DLC 10% Price Hike on Special Order Wines

The General Assembly session is over and the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) is safe from competition for another year. As the DLC no longer has to make the case that its prices are competitive, it has decided to celebrate by raising prices by 10% on special order wines over $18 per bottle.

Essentially, this is a tax increase. The County is using its monopoly power to increase the price on these wines by 10%. Businesses have a choice of either eating the cost or passing it on to the consumer. In any case, the change flies in the face of Councilmember Hans Riemer’s much vaunted reform proposal to free up special orders. MoCo is moving in the other direction.

Justin McInerny of Capital Beer and Wine sent out the following notice in response yesterday:

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DLC INCREASES SPECIAL ORDER WINE WHOLESALE PRICES EFFECTIVE JUNE 1, 2016

Hi Everyone,

DLC has announced effective June 1, 2016 wholesale prices for all wines will be 25% over DLC’s cost. This is a huge, costly and burdensome increase for those of us who focus on small production, family owned and operated vineyards. Currently, the mark ups are as follows on wine:

  • 25% on special order wines whose cost to the DLC is under $18 per bottle,
  • 35% over cost for stock wines and
  • 15% for special order wines which wholesale for $18 per bottle.

Note that the percentage based markup is capricious and arbitrary to begin with. Shipping charges should not be based on how much an item costs. Shipping charges should be based on what it costs to ship the product. The DLC has no wholesale sales staff and originates no wholesale business. The DLC, like FedEx, is a delivery service which fulfils wholesale orders taken by third parties. A wine that wholesales for $10 per bottle costs the same to ship as a wine which wholesales for $12 per bottle.

HERE IS WHAT YOU CAN DO

I have made it easy for you to do something about this. Contact County Executive Leggett and the County Council members below and protest this decision.  

You can also call County Executive Leggett directly 240-777-0311, the DLC runs under his supervision.

You can also call the Councilmembers directly or e-mail them directly through the County Council website here.

Thank you for your help.

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CD8 Primary Election Results, Part Four

A guest blog by Adam Pagnucco.

Let’s put together the previous three parts and look in detail at the strengths and weaknesses of the top three candidates.

Senator Jamie Raskin

Strongest Performances

Takoma Park: 64.2% (1st)

Legislative District 20: 51.9% (1st)

Silver Spring Inside the Beltway: 49.9% (1st)

Inside the Beltway: 47.9% (1st)

Montgomery County Council District 5: 47.2% (1st)

Chevy Chase: 45.5% (1st)

Cabin John: 41.6% (1st)

Bethesda: 41.3% (1st)

Montgomery County Council District 1: 41.3% (1st)

Legislative District 16: 40.6% (1st)

Weakest Performances

Derwood: 11.0% (3rd)

Carroll County Total Votes: 12.0% (3rd)

Damascus: 12.5% (3rd)

Frederick County Total Votes: 12.7% (3rd)

White Population Over 90%: 13.6% (3rd)

Glenmont/Norbeck: 15.0% (4th)

The above areas illustrating Raskin’s greatest strengths have something in common: they are all totally or primarily inside the Beltway.  (Most of the portion of Council District 1 that is outside the Beltway is in Congressional District 6.)  The areas showing his greatest weaknesses also have something in common: they are all totally or primarily outside the Beltway, some of them a considerable distance outside.  Raskin expanded his geographic base successfully since 74% of his votes came from outside District 20, but his votes began to dry out north of Norbeck Road.  His 6.5 point victory was due to his ability to consolidate the vote in Downcounty precincts while pulling just enough votes from the north to prevent David Trone or Kathleen Matthews from winning.

David Trone

Strongest Performances

Carroll County Total Votes: 51.8% (1st)

White Population Over 90%: 51.4% (1st)

Frederick County Total Votes: 51.2% (1st)

Damascus: 44.9% (1st)

Montgomery County Council District 2: 41.5% (1st)

Legislative District 15: 38.6% (1st)

Derwood: 36.9% (2nd)

Glenmont/Norbeck: 36.1% (1st)

Potomac: 35.1% (1st)

Legislative District 14: 34.2% (1st)

Weakest Performances

Takoma Park: 11.7% (3rd)

Chevy Chase: 13.9% (3rd)

Inside the Beltway: 15.8% (3rd)

Legislative District 20: 16.8% (3rd)

Silver Spring Inside the Beltway: 17.0% (3rd)

Bethesda: 18.1% (3rd)

Montgomery County Council District 1: 18.4% (3rd)

Montgomery County Council District 5: 18.5% (2nd)

Legislative District 16: 19.3% (3rd)

Cabin John: 19.7% (3rd)

Trone’s strengths and weaknesses are the mirror image of Raskin’s.  He lost to both Raskin and Matthews inside the Beltway, but as the precincts went farther north, Trone got stronger.  Trone’s success in the northern Counties as well as Upcounty Montgomery will no doubt cause him to take a hard look at the Congressional District 6 seat should John Delaney run for Governor.  Western Maryland accounts for a fifth of CD8’s Democratic primary voters, but in CD6, it accounted for roughly 40% of the vote in both the 2016 and 2014 Democratic primaries.  One interesting thing not shown here: Trone was the leader in majority-minority, heavily Hispanic and heavily Asian precincts.

Kathleen Matthews

Strongest Performances

Derwood: 40.8% (1st)

Leisure World: 33.1% (1st)

Bethesda: 32.5% (2nd)

Legislative District 16: 32.3% (2nd)

Cabin John: 32.0% (2nd)

Chevy Chase: 32.0% (2nd)

Montgomery County Council District 1: 31.6% (2nd)

Weakest Performances

Takoma Park: 8.4% (3rd)

Silver Spring Inside the Beltway: 13.4% (3rd)

Blacks Over 33% of Population: 15.2% (3rd)

Montgomery County Council District 5: 15.2% (3rd)

Hispanics Over 33% of Population: 16.0% (4th)

Whites Under 40% of Population: 16.6% (3rd)

Majority-Minority Precincts: 17.7% (3rd)

Matthews finished second in most parts of CD8, which isn’t bad, but she finished first in just two local areas: Leisure World and Derwood, which has only one precinct in the district.  If she had also finished first in, say, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, she might have gotten close, but Raskin owned the areas inside the Beltway.  Matthews told the Washington Post that she was thinking of running for local office in the future. Here’s an idea for her: in a County Council at-large race, the top four vote-getters triumph.  A candidate who finishes second everywhere would be a lock to win.

Now here’s an interesting thought.  With Raskin going to Congress, Matthews thinking about running again and Trone not ruling it out either, could all three of them ultimately be in office after the next election?

CD8 Primary Election Results, Part Three

A guest blog by Adam Pagnucco.

The data below combines precinct information with census tract data on Hispanic origin and race from the 2010 Decennial Census.  The demographics of the three counties are very different.  Of the 67 precincts in Carroll and Frederick Counties, 63 had populations that were at least 90% white.  Of the 139 precincts in Montgomery County, 57 were majority-minority.  These differences influence the presentation below.

Here are the results for precincts by their population percentages in different demographic categories.

CD8 Votes by Demographics 2

At first glance, the data shows a seeming contradiction.  Trone led in precincts with populations over 75% white.  But Trone also led in precincts with less than 40% white populations.  How can this be?  The former fact is explained by Trone’s victory in the overwhelmingly white precincts of Carroll and Frederick.  The latter fact is explained by Trone’s wins in Gaithersburg, Glenmont/Norbeck and parts of Rockville, which are racially diverse.  Trone also finished a close second in Wheaton and Silver Spring East County.  While Senator Jamie Raskin won big in diverse precincts in Takoma Park and Silver Spring Inside the Beltway, he also won in predominantly white Bethesda, Cabin John, Chevy Chase and Kensington.  Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez was a factor in Glenmont/Norbeck (Zip Code 20906 excluding Leisure World), finishing second in the nine precincts there.  She finished third in the 19 precincts with at least 33% Hispanic populations.

We will have a summary of the candidates’ performance in Part Four.

CD8 Primary Election Results, Part Two

A guest blog by Adam Pagnucco.

It’s time to dig deeper on geography.  Below are election day results for every state legislative district overlapping with Congressional District 8.

CD8 Votes by State Legislative District 2

Of the twelve legislative districts sharing precincts with CD8, David Trone won nine of them.  Predictably, he won the five legislative districts in Carroll and Frederick Counties, and he got majorities in three of them.  He also won the precincts in Districts 14, 15, 17 and 19.  Senator Jamie Raskin won the precincts in Districts 16, 18 and 20, but those three accounted for 58% of election day votes.  No other candidates won any legislative districts.

A note about District 20, Raskin’s home base.  He received 52% of its votes, which was a lower percentage than Trone received in three northern legislative districts.  Seventy-four percent of Raskin’s election day votes came from outside District 20, meaning that he succeeded in diversifying his geographic base – primarily to other precincts inside the Beltway.  Raskin received more votes from District 16 than from District 20.

Here are the same results for county districts.

CD8 Votes by County Districts 2

Again, Trone won every county district in Carroll and Frederick.  But he also won the precincts in Montgomery County Council Districts 2, 3 and 4.  Raskin won the precincts in Montgomery County Council Districts 1 and 5, and those two districts accounted for 54% of election day votes.

Here are the results for towns in Carroll and Frederick Counties.

CD8 Votes by Towns Carroll Frederick 2

Trone got a clean sweep here with one exception: in one precinct in Knoxville (Frederick County), one vote was cast and it went to Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez.  In every other case, the rank order was Trone first, Matthews second and Raskin third.

Now here are the results for towns in Montgomery County.  Wheaton is defined as Zip Code 20902.  Glenmont/Norbeck is defined as Zip Code 20906 except for Leisure World, which is separated out.  Silver Spring (East County) is defined as Silver Spring precincts not in Zip Codes 20902 or 20906 and located outside the Beltway.

CD8 Votes by Towns Montgomery 2

These results are much more diverse.  Of the fifteen towns in Montgomery, Raskin won eight: Bethesda, Cabin John, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Silver Spring (East County), Silver Spring (Inside the Beltway), Takoma Park and Wheaton.  No other candidate won a town inside the Beltway.  Kathleen Matthews won Leisure World and Derwood, which had just one precinct.  Trone won Damascus, Gaithersburg, Glenmont/Norbeck, Potomac and Rockville.  Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez finished second in Glenmont/Norbeck, an area with a substantial Latino population.  The local data in Montgomery supports the narrative that Raskin’s victory was supported primarily by Inside the Beltway voters, and he rounded up enough votes from other places to prevent either Trone or Matthews from breaking through.

We will look at precinct demographics in Part Three.

Franchot’s Staff Troll Ferguson on Facebook

Hogan and Franchot Get Ready for the Cameras

Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot have been grandstanding in fine fashion lately. They are both outraged that Baltimore County and City are not installing air conditioning fast enough throughout the school system.

Hogan has more control over the budget than any other governor in the nation. He could have easily included the money for A/C in the budget without an iota of opposition but chose not to do so. Instead, he has set up a grandstanding moment with Franchot to deny the City and County monies needed for other school projects until they agree to install A/C in one year.

They kindly dumped the decision of what other projects the City and County should forego for the A/C on the Maryland School Construction Committee (IAC). Normally, this Committee reviews local projects to make sure they are ready to go and comply with other complex state requirements. Local governments determine which projects are needed in line with the Republican principle of local control – something that has gone out the window here.

Former Sen. and IAC Member Barbara Hoffman is shrewd and nobody’s patsy. She said correctly that this wasn’t the Committee’s job and moved to pass the job back to Hogan and Franchot on the Board of Public Works, who are eager to take credit for A/C but don’t want to explain why they are nixing taking care of problems like unsafe drinking water, fire safety and collapsing roofs. Even Hogan’s representatives on the Board voted for Hoffman’s motion.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has gone one better and agreed to speed up the A/C but on the condition that the State reimburse the County for its share. Will Hogan and Franchot put their money with their mouths and agree to Kamenetz’s plan? Or will they demand that the County install A/C but not fix other very serious problems important to student safety?

Franchot’s Facebooking Staff

Meanwhile, Franchot’s staff seems to have little else to do but harry Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) on Facebook for standing up for his jurisdiction’s priorities. Montgomery’s state legislative delegation doesn’t try to reorder our County’s priorities either.

Here is Len Foxwell, Franchot’s Chief of Staff, interrogating Sen. Ferguson during normal business hours:

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Apparently, Deputy Chief of Staff Emmanuel Welsh also has time to attack Ferguson on his Facebook page:

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I suppose Communications Director Peter Hamm is arguably doing his job by spending time on Facebook taking potshots at Sen. Ferguson:

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And here is more of Chief of Staff Foxwell:

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Communications Director Peter Hamm condescendingly calls Sen. Ferguson “pal” on Facebook. Proof, once again, that you may grow up but adolescence is forever.

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Press Secretary Alan Brody is also getting in on the fun:

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I never understand why politicians, let alone their staff, go after other politicians on Facebook pages besides their own. It rarely looks good.

Council Provides Crucial Funds for Public Campaign Finance

The following is a press release from Fair Elections Maryland:

Montgomery County Increases Investment in Groundbreaking Fair Elections Program

(Rockville) – Today the Montgomery County Council made a critical investment in democracy by adding $5 million to its public election fund in its FY2017 budget. While this amount is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the County’s overall budget, it represents a real commitment to amplifying the voices of small donors in county politics and diluting the influence of wealthy special interests. With adequate funding, the program will be up and running for the next county elections, encouraging more voters to participate in county elections and providing opportunities for a wider range of candidates to run for office.

A citizens’ task force suggested $10 million is needed for the program to succeed and recommended a $4 million installment for FY17, but County Executive Ike Leggett only included $1 million in his FY17 budget. The $4 million, added to the Executive’s $1 million and the existing $1 million from FY16, puts the Public Campaign Fund on track to be fully funded and successful.

“Montgomery County made history by creating the first program in Maryland for small-donor fair elections,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “We praise the action Council took today. They showed strong support for this critical program, and backed up their words with strong action.”

“In our democracy, the depth of your pocket should not dictate the volume of your voice,” said Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr. “We’re thrilled that the Montgomery County Council increased their commitment to getting big money out of local elections by making strong investment in their small donor matching program.”

“There is no doubt that national eyes are on this program in Maryland. By putting small donor incentives into action in Montgomery County, the public will get to see the effectiveness of the program, building the support and track record we need to pass state and federal reforms,” said Larry Stafford, Director of Progressive Maryland.

Concerned citizens had testified at the budget hearings and made hundreds of emails and calls into Council office asking the County Council to put $4 million into the budget to fund the fair elections program.

In a small donor fair elections system, candidates for County Council or County Executive who turn down large contributions and contributions from special interests can receive limited matching funds for small contributions from their county. Candidates must qualify to participate in the program by showing strong support from citizens in their district.

# # #

 Fair Elections Maryland includes Common Cause Maryland, Progressive Maryland, League of Conservation Voters, Every Voice, Maryland PIRG and many more state and local organizations who support good government. 

CD8 Primary Election Results, Part One

  A guest blog by Adam Pagnucco.

It has been roughly three weeks since Maryland’s primary election on April 26 and most of the results are in.  All jurisdictions have reported returns from early voting, election day, absentee ballots and provisional ballots and unofficial precinct-level data files have been released.  While the City of Baltimore’s results have some problems, they are not relevant to Congressional District 8.  The time for a data crunch has arrived.

First, let’s examine the overall results.

CD8 Overall Results 2

Senator Jamie Raskin was the leader in early votes, election day votes and absentee and provisional ballots, but his leads were of different magnitudes.  Raskin won early votes by 16.1 points, a far larger margin than his wins in absentee and provisional votes (7 points), total votes (6.5 points) and election day votes (3.5 points).  As we proceed to analyze precinct votes on election day, let’s recognize that they underrate Raskin’s strength relative to the total vote count.

Here are total votes and election day votes by county for the top six candidates.

CD8 Votes by County 2

David Trone won an absolute majority of both total votes and election day votes in Carroll and Frederick Counties, but they comprised about a fifth of the electorate.  Raskin won Montgomery County by 13.7% in total votes and 12.3% on election day.  Kathleen Matthews placed second in all three counties.

This partially obscures the story of geography at a macro level.  Consider the following three areas: precincts inside the Beltway, precincts outside the Beltway and still in Montgomery, and Carroll and Frederick together.

CD8 Votes by Geography 2

Raskin won the Inside the Beltway precincts by 23.7% over Matthews, and since these are just election day votes, that probably understates his margin.  But in the Outside the Beltway Montgomery precincts, Raskin and Trone were basically tied while Trone won the northern counties handily.  Interestingly, more Montgomery County votes came from outside the Beltway than inside, but because Raskin had such huge support from inside precincts, he was able to withstand his opponents’ performance in other areas.

We will have a finer cut on geography in Part Two.

LCV Supports Funding for Public Financing of MoCo Elections

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Karla Raettig, the Executive Director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

A clean environment depends on clean elections. That’s why the Maryland League of Conservation Voters is urging the Montgomery County Council to allocate enough funds to ensure that the County’s publicly funded elections program succeeds. Two years ago, the Council unanimously established this voluntary system by which eligible candidates for County Executive and County Council can receive matching public dollars for their campaigns. To prove eligibility, candidates must first meet a reasonable threshold of low-dollar donations from individuals in their district, and agree not to accept contributions from corporations, PACs, or labor unions. All donations are capped at $150—as a result, the voices of small donors are empowered, and the playing field is leveled with wealthy special interests.

In jurisdictions from Hawaii to Maine, similar programs have proven effective in diluting the influence of wealthy special interests; refocusing legislators’ attention away from outside, moneyed interests and onto their constituents; improving democratic participation; and promoting greater diversity of candidates, including helping to elect women, minorities, and individuals from less affluent backgrounds.

In order for the program to succeed, however, it must be fully funded for the upcoming County elections. According to the recommendation of an independent task force of Montgomery County citizens, the Council needs to allocate $10 million over a four-year cycle—a fraction of the overall budget. Unfortunately, only $1 million has been set aside so far. Next week, the full Council will discuss whether to accept the recommendation by the Government Operations Committee to allocate $4 million in the FY ’17 budget for the program.

Maryland LCV strongly urges the full Council to accept the recommendation of Councilmembers Katz, Navarro, and Riemer.

Whether it’s federal, statewide, or county races, money is dominating the election process. Self-funded candidates are breaking records. Real estate, developer interests, and lobbyists are giving millions. And yes, even groups like Maryland LCV are in the campaign donation game. But our organization supports a system of public finance over the status quo that favors wealthy special interests over the voice of the voters. We know that voters care about climate change, about the safety of their drinking water and the quality of the air they breathe. It’s precisely these voters whose voices we’d like to see elevated in the electoral process.

According to New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, “campaigns funded principally or entirely by private contributions distort democracy and pull elected officials away from the interests of ordinary, often unorganized citizens.”

It’s time to reduce wealthy special interest influence on our electoral process and equalize the playing field, and Montgomery County is the right place to start. Two years ago, the Montgomery County Council showed they are true leaders in working towards fair elections. Now, they must stay the course and ensure the program is fully funded for success.

Who is Behind “Mayor of MoCo” Website?

mayormoco1Not too long ago, a web page popped up touting County Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large) as the next “Mayor” (i.e. County Executive) of Montgomery County. George is widely known to be interested in the race – he ran last time but withdrew before the primary to run for reelection.

The webpage is funny and gives a list of ten reasons – some serious, some joking – why Leventhal should be the next Exec. The author is seemingly the anonymous “Mayor of Moco:”

mayormoco2Clicking on the author’s name reveals inadvertently that former Del. Saqib Ali (D-39) is the author. While his name is not mentioned anywhere on the connecting page, it shows up in the URL:

mayormoco3

In addition to creating the web page, Saqib has created an anonymous twitter account:

mayormoco5Saqib Ali has been very active in MoCo politics. He won election to the House of Delegates on a slate from District 39 in 2006. When the Senate seat became vacant, he sought it but the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee selected the much more experienced Del. Nancy King for the vacancy.

Del. Ali spent most of the next four years of his term in the House openly preparing to challenge King for the Senate seat. Indeed, the 2010 Senate primary was exceedingly close but King prevailed over Sleepy Saqib – as Sen. King labelled him during the campaign – by a margin of 3.4%.

In 2012, Saqib made a much less successful run for a Board of Education seat. In 2014, he announced but then pulled back for a run for a seat in the House of Delegates. Since then, he has become known for his activism in support of the BDS Movement, which advocates for boycotts, divestment and sanctions of Israel.

At the Montgomery Priorities Hearing, Saqib testified against legislation advocated by Del. Ben Kramer that would have resulted in the State boycotting companies and institutions that boycott Israel. More recently, he testified as a member of the Steering Committee of Marylanders for BDS on legislation before George’s committee on the Council on County legislation.

During his testimony, Saqib stated that Israeli settlements are “quite close to a war crime.” He then drops the qualifier when he says that “settlements meet the Geneva Convention definition for ‘war crime.” In short, he is now a strong and public advocate for BDS.

George Leventhal’s Viewpoint

George Leventhal kindly replied to my questions regarding the web page and BDS via email. Regarding the web page, George told me:

Saqib is a longtime friend. He let me know that he was planning to express his enthusiasm online about my potential candidacy for County Executive, but the “Mayor of MoCo” initiative is his alone, and I have had no involvement in it.

If I decide to run for County Executive, I will welcome Saqib’s involvement and will hope to win the support of a wide range of county residents, but I am a long way from making any decisions regarding 2018. In my four successful election campaigns, I am honored to have had the support of many activists in both the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as many other communities. As an at-large councilmember who has represented more than one million constituents for nearly 14 years, I would not expect to agree with every opinion of every one of my supporters.

George’s point about not agreeing with everyone of his supporters is a good one. Who does? However, Saqib is not some random supporter among many.  Saqib and George may well have become closer allies over George’s support for efforts to incorporate a Muslim holiday into the school calendar – a positive effort that is about recognition and inclusion. But George’s “longtime friend” is also leading local activist in support of BDS who is a former state legislator and has testified at least twice on the issue. At the very least, George raised no objection to this page, which represents his first public move for a bid for County Executive. As a result, pro-BDS Saqib seems more than some minor supporter.

George also shared his views on the BDS Movement:

I do not associate myself with efforts to boycott Israel or divest from it or impose sanctions on it. I feel a deep affinity for Israel, which I have visited three times. My sister lived there for several years. I support a two-state solution. In general, I would describe my views on the Israel/Palestine issue as consistent with those of J Street.

I would not characterize Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a war crime, although I think they are extremely counterproductive to the goal of peace in the Middle East.

While many might disagree with George’s views on BDS or Israeli settlements as either too liberal or too conservative, I’d say they fall right in the mainstream of Jewish and American opinion.

Some might argue that Donna Edwards’s identification with liberal J Street did her some harm in the Democratic primary, and that the same fate could befall George. More hardline pro-Israel voters do indeed reject J Street. Many others, however, would find George’s viewpoints utterly reasonable.

The more serious political problem is when a candidate is perceived fundamentally unsympathetic to Israel. In George’s comments, that is clearly not the case, as he strikes a smart balance of “deep affinity for Israel” and support for a “two-state solution.” But linkage with a prominent BDS supporter in what is essentially his prospective campaign’s first outing undermines that perception.

Moreover, Saqib is working to make this linkage stronger. He has now become the first person to attack me on Twitter before I even drafted a piece. Expressing anger at my “smears” and “appalling tactics,” Saqib then turned to faux outrage that I won’t open up this space to him. I look forward to all the pro-BDS webpages opening up their space to AIPAC and J Street.

All of this is helpful to getting Saqib Ali more attention but it sure doesn’t help George Leventhal.

Foreign Policy in County Elections?

Normally, I would not think foreign policy terribly relevant to a campaign for county executive. Aside from the nice Sister Cities program, my hope would be that any county executive focus on the nuts and bolts of making the County work well. But Saqib’s repeated public interventions show how views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can  become intertwined with even local politics.

The injection of a prominent BDS supporter as part of George’s effort to stick his political toe publicly in the water will likely raise concerns among the many voters who oppose BDS and does not help us keep focused on the issues that matter – the ones on which George Leventhal has spent the vast majority of his career and has exhibited a great deal of genuine passion for over the years.

Ideas for Metro

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Dels. Marc Korman (D-16) and Erek Barron (D-24):

When we arrived in Annapolis in January of 2015, we immediately partnered to form the WMATA-Metro Work Group and bring more attention to issues related to Metro in Annapolis.  After all, the state invests hundreds of millions of dollars to WMATA each year and increased oversight is sorely needed.  We are cautiously optimistic that the new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, can bring some much needed change to WMATA.  He has set out his own plan for reform, much of which we enthusiastically support.  But after spending two legislative sessions hearing from WMATA officials and other stakeholders on an almost weekly basis, we have some of our own reform suggestions.  Some of these are major structural or funding changes and others are more minor tweaks to Metro operations, but we think all are worthy of discussion by WMATA and the region.

Out the outset, we should note that none of these ideas can replace or should distract from the immediate safety work necessary for the system to operate.  SafeTrack and other efforts are important, but it is our hope that some of these ideas can keep the system from finding itself in a situation like the one it is in now ever again.

Board

Board Structure: The WMATA Board is the primary means of providing oversight of Metro.  But each appointing jurisdiction treats the Board in a different fashion.  In Maryland, Board members are Gubernatorial appointees and answer to the Governor.  In the District of Columbia, usually a Councilmember and a Mayoral appointee serve as the Board Members.  In Virginia, there is a divide between state and local appointees.  The District and Virginia have elected officials on the Board, while Maryland and the federal government do not.  The Board members all receive different levels of pay from their jurisdictions.  This structural mismatch causes disharmony on the Board, makes Board members’ different perspectives even more pronounced, and is generally inefficient.  Standardizing how each jurisdiction treats the Board so that their appointees are similarly positioned would improve the Board’s critical governance function.

Resources for Board Members: The WMATA Board is a strange beast.  It is the primary method of oversight for WMATA, yet its Board Members essentially have no resources.  Board members who are elected officials or work in government may be able to use those resources to support their work, but other members do not have those options.  Consideration should be given to providing board members with the resources and ability to provide adequate oversight and independent analysis of WMATA activities, instead of being forced to rely entirely on WMATA staff.

Board Meeting Options: WMATA board meetings seem to follow a basic pattern in which WMATA staff tells the Board what they want to do on an issue, the Board asks a few questions, and the item is usually agreed to.  Sometimes, the Board pushes back and the staff has to withdraw the item and come up with alternatives at a future meeting.  Staff should consider providing more options up front for the Board on major issues (such as fare options) and let the Board make more informed decisions on the basis of those options.

Public Meetings and Access: WMATA Board Members have made an effort over the last year or two to show up at stations and meet with riders.  Far more of this public engagement and outreach is necessary. Whether that is stepped up station visits, rider-focused town halls, or better use of social media, WMATA needs to engage its riders. Twitter, for example, is not a random sampling of riders, but the frustration expressed in the Twitterverse is palpable and more opportunities need to be created to allow riders to express their concerns to WMATA board members and personnel.

Auction Board Seats: Someone in Annapolis suggested this idea to us.  If jurisdictions want more say over how WMATA operates, they could compete for additional Board seats—with an overall cap—through an auction process: a Board seat could be bought in exchange for additional operating or capital subsidies.  This could provide WMATA with necessary additional revenue.

Secretarial Board: An entirely different Board model has been floated by a WMATA board member, which would be to have a more focused Board made up of the Transportation Secretaries—or an Assistant Secretary—from each jurisdiction.  It would be a radical change from the current model, but might make WMATA more politically accountable by tying the Board more directly to the elected leadership in each jurisdiction.  There are issues with this approach, such as how to handle Virginia’s localities, but this is a radical reform that should be discussed.  If this radical reform is a bridge too far, then perhaps an “Executive Council” of each jurisdiction’s transportation secretaries could meet on a regular and scheduled basis to address major issues, providing guidance to the Board as to what will be acceptable to the compact members.

Funding

Dedicated funding: Probably the number one suggestion people have about WMATA is a dedicated funding source.  Currently, only Northern Virginia has any “dedicated funding” for WMATA, with a 2% gas tax being allocated to WMATA and making up less than 15% of the entire Virginia operating subsidy.  Meanwhile, the District of Columbia actually passed legislation in 2006 dedicating one half of one percent of its retail sales tax to WMATA, but it was contingent on similar action by the other jurisdictions which never occurred (it was estimated that this would raise $50 million) at the time.  Dedicated funding would not be a cure all for Metro’s woes, but would definitely help.  Options for dedicated funding include a regional sales tax, transfer tax, a property tax supplement for property near Metro, and several other options.  Although progress on this issue continues to lag, it should remain a part of the conversation.  Board Chairman Jack Evans has made it front and center to his agenda, although any funding change should come with governance and management reforms.

Federal Operating Subsidy: All of the Compact jurisdictions, except the federal government, provide an operating subsidy to Metro.  Indeed, the federal government was given Board seats in exchange for a non-guaranteed annual capital appropriation of $150 million.  The federal government should also provide an annual operating subsidy to WMATA, just as other jurisdictions with Board seats do.  This should become a top priority for our region’s Congressional leaders.  Again, Board Chairman Evans has rightfully been discussing this issue.

Stations

Station Ownership: Station Managers need to take more ownership of their stations.  The new GM’s plan includes establishing management ownership of each rail line to improve the customer experience and something similar should occur with the Metro stations.  Some Station Managers do stand outside of the control booth and take pride in their stations, bar far too many are inaccessible in the control booth and unaware of what is happening in the station, not making sure it is welcoming, clean, and functioning.  Station Managers should be appropriately compensated and incentivized to take more ownership of their stations.

Station Task Forces: In one of our districts, a group of local residents, businesses, and government leaders formed a station improvement task force to try and improve the Bethesda Metro Station.  Their efforts have improved cleanliness at the station, brought in new public art, and put Bethesda at the forefront of station modernization efforts.  This model should be followed at every station in the system to make sure every community is getting the attention and improvements it deserves.

Escalator Alignment: Most stations have a standard traffic flow to them.  Those in downtown DC have more exiting passengers than entering passengers in the morning and vice versa in the suburbs.  Yet escalators are not regularly adjusted for this natural schedule.  If a station has three escalators, two of the escalators should be aligned in the direction of the most travel and that should be switched at the appropriate time during the day by Station Managers.  This will reduce crowding and be generally more convenient for riders.

Vendors: Even with declining ridership, thousands of people stream in and out of rail stations and major bus stations on a daily basis.  WMATA needs to focus more on revenue capture from these opportunities, such as shoeshine stands, coffee shops for those exiting, or even small pharmacy stands.  WMATA needs to get aggressive about alternative revenue options besides fares and jurisdiction subsidies.

Signage: Metro stations are hard to navigate, particularly for tourists.  Those unfamiliar with where they are try to squint through grimy windows into dark stations with signs few and far between.  Someday, when all the railcars are new, station announcements will be clear and in-car displays will explain what station the train is at.  But there is no need to wait to add additional signage throughout Metro stations.

Metro Aesthetic: Metro stations were built as cathedrals with high ceilings, dim lighting, and an expansive feel.  Unfortunately, the large stations are hard to heat and cool, the lighting fixtures and walls are difficult to clean, and the darkness raises safety issues and is inconvenient for passengers waiting for single tracking trains while trying to read.  Yet many traditionalists want to maintain this “Metro aesthetic” as though the system were new.  We cannot be bound to the design decisions of decades ago.  Some stations can be preserved for historical reasons, but most should be updated and modernized when funding is available with better signage, lighting, and less “Metro brown.”

Maintenance

Easy Infrastructure: Within the past few years, an additional stairwell between the platform and Mezzanine was added at the Bethesda Metro station.  This low cost and easy infrastructure improvement has eased escalator crowding and spread people out at the station.  Additional easy infrastructure changes should be quickly evaluated and undertaken as they are low cost but high reward.

Repeat Work: There is a concerning pattern with WMATA needing to repeat maintenance work multiple times.  A recent example of this was the inspection of the jumper cables on the day of the shutdown.  These cables had supposedly been inspected after the L’Enfant Plaza incident, but somehow major problems were missed.  We are also on the third attempt at sustainable escalator repairs: We began with spot fixes; WMATA then tried to take apart, clean, and rebuild the escalators; and now we are on full replacement.  Recent discussion of the need to potentially close entire lines for more maintenance—after years of a capital program that has been extremely disruptive—may be the latest example of the necessity for repeat work.  How much other work is being done multiple times?  WMATA needs to quickly get to the bottom of this problem.

Single Tracking: One of the major frustrations with Metro’s rebuilding efforts is the single tracking and long delays.  Indeed, the system is virtually un-rideable on the weekends.  But many transit systems operate on only two tracks.  New York is actually unique in the amount of track redundancy it has built in.  WMATA should canvass other transit systems to make sure it is using modern best practices when it comes to serving its customers safely while doing necessary rebuilding.

Fares

Low Income Fares: The maximum WMATA rail fare is a whopping $5.90, compared to a flat cost of $2.75 in New York City or $2.50 in Atlanta.  Because of that high cost, many low income riders cannot use the system.  Some jurisdictions, such as Boston, are experimenting with lower fares for low income riders.  WMATA should follow suit.

SmarTrip on MARC: Baltimore City and WMATA have an interoperable SmarTrip card.  But the transit option that connects them—the MARC train—does not accept SmarTrip.  WMATA should work with the Maryland Transit Administration to change this and truly connect these two urban centers.  We are biased towards Maryland, but if Virginia wants to pursue something similar on the VRE, that should be supported as well.

Safety

Safety Culture: Safety culture is discussed a lot in reference to WMATA.  Supposedly, a safety culture was established after the Fort Totten incident but ongoing events suggest otherwise.  The new General Manager seems to have really changed the tone at WMATA.  One of the issues we have observed is that the “safety culture” at WMATA often boils down to checking off NTSB or FTA safety recommendations and directives.  But a safety culture is not just checking boxes to rectify previously identified problems.  It requires all WMATA personnel to be looking over the horizon for other safety issues and concerns.  That is the attitude WMATA management needs to demand and implement.

Rail Operations Control Center: Reports about the Rail Operations Control Center (“ROCC”) are incredibly concerning.  WMATA claims it has new employees in training to re-staff the ROCC, which is currently understaffed.  But there are reports that the current staff at the ROCC push new people out to protect their overtime.  This obviously needs to be seriously addressed.  One idea is to raise the base pay of those in the ROCC and bring on more, trained people quickly.  Some may view such a move as rewarding bad behavior, but something has to be done quickly to improve the climate at the ROCC and its contribution to a safe system.

Bus Mirrors: Many of the safety issues currently discussed relate to rail, but there are bus issues as well.  One issue raised by bus drivers is that the side rear view mirrors block sight lines and endanger pedestrians who drivers cannot see.  This has been the subject of litigation in other jurisdictions and there are simple solutions to reduce the size of mirrors and improve safety.

Automatic train control (“ATC”)

Metrorail has operated largely without automatic train control since the 2009 Red Line collision.  Last spring, ATC was restored for eight car Red Line trains, but six car trains and trains on the system’s other lines remain in manual control.  Restoring ATC system-wide is crucial for both safety and reliability.  Currently, it is not uncommon for train operators to have to move their train a few additional feet forward to meet the end of the platform after stopping at the station.  This creates a jerky experience for riders as they prepare to exit the train, since most don’t expect the train to move again once it’s already stopped.  Less frequent but far more inconvenient are instances where a train operator overshoots the platform and must skip the station altogether.  Returning to ATC will eliminate these problems while increasing safety and reliability.  While restoring ATC and ensuring that it functions safely is a large and complex task, it must remain a priority in order to make the system safe and convenient.

Riders Advisory Council (“RAC”)

RAC Selection: Metro’s RAC has six members each from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, two at-large members and the head of the Accessibility Advisory Committee.  Members are appointed by the WMATA Board.  An alternative approach that would improve RAC independence would be to have the RAC appointed by the heads of the state or local governments in the WMATA Compact.  That would ensure that the RAC is truly independent of the Board and representing the riders.

RAC Jurisdictions: RAC’s members in Maryland and Virginia are all from the local jurisdictions that make up the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Zone (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, Alexandria, Falls Church, Montgomery, and Prince George’s).  But there are many riders from other nearby counties such as Frederick or Prince Williams.  The option should be available to have RAC members, perhaps the at-large members, from these other jurisdictions.

Miscellaneous

Benchmarking: One Montgomery County Councilmember has called for benchmarking WMATA to peer systems.  This type of public benchmarking would be helpful and is already in use by some systems.  Every system is different, but it would be useful to see how WMATA compares to peers on some key indicators such as on-time performance, car utilization, and so on.  Community of Metros (“CoMET”) is already doing this type of work and WMATA should join the effort.

Ride Sharing: There has been concern expressed recently about ride sharing’s effect on transit and whether ride sharing can be adequately used for paratransit.  WMATA should begin pilot programs to use ride sharing to connect some riders’ last mile connections to bus and rail transit.  Usually, riders need to be less than a half mile from transit to regularly access it on foot.  Ride sharing can expand that envelope.

Archives/Documents Office: WMATA no longer has an official in charge of preserving and making publicly available historic documents.  This reduces public accountability for WMATA’s actions.  If you have ever read Zachary Schrag’s The Great Society Subway, an incredible account of WMATA’s history, you know the insight that can be provided by making historical material available.

Ridership Reports: Last year, Maryland passed legislation requiring a Maryland-specific ridership report from WMATA.  Most of the data is already collected by WMATA, but this required a jurisdiction-specific report to demonstrate how WMATA is used, especially by those outside of the Montgomery and Prince George’s County.  Ridership from other counties outside the compact helps justify the substantial expense Maryland rightly pays for WMATA.  Ridership reports that similarly track DC, Virginia, and even federal employee and contractor ridership would go a long way to demonstrating in detail the benefits of the system.

Jurisdiction Work Groups: WMATA oversight is complicated because of its multi-jurisdictional nature.  When we were elected, we formed a work group in Annapolis to try and provide some oversight to the system.  Indeed, almost every week during our legislative session we are joined by a WMATA staff member or other stakeholder to discuss in detail some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities before Metro.  We believe this is a useful model that the other jurisdictions should follow.  Oversight by the jurisdictions tends to come after emergencies, but real oversight is regularly occurring and not just reactive.

Reduce Turnover: WMATA has a surprisingly high turnover rate.  Between 2009 and 2013, 417 of 535 train operators turned over.  Considering that these are well compensated union jobs, that is a high turnover rate.  Reducing that turnover rate for train operators and other positions will allowed better trained and experienced personnel to operate the system.  That does not mean WMATA should retain personnel not acting appropriately, but turnover should not be systematically high.

Real Estate Coordination: WMATA has a robust real estate development operation as it tries to improve transit-oriented development on land it owns around stations.  That office could improve in two ways.  First, much more communication and coordination is needed with local elected officials who represent the areas around the stations and with the local business community and residents.  These stakeholders have little insight from WMATA on their plans.  Second, the real estate office is solely focused on WMATA’s holdings.  But it has great expertise in transit-oriented development that it could offer to other landowners around stations to make sure that we are meeting our economic development goals around Metro.  Another outside the box idea being floated is to spin-off this function from WMATA entirely, which is certainly an idea worth considering.

Parking: WMATA operates 44 parking facilities at Metrorail stations.  This means that in addition to all of its other functions, WMATA is also managing a whole other line of business, parking.  WMATA needs to consider whether the parking business should be subcontracted or even spun off into another public entity to better manage its operations.

Metro Innovation: Another unfortunate trend we have noticed during our Work Group meetings is a status quo culture: WMATA personnel’s insistence that everything is going according to plan.  WMATA rarely admits errors or mistakes and often gives the impression that if they were just left alone by the public and the press, everything would be fine.  This status quo attitude is obviously not shared by the new GM, but that is another cultural issue that needs to be addressed at the agency.  To change this culture WMATA should encourage its leadership teams to select system challenges and, following the path of the tech industry, think of new approaches to bring value to WMATA and its customers.  One area ripe for innovation is Metro Access, the paratransit service.  This service is costly and causes frustration for many users.  Innovation in Metro Access is absolutely necessary whether it is more pilot projects for certain populations as currently exists in Montgomery and Prince George’s County where regular, dedicated drivers are being used for certain groups; better GPS technology for routing; or even ride sharing with adequate protections where appropriate.

Maryland Politics Watch

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