house demolished and all the land added to their park. In a column yesterday, Marc Fisher quoted two emails to the County Council on the issue:

“I simply cannot believe that anyone with an IQ above that of a retarded chicken would seriously consider putting a welfare brood sow and her 13 kids in a $2.5 million mansion paid for by the taxpayers of this county,” [Rockville resident] Winston Dean wrote to council members.

“May I suggest that you let the poor family live next to you and you let us tear down the [Piotrow] house at Hillmead citizens' expense and . . . let the earth be green,” wrote Hillmead resident Myriam Gaviria.
Hillmead residents should feel fortunate. My neighbors just up Georgia Avenue have been trying unsuccessfully to get the county to purchase Montgomery College property for parkland for more than a year. Instead, they have been told to cross six busy lanes on Georgia Avenue to get to another park with no crosswalk and no traffic light. Hillmead residents already have a park and the county spent $2.5 million to expand it.

Ms. Piotrow’s 3,300-square-foot former home is a single-family dwelling in a single-family neighborhood, so retaining it does not change the physical character of the existing neighborhood. Because only one family is involved, there will be no significant traffic impact on Bradley Boulevard or the rest of Bethesda. The county has not proposed using the residence as a halfway house for criminals or substance abusers. The Greentree Shelter for homeless families has been located near Hillmead since 1983 and has not ruined the neighborhood. And at least one acre of the 1.3-acre lot will be added to the 4.3-acre Hillmead Park, so the neighbors will receive more green space. So if new development, traffic and crime are not problems and public green space will expand, what could possibly remain as an issue? Just take a wild guess.

Council Member Roger Berliner would like to demolish the Piotrow residence. Council Member George Leventhal would like to use it to house the above-mentioned homeless family while adding the rest of the site to Hillmead Park. Both proposals will be considered tomorrow and the council members are lining up on opposing sides. And so we have one park, one family and lots of Hell in Hillmead.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Annapolis Fit Club

Last week’s Post article on lobbyists purchasing dinners for groups of state legislators illustrates two growing threats. The first is a threat to our democracy. The second is a threat to the health of our beloved politicians. Fear not, dear readers – we at MPW have the answer to both of these problems! But I am afraid our legislators may not like it.

Let’s deal with the health threat first. Our state legislators are only human. They often have to work late, confront hordes of militant constituents and put up with unfair harassment from bloggers. The conditions are so terrible that even aspiring state legislators are driven over the edge. And on top of all that, overfeeding from eager lobbyists raises the awful specter of obesity.

Now our state legislators understand the scourge of obesity. That is why they chose to protect the rest of us from it by designating walking as the state exercise. But along come these crabcake-toting lobbyists eager to fatten them into bill-passing complacency. What would you do if you could have free lobsters, steaks, desserts and booze every single night? Come on, be honest!

A state delegate who shall remain nameless admits that obesity is running amok in Annapolis. One legendary story holds that a legislator once gained 100 pounds in a 90-day session. Some legislators keep desk drawers full of munchables to ward off boring committee sessions. And any legislator who resists eating until committee work is over can become a starving, easy mark for steak-bearing lobbyists.

Weight control is therefore mandatory for protecting our legislators’ health. We suggest that prior to every session, each legislator report for a weigh-in. Results will be publicly disclosed, perhaps even including a picture like this one of Brian Dunkleman from Celebrity Fit Club:

A similar weigh-in will be conducted after the session ends and all gains in weight and body fat will be reported. Any legislator who gains 20 pounds or more must report to Drill Sergeant Harvey Walden for immediate weight loss boot camp!

Now let’s return to the health of our democracy. Our legislators are regulated enough. They are already told too much how to behave and what to do (sometimes by the lobbyists). The answer is disclosure. We will accomplish that in two nifty steps.

First, lobbyists will once again be allowed to serve individual dinners to legislators, but they must pay for the privilege. Lobbyists must win the right to entertain these legislators by winning bids at auction. Each legislator will only be able to attend five of these dinners or they will answer to Drill Sergeant Harvey. Every dinner will be recorded and made available for download. (How many of them will resemble the infamous Bromwell dinner?) After a suitable cut is taken out for Senate President Mike Miller’s campaign account, the auction proceeds will go to purchase and maintain a fleet of personal GPS devices.

Second, these GPS devices will be ankle-shackled to all legislators, their staff and all registered lobbyists. Any time a GPS device belonging to a legislator or staffer comes within 10 feet of a device belonging to a lobbyist, that contact will be logged and disclosed on the state’s website. Every citizen will know exactly how much time each legislator spends with each and every lobbyist.

And if the GPS devices record contact between a legislator and a lobbyist between the hours of 10 PM and 5 AM, an immediate phone call and email will be sent to the legislator’s significant other!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Question for Robert Harris

Mr. Harris, thank you for replying to my post on 4 Bethesda Metro Center. I have a question regarding your response.

It is true that the Planning staff saw many virtues in your client's application. (I encourage interested readers to look at the staff's recommendation for approval.) But my coverage of the issue focused on density calculation under the county's Floor Area Ratio (FAR) standard. In responding on that issue, you said:

In calculating the density for the building, the developer followed gross tract area provisions of the Zoning Ordinance and approved by the County in 1989. This calculation allows for the inclusion of road rights-of-way attributable to the property when determining FAR. There are many other development projects in Bethesda and around Montgomery County that relied on and used this calculation in determining the density of buildings.

On May 29, 2008, the staff of the Montgomery County Planning Board recognized in their staff report that Meridian calculated density precisely as defined in the zoning ordinance.
Section 59-A-2.1 of the county's zoning ordinance defines gross tract area, the denominator of FAR, as, "The total area of a lot or parcel of land including any existing or proposed streets, highways, or other land required for public use that is attributable to the lot or parcel dedicated by the owner or a predecessor in title." [Emphasis Added]

The above ordinance means that if an owner dedicates (turns over) a portion of his or her property for public use to the county (such as for a roadway), the owner and his or her successors are still entitled to use its area for the purpose of a density calculation for the remaining property. But the owner must at one point have actually owned the dedicated property used for the density calculation.

As the graphic taken from the Planning staff's report shows, half the width of Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, Edgemoor Lane and Montgomery Lane is included in calculating density for the project. (The blue line shows the lot area included in the staff's density calculation.) This implies that at one time, your client or a predecessor owner actually owned half of those streets.

Mr. Harris, can you tell me the date on which your client or a predecessor owner transferred half the width of Wisconsin Avenue or Old Georgetown Road to Montgomery County or the State of Maryland?

Planning Department Knew About Traffic Measurement Flaws, Part Two

Ten years ago, the Planning Board considered whether to raise the county’s Critical Lane Volume (CLV) standards by up to 100 points. This would have allowed developers to escape traffic mitigation requirements near some intersections exceeding the CLV standards in their policy areas. But citizen activists questioned whether allowing CLV standards to rise would result in more congestion since higher CLVs are thought to indicate more congestion. The surprising answer from the Planning Department’s staff was no. Why? The staff found that CLVs were unrelated to real-world traffic delays.

In a 1998 study entitled, “Measuring Congestion and Delay: The Critical Lane Volume Method,” Planning Department staffers Richard C. Hawthorne and Ronald C. Welke looked at how CLVs compared to other measures of congestion. The authors stated:

In researching how to measure congestion, the study group selected actual delay as the best measure as perceived by the roadway user. The average stopped delay per vehicle in the peak hour is the measure used in the operational analysis of intersections in the 1994 HCM [Highway Capacity Manual], and therefore provided a quantifiable standard.
The authors then gathered data on CLVs and actual delays from 27 observations taken at 15 highly-congested intersections to see if the two measures correlated. They plotted each of these observations against each other on the chart below:

If the two measures were directly related, the observations would cluster tightly around a line rising from zero on both axes. Instead, the observations form an amorphous blob. The authors found that the coefficient of determination between delay and CLV, also known as R-squared, was only 14%. That means that only 14% of the variation in one measure is explained by changes in the other. The authors concluded, “There is little relationship between delay and CLV.”

So if CLV is such a poor predictor of “the best [congestion] measure as perceived by the roadway user,” why not stop using it? The authors said, “The problem is that delay data is difficult and expensive to gather and thus not readily available.” So because CLVs were shown to be unrelated to delay, the Planning Board raised the allowable CLV standards – a move that was opposed two years later by then-Council Member Ike Leggett. And rather than search for a better data source that truly measured actual traffic congestion, the Planning Department has continued to rely on CLVs. The situation is compounded by the fact that Richard C. Hawthorne, one of the study’s authors, was then and still is now the department’s Chief of Transportation Planning.

This has potentially severe consequences for traffic management in Montgomery County. CLVs are used by Planning staff to form recommendations on traffic mitigation for new developments. Under Local Area Transportation Review (LATR), if an intersection near a new development exceeds the CLV standard for its policy area, a developer is required to pay for traffic mitigation measures. But what if, as the above study holds, CLV is not a reliable predictor of congestion? That means there is a possibility that mitigation measures have been installed at intersections that do not need them, and have not been installed at intersections that desperately require them. And this has been going on for at least ten years even though the Planning Department KNEW that CLVs by themselves were a flawed measure of actual congestion.

Planning’s knowing reliance on a defective congestion measure is difficult to understand and impossible to excuse. But it can be fixed. Perhaps delay was expensive to collect ten years ago, but that was prior to GPS units being available for rent at $5 per day.

Our Planning Department was once the best in the country. It is important to every one of us that it produce the highest-quality information on traffic and development that is humanly possible. We do not deserve the cheapest traffic measurement system, or the quickest and dirtiest, or the one we have been using for a long time merely because the bureaucracy wants to avoid change. We deserve the best. We put our alternative on the table and now it’s the Planning Department’s turn.

The long-forgotten CLV study is not available online, but we reproduce it in its entirety below.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Planning Department Knew About Traffic Measurement Flaws, Part One

After last week’s marathon five-part series on traffic measurement, I was prepared to move on to other things. But an anonymous friend of the blog sent me proof that the issues I have been discussing have been known to the Planning Department for at least a decade. An internal study prepared by Planning staff back in 1998 found that Critical Lane Volume (CLV), the measure they use to estimate traffic congestion, has “little relationship” to actual delays. This revelation throws into question the entire system of traffic mitigation used by Montgomery County.

To understand the magnitude of this statistical debacle, we must first review the role played by CLVs in the county’s planning procedures. As I detailed last week, CLVs are hourly sums of conflicting movements (both through and turns) of cars through an intersection. They reflect volume: the more cars pass through an intersection, the more a CLV count will increase. But some of the county’s most congested road corridors have low CLVs because they are too gridlocked for large numbers of cars to get through. Nevertheless, the Planning Department uses CLVs to construct their regular lists of the county’s most-congested intersections and make recommendations for capital improvements.

CLVs play an even more important role when the Planning staff assesses traffic impacts of new developments. One of the review procedures that a new development must pass is Local Area Transportation Review (LATR), an analysis that explores the development’s traffic impact on a handful of nearby intersections. Under LATR, the developer is required to submit a traffic study to the Planning staff estimating the number of new trips that will be created at peak travel hours. The staff then obtains the CLV estimate for the affected intersection(s) and compares it to the standard set for the development’s policy area. If the CLV exceeds the relevant policy area standard, the developer will be required to pay for traffic mitigation measures to offset that impact. These measures might include purchasing Ride-On buses, building bus shelters, installing turn lanes, widening an intersection or other remedies.

The county’s policy area standards provide for acceptable CLVs to be relatively low in rural areas and higher in dense areas. The rationale is that dense areas are likely to have more transit options, especially when they are near Metro stations. As established in last year’s growth policy, the CLV standards by policy area are:

1350: Rural East, Rural West
1400: Damascus
1425: Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, Germantown East, Germantown West, Montgomery Village/Airpark
1450: Cloverly, North Potomac, Olney, Potomac, R&D Village
1475: Aspen Hill, Derwood, Fairland/White Oak
1500: Rockville City
1550: North Bethesda
1600: Bethesda/Chevy Chase, Kensington/Wheaton, Germantown Town Center, Silver Spring/Takoma Park
1800: Bethesda CBD, Friendship Heights CBD, Glenmont, Grosvenor, Rockville Town Center, Shady Grove, Silver Spring CBD, Twinbrook, Wheaton CBD, White Flint

Here’s an example of how this review procedure might work. Suppose a developer wanted to build a commercial project near the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Jones Bridge Road in North Chevy Chase. The Planning Department estimates CLVs for three nearby intersections: Jones Bridge at Manor Road (679 AM, 676 PM), Jones Bridge at Platt Ridge Drive (773 AM, 963 PM) and Jones Bridge at Connecticut (1731 AM, 2017 PM). The policy area standard for Bethesda/Chevy Chase is 1600. While two intersections fall below that standard, Jones Bridge at Connecticut exceeds it in both the morning and evening. This developer would have to agree to a package of mitigation measures to offset the traffic impact on Jones Bridge at Connecticut.

Now suppose the developer wanted to build the same project near the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Knowles Avenue in Kensington. The Planning Department estimates CLVs for three nearby intersections: Plyers Mill Road at Metropolitan Avenue (687 AM, 866 PM), Connecticut at University Boulevard (1335 AM, 974 PM) and Connecticut at Knowles (1433 AM, 1274 PM). The policy area standard for Kensington/Wheaton is 1600. Since none of the intersections exceed the standard, this developer would not be required to pay for mitigation (at least not under LATR).

The county’s traffic mitigation system under LATR is thus based on the premise that CLVs are reliable measures of congestion. When intersections “fail” – that is, they exceed their policy area standard CLV – traffic mitigation is required for new developments. When intersections “pass” – in other words, fall below their standard – traffic mitigation is deemed unnecessary.

But we called into question whether CLVs truly measure congestion all last week. We even revealed a list of four heavily-congested corridors with low CLVs using the Planning Department's own data.

And now we learn that the Planning Department’s own staff confirmed our suspicions ten years ago. More on their long-forgotten findings tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is This Smart Growth?

In April, the Post depicted the battle over a new office tower on the Bethesda Metro station as a struggle between Goliaths: the developer proposing the tower and the surrounding building owners and tenants opposing it. But this dispute is about far more than that. In fact, the Planning Board’s impending decision on this issue may very well change the allowed densities of commercial development all around Montgomery County.

In one sense, the Post is right: both parties to the dispute include commercial property owners. Meridian, which owns the 3-story food court building on the Metro station, would like to replace it with a 16-story office tower. The owners of the Clark Building (just to the north) and the Chevy Chase Bank building (across Wisconsin Avenue) oppose the new tower because it would interfere with their views and sunlight, thereby lowering their property values. But Meridian’s opponents also say that the new tower violates the Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan. Does it?

The key disagreement involves the concept of Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a planning standard designed to regulate building density. FAR is defined as gross building area divided by lot size. So a 10,000-square-foot lot with a FAR designation of 2.0 could have, at most, a 20,000-square-foot building. FAR limits are key components of proposals to limit density and “mansionization” in both Chevy Chase and more broadly throughout the county.

The Bethesda CBD Master Plan sets a FAR limit of 4.0 for an area around the Metro station bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, Edgemoor Lane, Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane. That area includes not only Meridian’s food court building and the pedestrian plaza but also the Clark Building to the north and the Hyatt Hotel, Lorenz Building and Post Office Building to the south. That FAR limit has been in effect for at least 30 years and has served to balance space in the existing buildings against the open space between them. Indeed, the developers of the existing buildings had to respect that FAR limit when those buildings were originally constructed.

Meridian’s opponents claim that the new 16-story tower would push the FAR limit for the area around the Metro station above 4.0, thereby violating the master plan. But in recommending approval for the project, the Planning staff calculated the FAR limit differently from the opponents. The staff cited a 1989 definition for gross tract area, the denominator of FAR, appearing in the county’s zoning ordinance:

Gross tract area: The total area of a lot or parcel of land including any existing or proposed streets, highways, or other land required for public use that is attributable to the lot or parcel dedicated by the owner or a predecessor in title.
This provision was designed to compensate a developer for turning over, or “dedicating” a portion of their land for public use to win approval for a project. If a developer did surrender land for a park, road or other amenity, he or she could still use the land for the purpose of calculating the allowable density of the project under a FAR limit.

But the Planning staff went further. They based a new FAR calculation for the Meridian project in part on a lot size that includes half the width of Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, Edgemoor Lane and Montgomery Lane – the streets that surround the FAR-limited area. (The expanded lot size under the new calculation is indicated by the blue lines on the staff’s map below.) The staff presents no evidence that the owners or former owners of the property ever dedicated or turned over any of these streets to the county as a condition of their properties’ development. How could they when the streets are centuries old?

The Planning staff’s arbitrary inclusion of surrounding street area in density calculations has sweeping consequences for the county. FAR limits are contained in many of the county’s zoning codes. If Meridian is allowed to benefit from this new, more permissible definition of FAR, then property owners elsewhere will want the same right. This will lead to greater density in areas all over the county, including office developments far away from any transit. How smart is that?

If the Planning staff wanted to approve Meridian’s office tower, they could propose amending the Bethesda CBD Master Plan or even writing a new one. But that would take many months of staff time, many thousands of dollars and lots of community input. That would slow down Meridian’s timeline. Instead, the staff has chosen to create a new standard for measuring density that would speed this particular project but create unintended consequences down the road. I have previously written in favor of channeling development into downtowns, but not at the cost of opening a Pandora’s Box of soaring density everywhere else.

Will the Planning Board go along with the staff? We’ll find out after they hold a hearing on the project on June 12.