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May 2, 2011

Dumb Games

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

At the April 26 Board of County Commissioners work session, Board President Blaine Young and long-serving Commissioner David Gray got into a little manhood contest over the budget.


Not to imply that a disagreement between Mr. Young and Mr. Gray over budget is unusual, but the level of their personal interaction gets increasingly confrontational as we head toward the final vote on the FY2012 budget.


Blaine Young is fulfilling the promises that he made as a candidate; and he seems intent to do as much fulfilling as he can within his first year in office. From easing restrictions on development to tightening the controls on spending, President Young attacks the weekly agenda with gusto and purpose.


It's not that he's insensitive or lacks compassion; it's just that he feels a stronger obligation to reduce the burden on taxpayers than he does to maintaining a full array of social and human services.


The opposite is true with David Gray. He's always been the soft heart of county government, the guy who tears up during pleas for supportive programs and outreach services. Commissioner Gray is a registered Republican, but nothing about any vote he's ever cast would lead one to conclude that. David votes like a typical progressive, and always has.


No one was surprised by his motion to restore a controversial cut to the Head Start program. Much has been written about this, but the facts are these:


Head Start is a narrowly targeted preschool program, but one that has posted very impressive results for the children who participate. Children in Head Start are typically much better prepared to learn in first grade than other low income students who don't go through the program.


Frederick County has put a larger share of local tax dollars into this federally-funded program than any other Maryland county on a pro rata basis.


Frederick County, and almost every other jurisdiction, is facing a large deficit and must prioritize services and programs, denying funds to some very worthy causes.


Once the county commissioners decided to reduce county funding to Head Start, David Gray made it clear he would work to find another way to restore the funding. He met with Head Start workers and families, listening to their pleas and promising to try to fix the problem.


The one thing he didn't do was to speak to his colleagues on the board.


Years ago, former commissioner- now delegate- Galen Clagett had a saying: "All you have to do is to count to three."


The inference is clear. If you want to get something done as a County Commissioner, you need to find two other votes among the five members. Commissioner Gray failed to heed that sage advice.


In last Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Gray speculated widely on sources of funding that might be tapped to restore Head Start funding, as well as funding for a few important social services programs like the cold weather shelter and medical clinic.


To make the point that the gravy train has run out of track, Commissioner Young reflected on the previous Board's commitment to a bond enhancement fund. The fund was created over a decade ago when bond rating agencies expressed long term concerns over how future Boards would manage the growing debt service load on borrowed money.


Commissioner Gray, normally a jolly chap who eschews heated rhetoric, immediately began to mumble his disapproval of Mr. Young's lecture. This tactic, the overlap of commentary while another is speaking might be incredibly ignorant, but it's also fairly effective. In fact, a certain member of the last board made a point to talk over others, mumbling aloud whenever he disagreed with the speaker.


As soon as Commissioner Young yielded the floor, Commissioner Gray leapt down his throat. While dismissing Mr. Young’s concern, he performed a flip-flop of historic proportion. After having supported funding for a bond enhancement fund for the last decade of his service as a commissioner, he told Commissioner Young that the rating agencies don't care about it.


If that's true, then why did we bother to set aside large sums of money to fund it? Was it just a slush fund to provide a back door to a balanced budget?


At one point in the back and forth, Mr. Gray told Mr. Young that he wasn't going to play these "dumb games." Mr. Gray's comments about the bond enhancement fund suggest that he just might be the world grand master of dumb game playing.


Speaking of dumb games, where is the Frederick County League of Women Voters on the question of charter government for Frederick County? For the last two decades, the league has been an active, enthusiastic supporter of a change in the form of government for our county.


They've produced papers, challenged candidates for public office, and held forums on the subject. The league, along with the Chamber of Commerce, have been at the forefront of this dialogue, and consistently voiced support for the initiative.


Now we have a Board of County Commissioners that agrees and has appointed a charter writing board to craft a document and bring it to the ballot. At the same time, we have a group seeking petition signatures to force a vote on the makeup of the charter committee.


The petition seekers have so far offered vague and non-specific reasons for the special election, leaving voters to conclude that they just don't like the Young board's choices.


The League of Women Voters has been strangely silent so far. Do they no longer care deeply about a change of government? Maybe they've decided to take a nod from Commissioner Gray and play dumb. Some of the charter petition drive advocates are long time league supporters. Maybe the league is playing politics, which in and of itself is about the dumbest game anyone can play.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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