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August 18, 2008

Summer Thoughts

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

I became a grandfather back in January. It's almost as great as everyone has ever said. I describe it this way: It's all of the love you had for your own children, without the crushing burden of responsibility!


This revelation is offered as an excuse for this miscellaneous reflections column. I'll be spending the better part of a week in Tennessee visiting with my daughter and grandson.


It's been an interesting summer so far. A few topics that needed a little probing keep bouncing around. Here's my chance to throw them out there.


Rep. Roscoe Bartlett recently found himself involved in a political scandal, something he has studiously avoided over his tenure in Washington as the representative of the Sixth Congressional District. This is a scandal of omission, not commission.


On his annual financial disclosure statement, Congressman Bartlett appears to have missed reporting the sale of several properties. He explained that he had helped his children out by assisting in-home renovation and "flipping" projects. He asserts that he lost money on these ventures, and a local CPA firm seems to agree.


Mr. Bartlett is in an unexpectedly heated battle with former Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty. Conventional political wisdom would discount her chances based on the district gerrymandering efforts in past Census cycles to bunch GOP voters in the 6th District.


GOP loyalists dismiss this as so much silly political fodder, and Dr. Bartlett initially shrugged this off as a non-issue since there was no conflict of interest in the fact that a house was sold by his kids and he didn't profit from the sales.


Predictably, Ms. Dougherty suggests the existence of something sinister here, that by not fully disclosing this financial relationship, there may be other, more serious issues at play.


Interestingly, national attention has so far escaped the 6th District race. In Maryland's 1st Congressional District, Republican Dr. Andy Harris and Democratic candidate Frank Kratovil have spiked the interest of their respective national parties. Mr. Kratovil recently was added to the Red to Blue program, a focused effort by House Democrats to increase the size of their majority.


Ms. Dougherty hasn't been so lucky. She's clearly more convinced of her chances than her own party's leadership. If Representative Bartlett isn't more careful that might change! History, especially recent history, is littered with incumbent GOP congressional losers. Coming so closely on the heels of the Sen. Ted Stevens ethics scandal, Dr. Bartlett needs to pay close attention to voter reaction. Calling this a silly and inconsequential issue is not in his best interests.


Closer to home the Board of County Commissioners finds itself at war. No, the enemy isn't the legislative delegation to Annapolis, at least not yet. No, this war is an internal conflict over trash.


At a recent workshop, the question of Waste to Energy (WTE) versus recycling and reuse efforts sparked harsh words and hurt feelings. Commissioner Kai Hagen is pushing his colleagues to abandon their examination and interest in a Waste to Energy conversion facility. He is convinced that the county can avoid burning trash to reduce landfill space consumption by creative recycling and reuse programs.


This idea isn't really new; several environmentally conscious communities across the country are pursuing these concepts, some with great success. Local officials and citizens recently spent a few days in Boulder, CO, to see how that community was approaching the problem.


To be fair (although that concept is notably missing in this debate), communities that employ WTE are far from environmentally irresponsible. Many are just struggling to find a better way to deal with growing mounds of trash, short of sticking it in the ground or trucking it somewhere else to stick in the ground.


The tense interactions of the commissioners relate to several new wrinkles in this saga. First, national environmental advocates Clean Water Action came to Frederick County to fight the WTE. They employed their normal tactics, including sending out dozens of poorly informed door hangers. Some of the information they put out was pure myth, and some commissioners objected.


During the meeting in question, an angry exchange erupted between Commissioner Hagen and Commissioner Charles Jenkins. The comment that generated the heat came from Mr. Hagen. He interjected a partisan political retort in response to Commissioner Jan Gardner's citation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's report on air pollution.


At that point, Commissioner Jenkins interrupted Commissioner Hagen and challenged the injection of partisanship into a discussion on a local issue. The two battling commissioners continued for several minutes, each talking over one another and President Gardner's attempts to bring some sense of control to the meeting.


On his own personal web forum and The Frederick News Post forum, Commissioner Hagen has been aggressively waging his war against WTE. He has been joined by a group of people who share his view, all of them active users of these newly emerging web forums as a way to communicate. Equally passionate are a group of others who question the efficacy and evidence offered to support some of the claims of the anti-WTE crowd.


Commissioner Hagen seems very passionate and committed to his position. At this point, he has yet to convince a voting majority of his fellow commissioners. Expect the tactics of the opponents to become more confrontational and aggressive as the looming vote gets closer. Maybe the commissioners can figure out how to convert hot air into energy, as the next few months might just light the whole county!


Finally, a few words on the tragic end of Dr. Bruce Ivins' life. Wonder why you feel conflicted about this? It's because there is no neat, bow-tied solution to this problem. As Americans, as citizens of a nation of laws, we need the trappings of a trial to ease our conscience when it comes to accepting a verdict.


Sure, you're going to ask what about O.J. Simpson? Our system isn't perfect, but having a judge, a jury, a prosecutor methodically laying out the evidence, and a defense attorney just as carefully trying to pick it apart, gives us a sense that things are done the right way.


In the case of Dr. Ivins, we're all left with much less than legal perfection. Circumstantial evidence seems to indicate a troubled man. However, all of those circumstantial threads don't answer a fundamental question: Did Bruce Ivins take his own life because he wanted to avoid exposing his role as our first bio-terrorism mass murderer, or did the oppressive weight of a massive and intrusive federal investigation become too consuming for a slightly troubled eccentric who lacked the self-discipline to fight back?


The FBI and federal prosecutors have some blood on their hands, but not necessarily Dr. Ivins'. The intense and well-covered pursuit of fellow Fort Detrick researcher Dr. Steven Hatfill is fresh in our collective memory. Fresher still is the almost $6 million settlement the U.S. government was forced to pay him for ruining his life. Hard to just take the claims against Bruce Ivins on faith, especially given the history of Dr. Hatfill.


We'll never know. Not knowing for sure means we'll be denied that comfortable sense of closure we crave in situations like this.


If you believe that Dr. Ivins manufactured the anthrax, wrote and mailed the letters, and hid all of the evidence of his crimes alone, you can find comfort knowing he won't do it again.


On the other hand, not knowing for sure means we'll wonder about future acts of terror using the resources of our own military laboratories.


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