CAP Pushes Back on Ethics Panel Report

At the Tuesday, November 12 County Commissioners’ meeting, the county’s ad hoc Ethics Review Panel gave its report. The panel recommended no substantive changes to the existing Ethics Commission or Ethics Ordinance, and made those recommendations without any meaningful public input. In response, CAP Chair Kira Hamman spoke on behalf of the organization at the November 18 Commissioners’ meeting. What follows is a version of the comments made there that was sent as a letter to the editors of the Herald-Mail on November 25 but has yet to appear.

 

To the Editors:

We are writing on behalf of Citizens Above Partisanship, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on encouraging cooperative government in Washington County.

One of our organization’s key priorities is ethics in local government, and we are very concerned about the county’s existing Ethics Commission and Ethics Ordinance. Members of ethics commissions should never be under the authority of the same elected officials they are charged to investigate, as they currently are in Washington County. Furthermore, as recent incidents in county government illustrate, unethical actions do not always involve financial gain, yet that is all the current ordinance addresses. Finally, there is no mechanism currently in place to enforce penalties for ethics violations, and this lack of enforcement leads directly to a lack of accountability.

We were hopeful last year when Commissioners Meinelschmidt and Keefer chose to focus on these issues and appointed an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel to review and revise the county’s commission and ordinance. We were subsequently dismayed, following the commission’s November 12 meeting, that the panel’s report recommended no substantive changes to either the structure of the commission or the ordinance itself.

More concerningly, these recommendations were made with virtually no public input. The panel held one public hearing, on Tuesday, September 10. A small notice of the meeting appeared in the Herald-Mail at the end of the previous week. That’s it.

The hearing was not publicized via the County Commissioners’ email list. It did not appear on the county’s social media channels. No press release was sent out. And neither the hearing nor the minutes of other panel deliberations were, or are, mentioned on the county web site.

Unsurprisingly, nobody went.

Leaving aside how uncomfortably close this comes to a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, it is inconsistent with the principle of transparency in government that we hope and trust the Washington County Commissioners hold dear. Beyond that, even if the hearing had been well-publicized, it failed to garner any input. This should have automatically triggered additional hearings and attempts to collect feedback from the community. Ethics ordinances address the very integrity of our government and cannot meaningfully be discussed, let alone revised, without the participation of community stakeholders.

Therefore, we ask that the commissioners do the following:

    1. Re-convene an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel.
    2. Charge the panel to hold well-publicized meetings at a variety of locations around the county.
    3. Offer a well-publicized and robust option to give input online.
    4. Accept recommendations from the panel only after meaningful input from a diversity of stakeholders has been gathered, and no sooner than 90 days from the beginning of the process.
    5. Finally, make all deliberations public in the form of well-publicized open meetings with publicly available written minutes.

We ask that this process begin immediately.

Sincerely,

Citizens Above Partisanship Executive Committee

 

It is our understanding that the County Commissioners are now considering holding a new public forum to discuss the Ethics Commission and Ordinance. We encourage all CAP members and supporters to reach out to them in support of such a forum, and to attend it if and when it occurs. We will keep you up to date as we hear more.

Keller, Kifer Discuss City of Hagerstown

On Monday night CAP members heard from Hagerstown City Councilwoman Emily Keller and Chief of Police Joey Kifer about current initiatives, ongoing challenges, and future directions for the city. The conversation addressed topics including economic development, addiction and recovery, homelessness and housing, and the relationship between the city and county governments.

Both Keller and Kifer spoke of positive changes in downtown Hagerstown. Kifer cited an extremely low crime rate, saying that “crime downtown is petty stuff,” and reporting significant decreases in virtually every category over the last five years. Keller added that Hagerstown is “better than most people think we are – we get a lot of bad press.” She mentioned substantial investment in the downtown arts district, including the new Maryland Theatre, an addition to the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, and many new businesses. At the same time, Keller said, bringing more people downtown to live and play will require significant investment in housing and infrastructure, including basic things like grocery stores.

Speaking about challenges in the city, Keller mentioned opioid addiction and the success of Washington Goes Purple in raising awareness about the opioid crisis. Kifer noted the relationship between education and preventing addiction, lauding the recent increase in drug education in the public schools. He pointed to Antietam Academy as a major asset in supporting children who are dealing with issues that are disruptive to their educations. Providing a positive educational environment for those students, he said, helps break cycles that contribute to poverty, addiction, and crime. Kifer added that diversity in the police force has been a priority under his leadership, not only to ensure that law enforcement represents the community, but also to aid in understanding the needs of the community.

Asked about the problem of homelessness in the city, Kifer spoke movingly of trying to protect homeless citizens from risks inherent to their situation, such as harassment and violence. Keller talked about the enormous challenges such citizens face in simply finding food and shelter on a daily basis, leaving little time for job training and seeking employment. Many people without permanent addresses are unable to apply for jobs; others with temporary addresses may not be able to get things like utilities in their own names, making it difficult to establish credit and move to permanent housing. She discussed things the city is doing to try to help, such as the new Bridge to Change program and exploring various forms of affordable housing.

Discussing the relationship between the city and county governments, Keller said that they have a “mostly good relationship,” and that there have been some productive informal discussions between herself, Councilwoman Shelley McIntyre, and Commissioners Cort Meinelschmidt and Randy Wagner. She acknowledged that things like fire & rescue, water & sewer, and resulting tax differentials constitute “pain points” between the city and county, but said, “my job is to protect the citizens of the City of Hagerstown.”

The discussion concluded with a lively Q & A, culminating in the following question from an audience member: “how do we change the narrative of Hagerstown?” Keller and Kifer both expressed frustration over what they consider disproportionate media coverage of a very few negative stories, and agreed that we need to do more to shine light on the many positive things happening in the city.

With that in mind, CAP invites all readers to our Party Above Partisanship at The Flying Camel Café on Thursday, December 19 from 5-7pm!

Citizens Above Partisanship Hosts Education Panel for Washington County

On Monday, Citizens Above Partisanship hosted a panel discussion on education at the Washington County Free Library. The panel, featuring Executive Director of the WCPS Education Foundation Caren Cramer and OnTrack Washington County Board of Directors Vice-President Paul Frey, covered local education concerns ranging from  post-secondary education paths to education funding.

Discussing the impact of OnTrack, Frey pointed out that “… the economy has changed based on technology, based on all kinds of issues, and so what we’re suggesting at OnTrack is we want cradle to career… if there’s a career, what steps do you have to take for that career.”

The panelists also discussed the respective roles of national and local control in education. “I do believe that states should have control over their education system, and filter that to the local counties,” said Cramer.

A very engaged audience asked the speakers some tough questions regarding local education. Although the panelists brought different perspectives to the discussion, both were obviously committed not only to quality education in Washington County but also to working together to achieve it. Their diverse perspectives worked together to give the audience a better understanding of all forms of education in the county, which is exactly the kind of cooperation that CAP stands for and works for. They have our sincere gratitude both for being panelists and for the work they do with their organizations.

A recording of the full panel discussion will be posted later this week on Citizens Above Partisanship’s YouTube Channel and their Facebook page.

Peaches and Politics!

We had a great time at the Leitersburg Peach Festival last weekend, talking to people from all around the county (and some surrounding counties, too) about cooperative government for the common good. Thanks to the Leitersburg Ruritan for having us!

Come visit us next weekend in Williamsport at C & O Canal Days!

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Gerrymandering and Maryland’s 6th Congressional District

Monday night’s panel discussion on gerrymandering and the recent Supreme Court case involving Maryland’s 6th Congressional district, which includes Washington County, featured Randy Barber, Chair of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee (speaking only for himself), and Len Lazarick, Editor of MarylandReporter.com. Amie Hoeber, former Republican candidate for the CD 6 seat, had been scheduled to speak but regrettably was unable to attend due to an emergency. Washington County Republican Central Committee Chair Jerry DeWolf did not respond to requests for participation.

Lazarick, who has been covering Maryland politics for many years, spoke about the current and historical context for the legal challenges to Maryland’s redistrict following the 2010 census. Barber advocated for a nonpartisan redistricting commission, a proposal similar to that put forth by Governor Hogan, but added that national action is needed. He said that if Maryland, where the gerrymandered districts favor Democrats, were to redistrict in a nonpartisan manner while other states remain gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, it would be tantamount to “unilateral disarmament.”

Coverage of the meeting by WDVM can be viewed here.

CAP’s next meeting, on Monday, May 20, will be on economic development in Washington County. Everyone is welcome!

 

Ethics Changes in Washington County

Last week’s vote by the County Commissioners to form an ad hoc committee to review the county’s ethics ordinance represents important progress on one of CAP’s top priorities. We fully support the Commission’s decision, and urge them to adopt changes that will strengthen the ordinance and give the Ethics Commission meaningful authority to enforce it.

Commissioner Cort Meinelschmidt discussed ethics changes in the county at CAP’s meeting on March 25 at the American Legion in Williamsport. You can watch that meeting here:

CAP Hosts Panel on Diversity in Local Government

What can citizens and voters do about under-representation in Washington County government?

On February 25th, Citizens Above Partisanship hosted a panel discussion of this question at Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown. The event was attended by CAP members and concerned Washington County residents and was covered by local media.

CAP believes that our local leaders must be representative of the diversity of the entire population in order to understand the diverse challenges we face. Increasing diversity in local government is one of our long-range priorities, and hosting this discussion was a step toward being in a position to encourage and support a diverse and qualified pool of candidates for the 2020 election and beyond.

Panelists included:

  • Harry Jones, former Democratic candidate for County Commissioner
  • Sandra Oblitas, Director of the Kasandra Cultural Center
  • Andrew Barnhart, former Green Party candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates
  • Donna Brightman, former Chair of the Board of Education and Democratic candidate for County Commissioner

In the nonpartisan spirit of our organization, the discussion was moderated by Scott Bryan, former Republican candidate for County Commissioner and current CAP Candidates and Issues Coordinator.

Asked about the effects lack of diversity has on communities in Washington County, Jones pointed out that elected officials rarely engage with communities outside their own once elected. They don’t take the aches and pains of those communities seriously, he said, because they are not their own aches and pains. This leads to a lack of understanding of the challenges different communities face, and a failure of confidence among voters that government will work for their best interests.

Brightman and Barnhart both talked about structural barriers to broader participation in government, including the party-based primary system and the plurality voting method. Open primaries, ranked choice voting, and districted County Commissioner seats were all discussed as possible ways to overcome those barriers. Brightman also pointed out the newly formed Diversity Commission as a hopeful sign.

Oblitas, who immigrated from Bolivia in 2002, talked about the need for better communication channels to reach potential voters who may not understand the value of voting. She admitted that she would like to see a member of the Latino community in elected office, regardless of party affiliation, because such a person would understand the needs and concerns of that community in a way that is difficult for people outside of it. Both she and Brightman also lamented the lack of women in local government, with Brightman pointing out that there have been only three female County Commissioners in the county’s history.

The panel concluded with audience Q & A and a discussion of what citizens might do to encourage more diversity in local government. Jones summarized the answer to that question nicely with a call to get personally involved, saying, “in order to get change, you have to be willing to make change.” We agree – democracy takes work, and we’re grateful to all our panelists for taking the time to work with us.

 

CAP Outlines 2019 Priorities

With the 2018 General Election behind us, Citizens Above Partisanship has outlined its priorities for 2019. In keeping with our mission to promote cooperative politics for the benefit of all Washington County residents, we have identified three main priorities for this year. These priorities all support our core value of ethics, education and the economy.

Priority 1: Diversity Among Local Elected Officials

One of CAP’s long-term priorities is to improve diversity among local elected officials. CAP endeavors to ensure that not only the most ethical and most qualified individuals serve in office, but also that elected officials are as diverse as the residents of the county. We will address this priority in 2019 by reaching out to members of traditionally underrepresented groups to identify issues of concern to those communities & how they fit in with CAP priorities. We will publicize and address those issues via speakers and topics at our meetings, social media outreach, and outreach at local meetings and events. Our intent is to be in a position to encourage and support a diverse and qualified pool of candidates for the 2020 election and beyond.

Priority 2: Ethics and Transparency in Local Government

A continuing CAP priority is to raise the ethical standards and transparency of local government. We strive for a culture of inclusion, competency, and trust. We must ensure that our elected officials treat everyone fairly and without bias and that there are clearly stated and enforced policies regarding ethics. We are concerned about the number of closed meetings and the lack of public review of some decisions, and in 2019 we will attend County Commissioner meetings, Board of Education meetings, and other municipal meetings to ensure that these issues are being tracked and the public made aware of them.

Priority 3: Economic Development and Education

Our third major priority for 2019 is to raise awareness of economic and educational issues in the county. A strong economy is crucial for any healthy, thriving community, as is an educated electorate. A community with low unemployment whose citizens are employed in quality jobs has lower rates of crime and illegal drug use. Education is closely tied to both economic success and a healthy, thriving community. In 2019 we will connect with local business and educational leaders about both the challenges they face and about positive trends, and bring those things to a larger audience through our meetings and our outreach efforts.

Democracy takes work. Let’s get to work.

Citizens Above Partisanship Releases Campaign Finance Analysis

CAP has analyzed the data from campaign finance reports filed with the state by candidates for County Commissioner in the 2018 election.

The report includes:

  • Top Contributors: Who donated the most money to whom?
  • Contribution Breakdown: Who had the most funding?
  • Geo-location: Where did contributions come from, both in and outside of the county?

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FULL REPORT

CAP on A Miner Detail Podcast

Citizens Above Partisanship’s participation in a panel discussion at The Flying Camel on Sunday, February 3 was a clear indication that CAP is making progress for cooperative government in Washington County. The event was moderated by Ryan Miner of A Miner Detail and broadcast through A Miner Detail Podcast. Panelists were CAP board members Kira Hamman, Ken Buckler, and Scott Bryan. There were more than 20 people in attendance and more than 200 viewers of the online podcast, plus many online comments. CAP members had an opportunity to discuss CAP goals and core principles – ethics, education and the economy – and talk about the recent election and the state of local politics. Click here to listen to the conversation.

Kira Hamman, CAP Chair, pointed out that Republicans have a plurality in Washington County, but not a majority; there are a lot of third party and unaffiliated voters. Therefore, the community is poised for change, and the response to CAP has been visceral. CAP is working for a more cooperative democracy in which politicians work across political differences for the common good. Hamman added that CAP is not against partisanship, but above partisanship, meaning that the organization stays out of partisan politics and puts the community above party affiliation. She also criticized hyper-partisanship and the demonization of parties other than one’s own, which she said has no role to play in local government.

Communications Director Ken Buckler mentioned that the last two election cycles saw a lot of fear-mongering.  He said that on social media, there was a sentiment that supporting the Governor and the President necessarily meant supporting local Republican candidates and actively opposing Democratic and third-party candidates. CAP is working to counter that idea. Buckler also made the important point that CAP has many new people coming to meetings, and that our focus is on providing information and content that is not only educational but also highly engaging. CAP is on Facebook and Twitter, has a website with articles about local issues and a calendar of relevant local events, and will soon launch an Instagram feed. When citizens engage with the organization via any of those channels, or by coming to meetings, they become more invested in the community and in cooperative government.

Scott Bryan, Chair of the CAP Candidates and Issues Committee, emphasized that CAP is not telling people what to believe but is raising issues to talk at the local level and educating people about things that matter locally. He added that what draws him to CAP is his belief that if you want to make a difference in politics at the local level, you can do it with a group like CAP. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” he said, to an enthusiastic response from the audience.

The event illustrated that CAP’s message resonates with the community and is spreading among its citizens. We are grateful to Miner for inviting us onto his show, and to The Flying Camel for hosting us. Democracy takes work, and everyone at Sunday’s event was putting in that work.