All posts by David Lublin

Is Maryland Trying to Punish Craft Breweries?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Craft breweries have been growing rapidly in Maryland and elsewhere, forever changing the beer business.  Maryland scored a huge win a couple months ago when Diageo announced their intention to open a $50 million Guinness brewery in Baltimore County, creating a tourist attraction and dozens of jobs.  Best of all, unlike many employers, Diageo is not asking for one thin dime of public subsidy to come to the state.  But instead of welcoming the new facility with open arms, the House of Delegates reacted by making it harder for Diageo to do business here, as well as many other breweries in Maryland.

The debacle began when Diageo asked for a change in state law to allow them to sell 5,000 barrels of beer at a restaurant and tap room on the brewery site.  (Maryland’s current limit of 500 barrels is by far the lowest in the nation; the second-lowest state, North Carolina, has a limit of 25,000 barrels.)  Other brewers sought a limit of 4,000 barrels in on-site sales for their own operations and five different bills followed.  HB 1283 was the one that passed the House of Delegates and did three main things.

  1. It increased the on-site sales limit to 2,000 barrels. Breweries could apply to the Comptroller for permission to sell another 1,000 barrels on-site, but they would have to go through a distributor to do so.  That means the brewery would have to brew its own beer, then turn it over to a distributor, then receive it back from that distributor and of course pay the distributor a fee for its service.  Guess who ultimately pays that fee?  That’s right, you the customer!
  1. It established closing times for tap rooms of 9 PM during the week and 10 PM on weekends, down from local closing times ranging from midnight to 2 AM.
  1. It limited tap room sales to beer brewed on-site only. This repeals a long-standing practice in which brewery tap rooms supplement their own products with contract beer brewed for them by other breweries.  Such contract beer sales are major sources of revenue for some craft brewers and make tap rooms more attractive to customers.

Brewers characterized the combination of changes as “one step forward and two steps back” and predicted layoffs and business losses.  Why would the House pass such a bill?

One of the biggest opponents of liberalizing rules on craft breweries is the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents restaurants and small alcohol retailers.  The group is particularly influential in Annapolis as its PAC has contributed over $180,000 to state politicians since 2005.  The association sees craft brewers as competition for its members.  From a zero-sum perspective, every pint purchased in a brewery tap room is a pint not purchased in a restaurant or package store.  But that view doesn’t recognize the synergies between these types of establishments as well as their differences.  Diageo’s brewery has the potential to be a major tourist facility, bolstering the entire local economy.  And if a consumer purchases a new product at the Diageo site and likes it, he or she will be motivated to buy that same product at restaurants and stores.  That means more business for everyone.

Some brewers would prefer that HB 1283 simply die in the Senate because of the problems it would cause, but it’s not so simple.  If the bill dies, the state’s current on-site sales limit of 500 barrels would stay in place.  That could cause Diageo to cancel its project, costing Baltimore County a $50 million tourist attraction that other states would kill to get.  Think of the impact that would have on the industry’s perception of Maryland.  If we lose Diageo, what other major brewer would ever relocate here?

Maryland has a number of anti-competitive laws on alcohol, including the much-loathed prohibitions on sales in most grocery stores and Montgomery County’s dysfunctional liquor monopoly.  The last thing we need is even more of these laws, especially if it causes us to lose a major employer and gives us a national black eye.  HB 1283 must be fixed.  Cheers to the State Senate if they can get it done.

Leventhal Trolls Trone

By Adam Pagnucco.

Council Member George Leventhal, who is running for County Executive, is running the ad below on Facebook.  While ostensibly directed at President Donald Trump, it’s an obvious shot at a possible campaign opponent, Total Wine co-owner David Trone.

Leventhal has gone after Trone before, blasting him for illegal campaign signs and corporate contributions.  The latter charge is ironic considering Leventhal’s taking of more than $300,000 in corporate contributions over the last three cycles.

Negative campaigning has a long, LONG history in Montgomery County.  But it’s a bit unusual to target a person who is not yet officially running.  In any event, it is now crystal clear that if David Trone does run for Executive, George Leventhal will be ready.

Washington Post Poll Shows Hogan Vulnerability

By Adam Pagnucco.

Governor Larry Hogan loves to discuss his high approval ratings in polls, which have usually been in the range of 60-70%.  But a new Washington Post poll that examines his reelection prospects shows that they are well below his approval numbers and provides hope to Maryland Democrats.

The Post poll of March 16-19 has sample sizes of 914 adults and 841 registered voters.  The margin of error for those two groups is 4 points, growing to 5.5 points for a half-sample and 6.5 points for the 317 respondents who live in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs.  These margins of error must be kept in mind when reading the poll –  effectively, only large gaps are meaningful for small sub-groups.

With that significant caveat in mind, let’s examine data on Hogan’s reelection prospects.  The Post asked respondents the following question: “Thinking about Maryland’s Governor’s race in 2018… if Larry Hogan ran for re-election as governor, do you think you would vote for him OR for the candidate nominated by the Democratic Party?”  Among adults, 39% said they would vote for Hogan and 36% said they would vote for the Democratic nominee, an advantage of 3 points for the Governor.  Among registered voters, 41% said they would vote for Hogan and 37% said they would vote for the Democrat, a margin of plus 4.  So far, this looks very much like Hogan’s 4-point victory in 2014.

But the sub-group results are more interesting.  We compiled the Post’s sub-group data on this question in the presentation below.

Let’s recall the margin of error estimates above.  Margins of 10-15 points or less for small sub-groups are probably not very meaningful.  That said, many of the Governor’s strengths are predictable.  He does well with Republicans, Conservatives, Whites and rural residents.  He is weak among Democrats, liberals, African Americans and Prince George’s residents.  One item that stands out is his strength with seniors, with whom he has a 17-point advantage.  Seniors are among the most reliable voters in any election.

Now let’s compare the geographic results of this poll with how the Governor actually performed in 2014.

The Governor appears stronger in the poll in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, but weaker elsewhere than in 2014.  This could be statistical noise due to large margins of error.  But it could also be the result of tax fatigue in some Democratic strongholds, like Montgomery (where voters recently passed term limits by 40 points) and Prince George’s (where the County Executive proposed a 15% increase in property taxes two years ago).  It’s hard to believe that the Governor is actually weaker in Anne Arundel and Howard, both of which have Republican Executives who are strongly favored for reelection.  (And a random question: what pollster combines Baltimore City and County in one estimate?  C’Mon, Man!)

The big takeaway from the poll is this: Larry Hogan will not be coasting to reelection.  Maryland is simply not wired that way.  It has too many Democrats, African Americans, liberals, immigrants and people who are either employed by or do business with government at some level to give any GOP statewide incumbent a blowout win.  From a purely political perspective, the Governor deserves credit for his focused message of tax cuts, job growth and reform (like redistricting) while trying his best to avoid distractions from the right, the left and Washington D.C.  His approach gives him a path to victory in a rather blue state.  But if the Democrats begin preparing now, play smart and field a good candidate for Governor, Larry Hogan can be defeated.

Hogan Exploits Rape for Politics

By Adam Pagnucco.

Governor Larry Hogan is now exploiting the rape of a Rockville high school student to get a political edge over General Assembly Democrats.  It’s a clearly deplorable tactic.  But will it work?

Two big stories are colliding at the moment to further inflame the volatile issue of how to deal with illegal immigration.  First, the House of Delegates has passed a version of the Maryland Law Enforcement and Trust Act, a bill to limit state and local cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) so that immigrant communities will not hide from police for fear of arbitrary deportation.  Second, two students at Rockville High School have been arrested for raping a 14-year-old at the school and were subsequently alleged by ICE to be present in the country illegally.

Governor Hogan reacted with the Facebook post below, saying:

The post garnered 700 shares and 500 comments in its first five hours, accomplishing its purpose of throwing gasoline on the fire of the immigration debate.

The implication of the Governor’s post is that Montgomery County does not currently cooperate with federal authorities.  But in fact, it does.  The Washington Post’s Bill Turque summarized the county’s immigration policy a month ago:

Montgomery police operate under a 2009 directive that bars officers from conducting “indiscriminate questioning” of suspects, witnesses or prisoners about immigration status. Once in custody, all prisoners are fingerprinted, and arrest information goes into state databases, where it is available to ICE. If the agency identifies an undocumented prisoner, it can send the county a “detainer” notice, asking that the person remain in custody for at least 48 hours beyond the scheduled release date.

The county complied with detainers until 2014, when the Maryland attorney general’s office issued an opinion advising localities that they could be liable for damages by holding prisoners past their release date.

Since then, Montgomery officials said, the county honors detainers only if they are supported by a federal court order or warrant. It will also provide ICE publicly available release dates of undocumented immigrants who have committed felonies and whom the agency is seeking to deport.

The county has released hundreds of prisoners to ICE since 2012, though the pace of releases has dropped since the county stopped honoring 48-hour detainers.  The amended version of the House-passed Trust Act resembles county policy.  On the Rockville High School rape suspects, County Executive Ike Leggett said, “The county — consistent with our longstanding policy — will cooperate fully with ICE to see that the two are deported to their countries of origin.”

Why would Hogan insinuate that Montgomery County does not cooperate with federal law enforcement to protect its citizens?  Hogan knows that there is little support in the community for protecting violent criminals from deportation.  A new CNN poll finds that 60% of Americans believe the government should be “developing a plan to allow those in the U.S. illegally who have jobs to become legal residents,” but it also finds that 78% of Americans believe that “the government should attempt to deport all people currently living in the country illegally who have been convicted of other crimes while living in the U.S.”  Big majorities of every demographic group measured support the latter statement, including 64% of Democrats.

Depicting Maryland’s largest local jurisdiction as soft on crime is bad enough.  Exploiting a rape for political gain is even worse.  Such tactics expose just how hard the Governor can throw his elbows in partisan combat.  Forget about engaging with General Assembly leaders to develop good public policy; the Governor has never been interested in that.  But the cold political truth is this:

If Hogan can get away with characterizing Democrats as protectors of rapists and other criminals, he wins.

Will You Be Paying Dan Snyder?

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington National Football League franchise is perhaps the only organization in America that could make Donald Trump’s White House seem like a smoothly running model of efficiency.  The club’s savage firing of its General Manager, the subsequent exodus of red chip starters like Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Chris Baker and the failure to sign star quarterback Kirk Cousins to a long-term contract have brought the franchise to its worst point in decades.  But here’s the kicker, folks.

One of these days, whether you want to or not, you could be paying for all this.

Daniel M. Snyder, the current majority owner of the Washington franchise, has often been described as the worst owner in pro sports.  Part of this is because of the team’s woeful performance on the field.  Snyder has owned the franchise for 18 years, over which it has compiled a 125-162-1 record, six winning seasons and only two playoff wins after winning three Super Bowls under the prior ownership.  The club just posted its first two consecutive winning seasons since 1991-1992 and the owner reacted by annihilating the team’s architect.  But it’s the franchise’s activities outside of the stadium, characterized by team President Bruce Allen as “winning off the field,” that are truly eye opening.  Consider this.

  • The team sued 125 season tickets holders between 2004 and 2009 to force them to honor their purchase contracts even though many were in financial distress. One of them was a 72-year-old retiree who claimed that the team’s judgment against her would force her into bankruptcy.
  • In 2006, the team tried to profit from 9/11 by selling “Pentagon Flag Hats” which featured “the team’s trademark curly ‘R’ in gold with a patch in the shape of the Pentagon and the colors of the American flag sewn on the side.” The club was the only one in the NFL to try to sell such merchandise.

  • Unhappy with negative coverage, Snyder has been buying up local media for years. It’s hard for journalists to criticize the team when they are on the owner’s payroll.  Snyder reacted to a harsh article by the Washington City Paper’s Dave McKenna by suing the newspaper and the journalist, an action he later dropped.

We could go on and on and ON.  But we know what you’re thinking.  I’m not a fan of the team, you might say.  Why should I care?

Because soon you could be paying for all this.

Dissatisfied with his twenty-year-old stadium in Landover, Snyder is now in the hunt for a new facility somewhere in the D.C. area.  The District of Columbia, home to the franchise in its glory years, is an iffy possibility given that the current Mayor has branded the team’s nickname as “offensive.”  Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, an enthusiastic dealmaker, is “in a hurry” to land the team before he leaves office.  And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has said, “We will do whatever it takes to keep them.”  That could lead to a bidding war, and an expensive one at that.  NFL teams have extracted billions of dollars in public subsidies for their stadiums over the years.  Las Vegas has offered $750 million in tax money to the Raiders to entice them to move from Oakland.  And St. Louis, which just saw the Rams move out, still owes millions in bond payments on its now-empty football stadium.

Hogan loves corporate welfare, having approved millions in disbursements to Marriott and Northrop Grumman.  But those companies at least employ thousands of people in Maryland.  Snyder’s franchise is headquartered in Ashburn, Virginia and his millionaire players are almost all Virginia residents.  NFL teams are dubious candidates for public investment at best since most of them play just ten home games a year, but the Washington team’s Virginia ties make subsidizing it even more questionable.

So what can you do about this?  Snyder is only 52 years old, so he could be the team owner for decades to come.  But Hogan is another matter.  If the Governor insists on throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at this poor excuse for a franchise, you will have the last word in next year’s election.

Just do what Dan Snyder does and fire him!

Trone Running Ads on Twitter

By Adam Pagnucco.

A Seventh State reader sent us a screenshot of a Twitter ad run by Total Wine co-owner and former CD8 Congressional candidate David Trone in the early hours of March 16.  The reader does not follow Trone’s account and the term “promoted” at the bottom of the screenshot clearly indicates its status as an ad.

Trone is known to be considering a future candidacy.  He told Bethesda Magazine’s Lou Peck that he is “focused very heavily right now” on looking at a race for Montgomery County Executive.  He has polled on the race at least once and says openly on his website that he is exploring it.  The Twitter ad joins this evidence to suggest that Trone could very well be on the ballot again.

Hell No!

By Adam Pagnucco.

A state commission charged with examining changes to Maryland’s public school funding formulas is sifting through recommendations for improvement.  And in the early deliberations, one big loser stands out:

Montgomery County.

The State of Maryland is a major player in public schools funding.  In FY17, the state will send $5.5 billion in operating aid to local school districts, about a third of its general fund budget.  MCPS gets 28% of its operating budget from the state.  Prince George’s County Public Schools gets 57% of its budget from the state.  In total, state aid accounts for 48% of Maryland public school budgets.

The state’s generous K-12 spending is driven by formulas dating back to 2002, when a state commission led by Howard University professor Alvin Thornton (commonly known as “the Thornton Commission”) proposed massive new investments in education.  These investments have helped rank Maryland’s public schools among the nation’s best.  Now another state commission chaired by former University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan is reexamining the state’s funding formulas to see if they can be improved.  And here is where things are starting to go badly wrong for MoCo.

A consultant paid by the Maryland State Department of Education recently completed a two-year study on the state’s funding formulas.  In the interest of promoting “adequacy” in public school spending for students across the state, the consultant made several recommendations for changing the funding formulas which are now being examined by the Kirwan Commission.  One of them is that Montgomery County should get a 63% cut in state aid (a reduction of $354 million) while local taxpayers should pay 60% more (an increase of $842 million) towards MCPS.  Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice, a member of the commission, said “that would be devastating” and termed the suggested local dollar increase for MCPS “impossible.”  Indeed, the County Council just levied a 9% increase in property taxes in part to increase funding for MCPS.  The consultant’s recommendations don’t just apply to MoCo: they would phase out all state aid for schools in Kent, Talbot and Worcester Counties while sending massive increases to St. Mary’s, Harford, Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s.

MoCo is already short-changed on state aid because of wealth formulas that disadvantage the county because of its high property values and high incomes but don’t recognize its high cost of living.  The result is that MoCo taxpayers get back just 24 cents for every dollar in taxes they pay to the state.  The state average for all residents is 42 cents.  Howard County, which has a higher average household income than MoCo, gets 30 cents.  Only Talbot and Worcester Counties get back proportionately less than MoCo.  If anything resembling the consultant’s report winds up being recommended by the Kirwan Commission and passed into state law, this imbalance will get a lot worse.

Your author has been told that the report is merely a “conversation starter” and thus is irrelevant.  But we are reminded of the last conversation the state had about public school funding.  For decades, the state covered the cost of teacher pensions as part of its commitment to K-12 education.  The program was particularly valuable to MoCo, which has higher teacher compensation costs than other jurisdictions because of its high cost of living.  A decade ago, state leaders began to have “conversations” about having the counties pay these costs despite the fact that Boards of Education, not county governments, set teacher compensation packages.  A spokesperson for the Speaker of the House said it was “a philosophical argument that we definitely need to have.”  In 2010, almost all MoCo state legislators promised to oppose a shift in their election campaigns.  But just two years later, Governor Martin O’Malley proposed a partial pension funding shift, backed by both the Speaker and the Senate President, and most MoCo lawmakers voted to support it.  The cost of the shift to the Montgomery County Government increased steadily from $27 million in FY 2013 to $59 million this year, with $6 million offset by the state.  This far exceeds the cost to any other local government and is more than a third of the amount collected by the county’s recent 9% property tax hike.  The county government now pays more for teacher pensions than it does for libraries, recreation, courts, IT, housing or environmental protection.  Its teacher pension payments easily swamp any money earned from the liquor monopoly, which will return $21 million to the general fund this year.

So goes these conversations.  Now that this new conversation has started, here is a suggested response from all of our state legislators and county leaders to this consultant’s report.

HELL NO.

Give Kathleen Matthews a Chance

By Adam Pagnucco.

Former WJLA anchor and Congressional District 8 candidate Kathleen Matthews has been picked as the Interim Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.  And as someone who was asked to run by the party’s senior elected leadership – namely, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Representative Steny Hoyer – she seems likely to be named the four-year Chair as well.  That has set off a round of protest among some liberals in the party, with echoes of last year’s primary battles.

Two comments are noteworthy.  First, former Montgomery County Council Member Valerie Ervin said that Matthews’s appointment “missed an opportunity to open up the space for a new and different kind of leadership.”  That was essentially the rationale for the U.S. Senate campaign of Ervin’s good friend, Donna Edwards.  Second, Maryland Matters columnist Josh Kurtz blasted Matthews as “an especially thin reed” and “the wrong candidate at the wrong time” who could not connect with either progressives or Hogan voters.

In evaluating these criticisms, it’s worth contemplating just how much trouble Maryland Democrats are in right now.

  • Governor Larry Hogan has rung up a string of job approval ratings of 60-70% or more, including majority approval in some polls among Democrats. He is on pace to raise tens of millions of dollars for his reelection campaign.  He is absolutely dominant in social media.  And he is only seven GOP votes away from having his vetoes sustained in the House of Delegates.  If Hogan returns to Annapolis with enough Republicans to support his vetoes, Maryland will have a real two-party state government.
  • Outside Annapolis, the Democrats’ hold on county offices has collapsed since the 2002 elections. The Democrats are almost extinct in most of Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Harford County.  The Republicans firmly control Anne Arundel and are competitive in Baltimore County.  The Howard County Executive is a Republican.  The Democrats dominate in Baltimore City, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles.  That’s about it.
  • The Maryland Democratic Party apparatus has degraded. It could not help Anthony Brown get elected Governor in 2014.  Some local parties complain about lack of support.  The party’s federal receipts in the 2016 cycle ($2.8 million) were the lowest in any two-year cycle since 2004.  The party’s state-level account raised just $6,650 last year, about one-eighth of what the Republicans raised.  There is little in the way of an aggressive communications program on the Governor’s record in office.  Individual Democratic state legislators complain about issues like Hogan’s Facebook page and his executive order on Labor Day, neither of which will result in electoral harm to the Governor.  The party lacks a battle plan for taking on the Governor other than associating him with Donald Trump.  It needs a plan, and fast.

Enter Kathleen Matthews.  As a candidate in CD8, she did a lot of things right: raising money, getting the Washington Post endorsement and running a competent, professional campaign.  She lost because she did not have David Trone’s money, did not spend ten years building a grassroots base like Jamie Raskin and did not sufficiently address local issues.  Since the campaign, she has played a key role in helping women run for office through Emerge Maryland, unquestionably a hugely important exercise in the Era of Trump.  Let’s recognize that unlike many other losing candidates who disappear after the election, Matthews has remained engaged.

Some of the criticisms of Matthews relate to her positions and conduct as a candidate.  But Matthews is not going to be a candidate for government office if she is Chair of the party.  Other people will run for Governor, state legislature and county office and they will face the judgment of the voters.  As Chair, Matthews’s job will be to raise money and rebuild the party’s communication and field capabilities.  She is as plausible a choice as anyone to accomplish those tasks.

Consider this.  One of the most effective techniques of political communication is story-telling.  Imagine a video interview with a Baltimore City teacher or family affected by Hogan’s cuts to city schools.  Or an interview with a provider of developmental disability services who would earn fast food industry wages under Hogan’s budget.  Or a profile of a family who would lose Affordable Care Act health insurance coverage while Hogan stands idly by.    Or a story about a positive initiative from a local Democratic elected official fixing a problem for constituents.  Imagine a mass email and social media program spreading these pieces to hundreds of thousands of voters.  Who in the entire state party is better suited to this kind of video story-telling than Kathleen Matthews?

Of course, we’re the Democrats.  We often fight harder against each other than against Republicans.  We could criticize Matthews as not liberal enough, not working class enough or not local enough.  We could keep fighting the Bernie vs Hillary battles, the Donna vs Chris battles or the Tom vs Keith battles.  We could keep arguing over who’s perfect and who’s not.  Sure, let’s do that.  Hogan would love it.  That’s exactly what he wants us to do.

Or we could unite all of our various factions, our passions and our abilities and take our case directly to the streets of Maryland.  We could spread far and wide what we know to be true, which is that Maryland can do a lot better than Larry Hogan and Donald Trump.  And we could take advantage of the fundraising and media skillsets that Kathleen Matthews has to help us do it.

Democrats of Maryland, the choice is yours.

Will Taxpayers Fund Ficker’s Next Campaign?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As MCM and Seventh State have reported, MoCo political heckler Robin Ficker is running for County Executive.  That’s not shocking – Ficker has a long history of running for office and almost always losing.  What’s new is that Ficker is planning on acquiring a new source of campaign funds.

You, the public.

Ficker’s campaign website explicitly refers to the county’s new public financing system, under which the county matches campaign contributions made by individual residents (but not PACs, corporate entities or non-residents).  The system is opt-in; candidates can use the traditional financing system if they wish.  Ficker created a public financing account to run for Executive on February 8.  But that doesn’t mean he will necessarily get public funds.

Ficker’s campaign website home page.

The county’s system does not distribute taxpayer money to everyone who participates.  Instead, it sets up a number of thresholds candidates must reach before they are eligible for public matching funds.  Under the law, a candidate for Executive must receive at least 500 contributions of $150 or less from county residents totaling at least $40,000 before he or she is eligible for public funds.  The candidate cannot accept money from PACs or businesses and cannot take individual contributions of higher amounts.  Once eligible, the candidate can collect up to $600 in taxpayer funds for each $150 contributed by an individual.  Lesser matching amounts apply to smaller contributions on a sliding scale.  Lower thresholds and different match levels apply to those running for County Council at-large and district seats.

Could Ficker get public money?  Ficker has used two campaign accounts over the last decade, the Robin Ficker for Homeowners Committee (which he used in two runs for County Council) and the Fickers for 15 Slate (which he used to run for the General Assembly along with his son in 2014).  The two accounts together raised $262,762.  Of that amount, Ficker self-financed $259,108, or 99% of his take.  A total of 33 individuals other than Ficker gave to the two accounts.  So Ficker has a long ways to go to get public money.  However, he does plan to use his term limits petition information to raise contributions.  Ficker gathered 17,649 signatures.  If just three percent of those folks contribute $150 or less to his campaign, Ficker will qualify for public matching funds.

And so here is the cost of public campaign financing.  If taxpayers are to fund the campaigns of candidates they might support, they may also have to fund the campaigns of those they do not.  Even the clown prince of political hecklers.  Even Robin Ficker.

Ike Leggett’s Dump Fire

By Adam Pagnucco.

No one knows exactly when the worst dump fire in Montgomery County history started.  It was first reported to authorities on October 22, 1994.  A 40-foot high pile of trash at the Travilah Road dump had ignited and begun spreading airborne foulness throughout the vicinity.  The Washington City Paper reported, “The slow smolder spewed clouds of acrid smoke—filled with floating ashes and shreds of trash—and a putrid odor that engulfed the North Potomac area for miles around. The noxious fumes temporarily shut down Stone Mill Elementary School and forced residents from their homes; some had to take temporary refuge in motels.”  More than 200 people reported respiratory problems.

Incredibly, the county government did not act immediately to put the fire out.  Rather, it wanted dump owner Billy Mossburg and his family to put it out themselves despite their long history of bad blood with both the county and their neighbors.  The Washington Post reported, “The county doesn’t have the equipment to do the job, and it’s better for the company to spend its money under county supervision than for the county to spend tax money and bill Travilah Recovery later, said Capt. Ray Mulhall, a fire department spokesman.”  The county posted two environmental inspectors and three fire officials to the site to “ensure everything is done right.”

Internally, the administration of outgoing County Executive Neal Potter debated what to do.  Meetings of county officials went on for two hours or more without resolution.  Some in the administration worried about liability.  Others were concerned about who would pay to put out the fire.  Some worried about the difficulty of getting trucks into the dump or whether lights could be installed for night-time fire-fighting.  Just as a course of direction seemed in reach, someone would bring up more questions and the meetings would resume.  And the fire kept burning.

It was Paralysis by Analysis, then and now.

County Executive Ike Leggett has a dump fire, too.  It is otherwise known as the Department of Liquor Control (DLC).  Maligned for many years for its poor service to licensees and consumers, it was the subject of a landmark Washington City Paper story during Leggett’s first year in office.  The DLC is not a threat to public safety as Billy Mossburg’s dump once was.  But it chases away consumers, stunts the county’s restaurant industry and costs the county and state nearly $200 million a year in economic activity.  After a number of scandals including employee theft, employees drinking and driving on the job and use of an inventory system run with sticky notes, the County Council proposed a bill allowing private distributors to fulfill some special orders.  Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) went further, proposing a bill that would have allowed voters to decide whether to continue the liquor monopoly.  After initially supporting the council’s bill, Leggett opposed both of them and promised that he would fix the DLC through a task force.

The result of the task force?  Paralysis by Analysis, of course.  The task force’s eleven members included just two licensees and no consumers.  It had three meetings during which invited speakers extolled the benefits of government liquor monopolies.  It concluded with no task force statement and no proposal.  The administration completely ignored a proposal to recover DLC’s profits and pretended for months that the proposal never existed.  The Executive offered a tweak that no one else supported and later withdrew it, alleging that DLC’s problems were solved.  This is despite the fact that DLC suffered massive supply failures during the Christmas and New Year’s Eve week the prior two years.  On each occasion, Leggett defended the liquor monopoly just prior to its meltdowns.

The pattern here is the same as the reaction of County Executive Neal Potter to the Travilah dump fire.  Be cautious.  Worry about money.  Pretend that things aren’t so bad.  Play for time.  Maybe the problem will go away by itself.  Maybe public interest will move on to something else.

In the end, the Travilah dump fire was undone by an event it could not burn away: an election.  Incoming County Executive Doug Duncan raced from his inauguration directly to the Executive Office Building and demanded that county officials do everything possible to put out the fire.  Eight days later and roughly seven weeks after it was first reported, the fire was out.  The county later sued the dump owner to recover the cost of fighting the fire.

Here is the great lesson of the Travilah dump fire for today’s dump fire at the DLC.  Meetings and task forces won’t put it out.  Neither will consultants, financial analyses, promises, tweaks, defensive blog posts or PR campaigns.  One thing is needed to deal with the liquor monopoly.

Bold action.  From a new County Executive.