Friday, January 1, 2010

Transitions, transparency and journalism

Dear friends and followers:

This is likely my final post for the Cohen Bulletin. As I wrote in the previous post, I have transitioned to a new blog,, which will replace this one.

For the time being at least, I will leave the Cohen Bulletin up online. It's funny -- when I first started this blog, some of my colleagues cautioned me against it. Their concern was that once I expressed a point of view on the blog, it would remain in cyberspace in perpetuity and could come back to haunt me if I ever changed my position. Heaven forbid I would have to explain myself.

It is hard to believe, but three years ago when I started this blog it was so newsworthy that The Capital gave it front page coverage. Today, even on a slow news day, a politician's blog would barely rate a two-sentence mention in a news digest. Blogs are now old hat. Even more recent forms of social media that were unknown three years ago are no longer newsworthy because they are so widespread. (I read somewhere that the word whose usage increased the most last year was "unfriend," courtesy of Facebook.)

On balance, I believe that this global shift towards more user-generated communication is good. It is enhancing the transparency of our government by making it easier for citizens to actively participate, and by making it easier for policy makers to communicate their views.


Transparency is good because it makes it easier for the public to access information about the often confusing political process. As my friend Judd Legum writes, Delegate Heather Mizeur is offering a proposal to make the General Assembly more transparent by posting floor votes, committee votes and committee schedules online. This is the type of transparency that we need more of. Citizens have a right to know -- simply and easily -- how their representatives are representing them. Citizens have a right to know when committee meetings are being scheduled and how to offer input into the process.

The internet, with its living room sofa-access to the Halls of Congress, is an ideal vehicle for making our government more accessible to citizens. However, while transparency is good, we shouldn't confuse it for results. Transparency is about the process, not the product. The more we make raw data available, the more information people will have, but raw data alone can lead to more confusion rather than less. As President Obama's Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform Neil Eisen writes,
[an] unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information.
It is easy to take a piece of information out of context, whether intentionally or not. Unfortunately, this is especially true in the world of politics. As we become more transparent, politicos will have more raw data to use to paint misleading pictures of their opposition. Does that mean we should not strive for more transparency? No. But it does mean that we need to go deeper.


Americans love to view politics in terms of good guys and bad guys, but politics is not that simple. Politics is about balancing legitimate, competing values. It can be hard to figure out the right solutions, let alone figure out which politicians hold the "right" values.

Because the political process with its maze of pundits, advocates and special interests can be hard to follow, the supposed product of it -- the vote -- has a simplistic, litmus-test kind of appeal. Yea or Nea. You're either with me or against me. Regardless of what politicians say, they reveal their true colors when they cast their votes, right? Not always.

Yes, votes are important, but rarely are they the whole story. Making politics work requires compromise, and compromise can be nuanced and messy. The trade-offs and negotiations required to govern well are rarely as clear cut as the "yeas" and "neas" on a vote.

An old adage says to never do anything that you wouldn't want to read about on the front page of the newspaper. Knowing this, and knowing how easy it is to place information out of context, elected officials are hyper-attuned to how their votes could be perceived. All it takes is a couple of misconstrued votes to damage an opponent's campaign. As a result, politicians often weigh how a vote might be used against them rather than voting solely on their judgment of what's in the public interest.

All of this is to say that while more transparency is good, we should be mindful that the real goal here is not simply awareness but understanding. All the information in the world won't do much good if it doesn't lead to better understanding, and presumably to better results.


For this reason, I believe there will always be a need and a market for quality journalism. Despite the turmoil in the newspaper industry right now, it will survive because the story is what really matters.

Transparency shines the light on more pieces of information. It reveals more of the dots in a connect-the-dots picture. But the true picture only reveals itself when the dots are connected in the right way. This is the real value of journalism. Good journalists put information into context and provide a narrative to make it understandable.

So, with that said, I will nonetheless continue to be a strong advocate for more transparency in government. I will start now by providing you with self-promoting links to my blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Thank you again for your support and feedback during these past three years. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010!


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thank you

To the citizens of Anne Arundel County's Sixth Councilmanic District:

Thank you for the privilege of representing you on the Anne Arundel County Council for these past three years. I have always felt that public service was a noble calling and a worthwhile use of one's time. Serving as a council member has offered me a unique opportunity to help people, and I am grateful for your trust and confidence in electing me.

Today is my last day as your County Councilman. Tomorrow I begin a new challenge when I am sworn in as Mayor of Annapolis. Before I step down let me share with you some thoughts about community involvement.

Community involvement is the alpha and omega of getting things done. That's the long and short of it. If you as a private citizen care about an issue, the best way to advance your viewpoint is to personally get involved. Regardless of the issue -- school funding, development, taxes, public safety — citizen involvement makes a difference. I witness it every day.

Even unsuccessful efforts can make a difference. The year-long effort to enact a stormwater utility fund, though it fell short by one vote, significantly raised public awareness of the problem and moved the political center closer towards solving it. I am confident that it is only a matter of time until a future council makes it happen.

Politics is like water -- they both tend to follow the path of least resistance. The best way to shift the outcome of a political debate is to insert yourself in it. Get involved.

One of the joys of my job has been getting to know and work with so many of you who care about our community and take the time to get involved. I hope you will stay in touch and will continue to call on me if I can be of help. You will be able to reach me after tomorrow at or 410-263-7997. If you want to receive email notices of goings-on at City Hall, visit the MyAnnapolis webpage at where you can subscribe to different e-news lists. I also have started a new blog,, where I will be posting news and updates.

As mandated by County Code, my successor will be selected by a majority vote of the remaining County Council members. Several individuals have applied, and several civic groups are sponsoring a candidates' forum this Wednesday, December 9th from 7 to 9 p.m. at Annapolis Middle School. This forum will be a good -- perhaps the only -- opportunity for you to hear them in person before they are interviewed by the Council on Dec. 17th. Equally important, it will be an opportunity for the candidates to hear you.

I and the members of the next city council will be sworn-in tomorrow (Monday) at 2 p.m. at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. The event is free of charge and open to the public.

I owe a large debt of gratitude to my Legislative Aide Gail Smith. There is no one more dedicated, professional and committed to her community than Gail. It has been a privilege to work alongside her and I am thrilled that she will be coming with me to City Hall.

Thank you again for the privilege of serving on the County Council. My best wishes for a peaceful and happy holiday season.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

FY 2010 Budget highlights

Today is the first day of the County's Fiscal Year 2010 spending plan which runs from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010. I want to share some highlights of how we are managing your tax dollars.

Unusually tough times

"Austerity" is the word that best describes the FY 2010 budget. The downturn in our economy is affecting county revenues and requires significant spending cuts. This year's $1.18 billion budget is smaller than last year's by more than $30 million. On average, each department's budget is almost 9 percent leaner than last year. The notable exception is the Board of Education whose funding is a little more than 1 percent higher.

These exceptionally challenging times required Anne Arundel County to take unprecedented steps. We eliminated almost all "pay-go" operating funding of long-term capital projects, thereby increasing our long term debt service to pay for these projects. We zeroed out our planned $15 million contribution that was intended to reduce our future liability for retiree health care. We renegotiated union contracts to eliminate more than half of the previously agreed COLA and merit increases. And, for the first time in memory, we dipped into our FY09 "rainy day fund" to the tune of $16.5 million.

Despite these and other reductions, I believe we successfully prioritized spending to maintain essential services while minimizing the impact on the end user. The same thing I wrote about the budget process two years ago holds true again this year: Overall, the budget process was collaborative and it worked well. Although many worthy items were not funded, we did the best we could to balance different objectives with the money available.


The FY 2010 budget reduces the property tax rate from 88.8 cents down to 87.6 cents per $100 of assessed value. (The budget reduces the county portion of the tax rate for City of Annapolis residents from 53 cents down to 52.3 cents.) The reduction is required by the county’s property tax revenue cap, which requires the county to reduce the tax rate when rising assessments outpace the rate of inflation. With this tax rate cut, Anne Arundel County continues to have the lowest property tax rate ($0.876) and income tax rate (2.56%) of any of Maryland’s “big seven” largest jurisdictions.

Despite our economic hard times, the Standard & Poors bond rating agency maintained our coveted Triple-A bond rating. This valuable designation will save taxpayers money by letting the county borrow money at more favorable rates to pay for long-term capital improvements. This rating is due in large part to the county’s history of prudent fiscal management and solid, diverse tax base.

What’s in the budget

The budget contained almost no new initiatives. A few items of note include the following.

  • In a huge victory for Annapolis families, the budget funds the full implementation of the Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) Magnet program at Bates Middle School this Fall. The County Executive's proposed budget failed to include the $800,000 needed for the Arts Magnet, but the County Council found the money from savings elsewhere in the budget. As I've written before, the PVA is a critical part of the plan to strengthen schools in the Annapolis cluster.
  • Despite having to reduce Monday morning hours at some branches, I am pleased that the Library system found a way to stay open on Sunday afternoons at the West Street branch and two other regional branches during the school year.
  • The budget includes $15 million to improve Bay water quality by funding enhanced nutrient removal of nitrogen and phosphorus at the Edgewood Road Wastewater Treatment Plant. This project is 75% funded by the State's "flush tax" -- our state tax dollars at work.
  • The capital budget includes full funding to construct a new and expanded Germantown Elementary School. The new school will open in time for the 2011-2012 school year.
  • Fortunately, the budget does not include closure of Annapolis Elementary School which was recommended by the County Auditor. The school is one of the last remaining community institutions downtown and is vital to keeping downtown family-friendly.
Revenue and expense summary

Property taxes are the single largest source of revenue for Anne Arundel County, accounting for 46 percent of all revenues. Income taxes are the second largest at 30 percent. All other revenue sources such as recordation and transfer taxes, permit fees and sales taxes account for less than a quarter of county revenues.

Education is the single largest expense for the county. Fifty percent of the $1.18 billion budget goes to the Board of Education. The next largest category is public safety: police, fire and corrections account for 20 percent. The remaining 30 percent of the budget covers all other services from public works to recreation, from the libraries to social services.

More Resources

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Germantown Elementary Update - Moving Forward

Plans for the new Germantown Elementary School are moving forward. Recently I participated in a meeting with House Speaker Mike Busch, Principal Walter Reap and several other stakeholders to revisit the agreement for use of the athletic fields behind Germantown. This athletic complex is a perfect example of how projects in Annapolis often involve multiple levels of government. The construction, use and maintenance of these fields are a joint effort among the City of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, AACPS and the State of Maryland. Fortunately, this example is a positive one of how these levels of government can work together successfully.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) has retained an architectural firm for the Germantown Project. The firm has produced a new site plan for the fields and floor plan for the new school (the current site plan is HERE). AAPCS will construct a completely new school at the west end of the athletic complex. The school will be designed with all the modern bells and whistles including an expanded gym, and will become a real gem of the Annapolis school system.

Vehicles will access the school from Windell Avenue, not Cedar Park Road. To improve safety, there will be separate entrances for school buses and for personal vehicles.

Many people ask me about whether the Poplar Trail will still connect through to Windell Avenue. The answer is yes, the trail will be relocated adjacent to the new bus access road, and in fact that segment will gain a couple of more feet in width.


The Germantown project is the first of three related projects for Annapolis area schools that need to happen in sequence. Construction for the new Germantown school is anticipated to begin Spring 2010. The new school is expected to open in August 2011 in time for the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

The second project is to relocate the Phoenix Center. This project is contingent upon receiving local and state approval and funding. If this project is approved and funded, once the new Germantown is built, AACPS will renovate the old (current) Germantown. This building will become the new, larger home for the Phoenix Center which is presently at the other corner of the athletic complex.

The third project is to renovate Annapolis Elementary School. Again, pending approval and funding, once the Phoenix Center students move into the old Germantown building, the administrative staff at the Board of Education (Green Street) building downtown next to Annapolis Elementary will move to occupy the old (current) Phoenix Center. AACPS will then relocate the students at Annapolis Elementary in order to complete a massive renovation and upgrade to the school. The project will combine the current Annapolis Elementary building with the administration building to result in a new school with expanded capacity and upgraded facilities that meet current building codes.

For more information

Mary Patz, an architect in AACPS' Design Department, is the primary contact person for the Germantown project. She can be reached at 443-770-5966 or by email at mpatz [at]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Annapolis Schools Funding Update

This afternoon the County Council took up amendments to the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. I am thrilled to report that the County Council unanimously delivered a huge victory for Annapolis schools.

1. Bates Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) Magnet Program

The County Council restored $800,000 to fully implement the Arts Magnet at Bates this Fall. The County Executive's proposed budget had eliminated this funding which the Board of Education had proposed.

2. Germantown Elementary and Annapolis Elementary Construction Projects

The County Council took no action on the County Auditor's recommendation to close Annapolis Elementary and combine its students into a new mega-elementary school complex at Germantown. Both County Executive Leopold and the Board of Education strongly supported keeping the two schools separate. The County Council's support for the Board of Ed's recommendation effectively assures that the new Germantown project will continue as planned with construction of the new school starting next year. Annapolis Elementary will also remain as a stand-alone revitalization project with design slated for FY 2012 and construction to begin in FY 2013.

I have no doubt that these budget votes would have been different without the tremendous outpouring of support from the community. I thank the parents and students who came out for impromptu rallies, waited long hours to testify at public hearings, and otherwise made their voices heard. The community's voice does make a difference.

The final vote on the amended budget is next week so it's not over yet, but the heavy lifting took place today. I am grateful for the bipartisan support of my colleagues on the County Council during this very difficult budget season. I am also grateful for the personal involvement of House Speaker Mike Busch and the Annapolis City Council, especially Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson and Alderman Fred Paone, all of whom went the extra mile to convey the importance of these votes to Annapolis families.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bates Arts Magnet funding cut

As reported in today's Capital, the County Executive's proposed budget fails to fund the Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program at Bates Middle School this Fall.

This budget cut is disappointing to say the least. The Annapolis feeder system has more middle-school students attending private school than any feeder system in the county. Signature programs such as the Middle Years Programme at Annapolis Middle School and the Arts Magnet at Bates are key to the long term viability of city public schools.

The County Council needs to restore the Arts Magnet funding, and community support will be key to making it happen.

Tough fiscal times

Fiscally, the County is hard-pressed to fund any enhancements for FY2010. It is a challenge simply to maintain our existing level of services. From that viewpoint, any increase such as the Arts Magnet sticks out as an easy target to cut.

Enrollment decisions already made

Although the full implementation of the Arts Magnet will be an enhancement over the current budget, it is one that the schools have committed to in writing. Parents have passed the point of no return in making school decisions for their children next Fall. After receiving the Arts Magnet acceptance letters, parents withdrew their children's slots at other schools.

How heartbreaking this will be for these students who applied for admission and received the acceptance letter, only to have it pulled away. If this action stands it will severely erode families' confidence and trust in their school system.

It would be understandable to defer a funding enhancement that was never committed to. But, at this late date it is unacceptable to cancel the implementation of the Arts Magnet after scores of parents have already made irreversible enrollment decisions for this Fall.

Needless to say, I am committed to restoring this funding. I am cautiously optimistic that a majority of my colleagues will support the effort, but it is a very difficult year fiscally. Community support will be the key to making it happen.

To testify

The County Council is holding two public hearings on the budget next week. They both start at 7 p.m. as follows:

- Monday, May 11 at Old Mill High School
- Wednesday, May 13 at the Arundel Center in Annapolis

Individuals are given two minutes to speak. The best testimonial is simply from the heart. Parents whose children have already been accepted into the magnet should bring their acceptance letter with them.