Focus On Talbot: Big News At County Council by Dan Watson

Credit where credit is due: The Talbot County Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to grant citizens an opportunity to speak at every Council Meeting. This is a major development, signaling a new willingness to hear in open session from the local residents about whatever is on their minds.

While Council Members expounded in turn on the merits of this idea, the proposal apparently originated, according to one member, from Keasha Haythe, who noted the need for such engagement and contacted Corey Pack to suggest it be implemented. Mr. Pack brought the idea forward. (Ms. Haythe, as you will recall, was a County Council candidate in 2018, finishing just 226 votes out of the running.)

The Council had a staffer survey many other County and municipal governments and learned that every one except Talbot permits citizens to speak up at Council meetings. Accordingly, the Council decided to go with it.

(Ironically, the County Council’s existing Rules of Procedure already states this: “Public Participation: During regular business meetings…a reasonable amount of time will be provided for members of the public to address the Council on pertinent matters.” [Section 1.E] Apparently the Council has ignored that provision for at least 20 years, and a quiescent public went along. Unbeknownst to most citizens, we also have an express right to petition the Council directly at Council meetings. [Section IV.B])

Public participation suddenly being welcomed at Council meetings is great news, and it will be incumbent upon engaged citizens not to abuse that opportunity. As discussed by Council Members on Tuesday night, there are many public and political issues that are totally outside the County’s purview, so there is no purpose bringing up your concerns with the NASA space program. More to the point, it is incumbent on all of us, if feeling a need to speak at all, to be concise, well organized, and to the point.

While procedures have not been finalized, apparently the Council will ask that a sign-up sheet be used. Speakers will be limited to some reasonable time period, perhaps three minutes, although Mr. Pack (and others) made clear that time limits would not be strictly imposed if a cogent presentation were underway. Council members also urged citizens to first take their concerns on specific topics to existing Boards (e.g., Parks and Recreation if the issue concerns a playground) rather than starting at the Council level. The Council also urged that any written materials be submitted to Council members in advance of someone speaking, just to make such exchanges more productive.

Another important development occurred on Tuesday evening, when all five Council members spoke at some length welcoming the upcoming work sessions on Short Term Vacation Rental (“STR”) regulations. The council clearly set forth a broad mandate that the STR Board listen to the public and “let’s get it right” on all issues of concern. Two public work sessions are being held by the STR Board at the Wye Room of the Community Center on Route 50, the first on Thursday August 22 at 1:00 PM and the second on Thursday August 29 at 6:00 PM. The Board requests that written comments to be submitted prior to the work sessions.

Finally on Tuesday night the Council voted to release immediately the ten emails and eight text messages they have been withholding from the public since February under a claim of executive privilege, the theory being that their release was contrary to the public interest. The vote, taken in open session, was 4-0 with Mr. Pack abstaining.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus on Talbot:  Email From My Brother

Earlier this week I received this email from my brother who lives in Nashville.  I’m sure it’s as relevant in the Talbot community as anywhere else in the country.  Maybe it will help you, or help you help someone you love.

________________

Dear Sibs,

I would like to share with you my long history with Chronic Depressive Disorder, hoping it might help initiate meaningful and open dialogue within our extended family.  

Genetics is an important component of this disease.  Out of our combined 21 grand kids and 1 great grandchild, the odds are that as many as 4 or 5 may suffer from its effects.  Also, this generation may be more at risk because of the cruelty of social media, the never-ending images of mass shootings and threats from climate change.  It is a serious disorder that is hard to measure, understand and treat.   Like other serious diseases (i.e., diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, etc.) it is treatable with medication and therapies.   

 “Disease” is a good term because if I go 1 or 2 weeks without my medication my thoughts slowly and automatically become highly self-critical, negative, ruminating and distorted.  These thoughts provoke strong physical responses (i.e., nausea, dry heaves, fatigue, nervousness, sleeplessness, exhaustion, irritability and regrettable anger).  Not to simplify it, but having these physical responses validates the truthfulness and accuracy of the distorted thoughts, therefore making them true.  The prolonged rumination of distorted thoughts and physical responses lead to more self-critical thoughts and worse physical reactions.  This perpetual vicious cycle can be so painful that one simply wants to die – literally.  

I never attempted suicide, but did spend a lot of time during my major episodes thinking and planning it out.  When you’re depressed, ideation (thinking of suicide) feels kind of good.  It’s an escape into a fantasy that seems like a reasonable and understandable solution.   It is extremely dangerous because there’s a fine line between reality and fantasy in a depressed state.   Suicide in all age groups has increased significantly in recent years and is now epidemic.

I unquestionably felt for decades that depression was a personal weakness, a character flaw and a negative trait that needed to be hidden.  This belief was engrained in my early childhood and adolescent psyche by the culture of the 1950’s and 60’s.  In many American families raised at that time, stoicism was not only a virtue but an essential quality for a guy.

I tried to hide my depressive disorder my whole life.  I just recently told my daughters (now 35 and 37) about the details.  Perhaps this disclosure will help others to open up sooner and feel less alone.

Here is my history with depression from the inside out:

My first severe depressive episode came when I was 19 and a sophomore in college.  It was 1970 and I didn’t know what I was experiencing and neither did anyone else.   I was spinning down into a very dark place.  There were little or no mental health options to turn to in those days, even if you knew what was bothering you.  My friends and family were agitated and perplexed by my moodiness.  In response I began to develop some life-long avoidant personality tactics, like spending hundreds of hours alone learning to play the guitar.  Solitude became safer and more comfortable for me.  It still is.

I remember Dad driving me back to College Park demanding that I better “snap out of feeling sorry for myself or else”.  I took the “or else” as the stoppage of him paying for tuition, room and board.  I would have to drop out, lose my deferment, get drafted and go to Viet Nam.  My draft lottery # was 20.  I tried to snap out of it. 

The effects from this episode lasted another 2 or 3 years, but I did “pull myself up by my own boot straps”.  I recovered without any interventions and made it through PT school.  

After graduation and a move to Nashville for music, things were going along swimmingly for 6 years. I was working as a PT and playing in a band.  We recorded an album and went on the road for 18 months, including the month of May in Holland! 

However, back in Nashville in the summer of 1980 at age 29, I had my 2nd major episode of “psychotic” depression.  It was even worse than the one I had 10 years earlier.  I was hospitalized for 6 weeks.

Afterwards, I recovered slowly but quickly went back to work.   We started a family and I continued playing music with the band.  Ever since (almost 40 years!) I’ve been on one type of antidepressant or another, along with intermittent psychotherapy.  Depression ebbs and flows with its own underlying current and never completely disappears.  It’s a difficult thing for someone to fully accept.

In the mid to late 1980’s I felt good enough to complete a graduate program in developmental Psychology at Vanderbilt.  In part I was interested in the curriculum because I thought I could find that golden nugget of knowledge that would free me.   I was wrong about that, but did learn more about it.

In 1995 I had a great idea and started a small software business.  With the help of many talented people and investors the company grew over the next 19 years.  It was acquired by a larger software company in 2014.  “All is well that ends well”, many benefited and the American dream lives on.  It was quite an adventure.

However, since depression doesn’t care about that, I relapsed in 2015 at the age of 64 into another major episode.  We managed this time to receive all necessary treatments on an outpatient basis.  This included a combination of genetically targeted medications and psychotherapy.  I’m feeling better these days, but now accept I have a condition that needs continuous management.  

Please don’t think my life is nothing but gloom, despair and agony on me, it is not.  Depression is a disorder that needs to be openly discussed and confronted at an early age.  Feel free to share this email or the attached version with anyone who would be interested or might benefit.

One more important thing – I’m an avid believer in prayer.   I have prayed thousands of times over the years for relief.  Now I think there might be a bigger reason I had to experience it and I hope this email is part of it. 

Love,

G

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

 

Focus On Talbot: Lock ‘Em Up! By Dan Watson

Having gone to court to win access to the information, The Washington Post and a small West Virginia paper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail (think Star Democrat), have pried loose evidence that 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone tablets were distributed in the US over a seven-year period 2006-2012. Seventy-six BILLION. Any wonder we’ve suffered a nationwide opioid epidemic?

And this data covers only those two pills; it does not include Oxycontin, Percocet, Valium, and so forth—all of which are dangerous and part of the problem.

As I scanned the Post’s stunning articles with their dynamic maps and graphics, I thought of our “Talbot Goes Purple” campaign that Sheriff Joe Gamble and others initiated to combat drugs and opioids locally. Did that tsunami of pills really wash into Talbot County, contributing to deaths of our neighbors right here, or were Appalachia and “those other places” the only ones impacted by this regulatory negligence?

Fortunately—surprisingly—the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) database obtained by the Post enables any reader to drill down to annual data on a County basis, so we can actually evaluate that question to some extent. One can even track gross prescriptions to individual pharmacies (and a few doctors).

Pharmacies in Talbot County dispensed thirty-three (33) oxycodone and hydrocodone pills for every man, woman and child in Talbot County, on average, over those seven years. That sure sounds like a lot to me. I was inclined to chalk it up to our older population (median 49.7 years, 12 years older than state average!). We must have the highest number of joint replacements per capita of any County in Maryland if my circle of friends is any indicator.

Pills by County

But in fact, Talbot does not seem to be out of line with the rest of the state; we are right in the middle! The range extends from a low of about 15 pills (Montgomery and Prince Georges) to a high of 59 pills in—get this—Kent County.

But the DEA data reveals that Maryland was spared complete devastation compared to other areas of the Country, particularly Appalachia. (Mingo County WV: 203 pills per person on average over seven years.)

This oxy/hydrocodone report is shocking, and, Sheriff Gamble was happy to spend an hour to drill down into its meaning locally. His main points were these:

Importance: The national data and patterns are obviously jaw dropping. At the State and County levels it could also be very useful to uncover outliers. The data shows individual pharmacy and physician fulfillments (though not individual prescriptions). Prior to the successful lawsuit by the press, the sheriff’s department or other local law enforcement could possibly have gotten the information, but only through an lengthy bureaucratic process that probably would have required a justification in advance.

Timeliness: The publicly released data set is seven years old. It would have been more helpful before the horse was out of the barn. Since 2012 the drug scene has morphed somewhat.

Pills In Context: Prior to about 2012 pills of all sorts—especially oxycodone and hydrocodone—were a dominant problem because they were cheap and available. Since then, for many reasons, pills have become less available and—in relation to heroine especially—more expensive. Consequently, pills are today dangerous mostly as a “step on the ladder” (Sheriff Gamble’s phrase): a kid who may have toyed with alcohol or marijuana gets his (or her) hands on a pill or two, and experiences that first opioid high. It may be a brief plateau, but once addiction takes hold, the much cheaper and available heroine becomes the main drug of choice.

Two Things People Need To Do: First, sort through your meds for any drugs you do not really need at present….not just expired drugs, but those “left over.” Don’t save them for a rainy day. Deposit them directly into the (free and anonymous) dropbox (photo above) situated to the left of the door to the Sheriff’s Office in the old Black and Decker Plant on Glebe Road. Second, as to any drugs you need to keep on hand, do not let them simply sit in your medicine cabinet. Lock them up somewhere. We all think of the risk of teenagers or kids getting hold of them, but really anyone with incidental access (cleaners, repairmen) can lift a few little pills (worth $30 or $40 each), and if the whole bottle doesn’t disappear, who’s to notice?

The flood of opioids is a historic, world-class scandal. How many Americans—including some in Talbot County– died unnecessarily. How many equivalent World Trade Towers went down, and nary a terrorist to be seen?

Many want to crucify the profit driven players in the opioid trade itself—the manufacturers, the wholesale distributers, and unscrupulous or careless pharmacists and prescribers. But blame is shared by those responsible for regulating this dangerous business, whose indifference and ineptitude–and probably worse–denied Americans the protections that should have applied. Responsibility rests ultimately on the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who failed us over many years.

Meanwhile, do your part today. Check that medicine cabinet, find those unused dangerous meds, and discard properly (NOT down the toilet). Or lock ‘em up!

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus on Talbot: FYI, Information Is Not Free, Even When It Protects Public Interest

You may recall that earlier this month the State found that the Talbot County Council violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act. The Council must conduct the public’s business in public, not via texts and emails that no one sees or even knows about. Here is a related story you might find it of interest; it also tells you something about the Council.

At the outset the Council stonewalled any inquiry—that is, Mr. Pack, the Council President, refused to respond to a letter directly asking what had unfolded. A straightforward exchange could have ended the matter informally. Instead, at least 3 members of the County Council took the position that no information would be revealed without the filing of a Public Information Act (“PIA”) request.

By law, a PIA request requires the filer to agree to pay the “reasonable costs” the public body incurs in responding—though the first two hours of effort are free. Sounds reasonable…and certainly insignificant when the documents are close at hand (that is, recent and limited in quantity). The law also provides for discretionary exceptions if the requestor is indigent, or if the request is “in the public interest.”

When the materials were ready for review, I was advised as follows: “The cost of searching for, preparing, and reviewing the records comes to $616.43, which represents 15 hour of staff time at prorated salaries of $31.51 to $57.36 per hour, with the first two hours provided free of charge.” I paid the fee (and in context I think it remains a good investment, come what may).

When reviewing the material produced by the County it became immediately apparent that all of the meaningful information—all of the Councils’ texts and emails leading up to its decision—had been withheld under completely discretionary (and I believe bogus) claims of “executive privilege.” Only a few documents produced were of any interest—so few there was not even a charge for printing them.

I reiterated my request that the County refund the PIA fee on the basis that the request was completely “in the public interest,” in no way motivated by a commercial, private or personal objective. In a few days came the reply that the County was willing to waive 50% of the cost (net $308.21). Perhaps foolishly putting principle over cash, I responded, “I am more puzzled than appreciative…” and declined that half-measure.

It happens, however, that the State created a “PIA Compliance Board” whose sole authority is to review the “reasonable charges” imposed for a PIA request. (It has no authority to address the much more important question of what information a public body must release! Go figure.) I contacted that Board, detailing the “public interest” behind the PIA request. During these exchanges the County realized they had miscalculated the fee by including benefits in its costs, which is not allowed. So I did receive a $118 refund on that account.

The PIA Compliance Board last week issued its opinion that the County is entitled to charge for the 15 hours of staff time, and no refund can be compelled. It explained (to my surprise) that, “the Board does not have the statutory authority to evaluate a custodian’s denial of a fee waiver request.” So consideration of the public interest element is subjectively up to the County Council alone. The Board also noted that I had presented nothing indicating “that the fee is not reasonably tied to the County’s actual costs,” and so they could not second-guess the County in that respect either.

What the PIA Compliance Board did state, however, is this: “The majority of the staff hours are attributed to the County attorney’s review of the responsive records for privilege.”

In other words, the County’s charge for the PIA request (about $500) was not for the cost of finding and assembling the few documents it released and the texts and emails it is still withholding. Rather the Council charged for the time it took the County Attorney to research and compile legal arguments as to why the County Council should withhold the requested documents from the public. Is that not perverse?

Given that the County did violate the Open Meetings Act as charged, it follows that the matter should have been discussed from the dais of the Bradley Meeting Room. If it had, then comments in the secret emails and texts would have been expressed publicly as required by law and no PIA request would have been needed.

The Talbot County Council should, first, release the still-secret emails and texts. Second, since the inquiry was and remains entirely in the public interest, and should not have been necessary in the first instance, the Council should refund the PIA fee. (Of course, I may be a tad conflicted as to the latter point.) I reiterated that request to the Council earlier this week, but have heard nothing so far.

Sure is a lot of nonsense over $500… unless it’s the principle of the thing.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus on Talbot: A Book Review by Dan Watson

I’m not exactly sure what I think about The Second Mountain, the well-publicized book by David Brooks, except for these two things: the section on “Community Building” is important and certainly applicable to Talbot County, and I would urge people to read the whole thought-provoking volume.

On the one hand, Brooks develops some clear and very compelling theses that run through the entire work. First, individuals quite naturally undergo two phases in a healthy adult life. The first is focused on career, family, building one’s identity & success in the world. Then, usually around midlife, one goes into a valley. Often he/she experiences setbacks, difficulties or loss of satisfaction with one’s situation, leading to a re-evaluation of values and life goals. Then comes the second phase, inward looking as to values but focused outward towards relationships and community-building.

This idea is hardly a revelation, but Brooks articulates it well. I made reference to it a few weeks ago, when pointing out the benefits that flow to our community and local institutions from the coincidence that Talbot has a disproportionately large number of folks over 55 who are climbing that second mountain, including many with substantial resources.

Zooming out, Brooks contends persuasively that the maladies of our society arise from “hyper-individualism,” a deep-seated ideology we’ve internalized that every man (and woman) is independent and stands alone in their pursuit of happiness. That world-view has been taken to an extreme, yielding loneliness, isolation, a consumer-driven ethos, tribalism and an epidemic of suicide. Its counter—the way to build a healthy world–is not a leftist collectivism he contends, but “relationalism,” a way of valuing our interconnections. (You will believe me when I say Brooks articulates all this enormously better than I can summarize!)

The Marlboro Man may be handsome and tall in the saddle, but he’s unhappy and ultimately dysfunctional. A society of Marlboro men and women just doesn’t work.

On the other hand, I found the book, for me, a little uncomfortable. It is not really a socio-political work, the kind of thing I expected. To my surprise, the book is largely a very personal, revelatory story of Brooks’ own personal evolution as a man, dealing largely with his psychological journey, his successes and failures with loving relationships, his (interesting) mixed religious roots and a transformation of religious beliefs. The discomfort was mine: I don’t read books of this sort, just not my thing. Jeeze, he was writing all about love, and intimacy, and vulnerabilities and such–things that are central to my life too, but not ones I usually talk about with strangers. I felt a bit like a voyeur—which tells you more about me than Brooks.

The book is structured in five parts, each one of which could stand alone. He first presents the “two mountain” theme, then expounds on vocation and career, on marriage, on philosophy and faith, finally bringing it all together in “building community.” It does not take much reading between the lines to tease out from these pages Brooks’ biography, some of it expressed directly, some just hinted at, all of it pretty intimate and revealing.

Many of my conservative friends here in Talbot and elsewhere would not dream of reading anything by Brooks because he is, after all, a political turncoat. He knew Milton Friedman intimately and was a protégé of William Buckley. He wrote for the National Review (after a youth reading leftist works with enthusiasm, as he tells us). Articulate, extremely well read, and publicly personable (if not privately so, as he also tells us), Brooks is particularly well known since the early 90’s as “the conservative voice” on the PBS News Hour, a bookend with Mark Shields on the left.

But, though his intellectual foundation and conservative credentials were both rock-solid and main-stream in the Reagan era, Brooks did not follow the conservative political evolution of the last two decades, and not at all the metamorphosis of the Republican Party that he was once identified with. His distain for Donald Trump and this administration could not be greater, and he makes no secret of that. Consequently, he is vilified by many on the right, surprisingly admired by many on the left in spite of espousing traditional conservative political and economic principles.

The Second Mountain delivers two things. First, what I was looking for: a clear discussion of root causes of many of society’s ills (hyper-individualism) and a strategy for countering them (what he calls “relationalism”). What I did not expect was the personal story, a vivid backdrop to understanding who this pundit fellow is and the personal worldview that now envelops his political and economic positions.

I’d urge you to read this thought-provoking book; take from it what’s of interest to you.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus on Talbot: Mr. Pack Doubles Down by Dan Watson

The Talbot County Charter states, “No business may be transacted…except in public session.” The 1977 Maryland Open Meetings Act (“OMA” or Act) similarly requires that “public bodies meet in open session” unless the Act expressly provides otherwise. The goal of the Act is to require “that public business be conducted openly…to ensure the accountability of government to the citizens.”

In February the County Council, led by President Corey Pack, refused to respond at all to inquiries about actions taken behind closed doors, insisting that information would be released only via a formal Public Information Act (“PIA”) request. When that request was filed, the Council then refused to release any of the key documents that would reveal what transpired—the ten emails and eight texts that are still being withheld—claiming executive privilege (which is discretionary) and refusing to explain (as required by law) why releasing those texts and emails would harm the public interest.

The handful of documents that were released, together with a cryptic list of materials being withheld, were nevertheless enough to reveal that the County Council had identified a specific policy question to resolve, had collectively deliberated on that topic via numerous text and email exchanges over 36 hours, and had voted on a policy decision—all without the public even knowing about it. (The decision was not unanimous, but we still do not know who voted which way.)

On that basis I filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board (“OMCB”). In response, the County argued that, on the grounds of a number of technical issues, it had not “held a meeting,” and so, in effect, the public had no right to know how it had come to its decisions or who had voted in what manner.

On July 1, the OMCB found that the Talbot County Council “violated the Act when it did not provide the public with an opportunity to observe its deliberations on its position…” (The Board did not address the Charter violation, as it is not in their purview, but as the issues are the same, I believe that violation is confirmed as well.)

On Sunday, July 7, Mr. Pack replied with quite an extraordinary commentary published in both the Talbot Spy and Star Democrat. It seems he’s doubling down on a bet that people won’t try to follow what really happened, or don’t care.

Mr. Pack’s missive actually has some superficial appeal to common sense, if one were to accept his inaccurate representation of the issues and is unfamiliar with the back-story and the OMCB’s opinion. But let’s review some of his charges one-by-one.

First, Mr. Pack goes on the offensive, claiming that the County Council is the victim here. He said ““I believe the OMCB is using Talbot County in an attempt to further its own agenda. For the OMCB to use a made up violation of the Act to further its own political agenda is shameful.” (He did not use the words “witch hunt.”) In fact, the OMCB has no political agenda.  It is composed of three independent attorneys experienced in governmental law and all appointed at different times by Governor Hogan.

One signer was formerly the city attorney of Annapolis and later the Anne Arundel County Attorney. Another is the current Anne Arundel County attorney who has practiced in that office for fifteen years. The Chair of the OMCB is the city attorney for the City of Havre de Grace. If anyone knows the practicalities and mores of local government as they relate to the need for transparency while getting business done efficiently, these three attorneys do. They analyzed the Talbot matter in a detailed 7-page opinion.

Secondly, Mr. Pack three times stated outright that all of the text and email communications central to the matter (and still secret) were between just two members. (“Discussions were not in the form of group email but in fact were one-on-one…” “For the OMCB to conclude that talking to each other one-on-one constitutes a meeting of the elected body is absolutely preposterous.” “To consider communications between two elected officials….”) This misinformation is of great importance, as the quorum for a “meeting” is three members. And in fact, as the County’s own list of withheld materials makes clear and as the OMCB opinion examines in detail, at least six communications were indeed “group emails” involving all five council members.

Third, Mr. Pack said, “Never has the Board communicated its intentions to consider electronic communications within its purview.” The OMCB opinion is replete with citations of prior discussions and warnings concerning use of emails in conducting public business, including the 1996 Opinion referred to by Mr. Pack which included this statement from the Attorney General: “To be sure, email could conceivably be the medium of exchange when a quorum of a public body has convened.” The matter is addressed in Open Meetings Act training sessions.

Forth, Mr. Pack stated his belief that “Citizens trust public officials to gather the best information they can when making decisions about [citizens’] welfare….” In my opinion, civic trust will be much better fostered when the Council releases the texts and emails which it proclaims (without explanation) cannot be shared because it would endanger the public interest; when informal inquiries yield straight answers; when citizens do not have to go through the PIA process (at some expense) to get information that should be readily available; when the council listens to all sides on important matters, rather than any single interest group; and when council elections are free of fabricated charges and fabricated spokesmen.

Fifth, Mr. Pack claimed, “In my 10 years on TCC there has never been a deliberate attempt to evade the OMA”…. “This council and councils before, understand the importance of an open and transparent elected body, and…have always taken steps to ensure we stayed in compliance with current law.”

I believe Mr. Pack would have us forget that on May 4, 2016 the OMCB sent to him— then as now, President of the Council—a notice of violation of the Act, a violation that could hardly have been inadvertent. This makes two in three years.

It should not be hard for the Talbot County Council to abide by the Maryland Open Meetings Act, and no one is trying to interfere with normal activity of government. The over-wrought claim that this recent opinion “will dramatically harm day-to-day operations across the State of Maryland” (“across the nation”!) and that it will “cripple elected bodies” is simply a diversion to avoid facing the actual violation at hand.

And since the secretive proceedings in February have been found to constitute a meeting, aren’t the text and email communications tantamount to the public discussion that would have played out at the front of the Bradley room? They should be released forthwith.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus On Talbot: A Tool to Check for Healthy Waters by Dan Watson

First, never go in the water with a cut or open wound; stay out of the water a day or so after significant rain events; and do shower after swimming. But beyond those rules of thumb, would you like to know how to check water quality before sending the kids swimming in a river near you? Simple as pie, thanks to ShoreRivers.

As reviewed (kvetched?) in last week’s column, swimming in our local rivers today is less common than it was in the past, or ought to be (will be!) in the future. It’s not just that nutrients and sediment yield turbid water—not dangerous in itself, but unappealing. And it’s not the sea nettles either (usually). Sometimes, depending on events, portions of our local rivers have bacterial contamination that makes it inadvisable—unsafe—to take that plunge.

ShoreRivers, applying a program originating with riverkeepers in Ontario Canada, does a weekly survey of ten sites along the Choptank, Miles, and Wye Rivers from Memorial Day through Labor Day to determine whether or not those spots are safe for your kids to swim. Water samples are taken on Thursday mornings and analyzed at the ShoreRivers offices (thanks to contributions last year that funded purchase of the equipment). And anyone can access the results the next day via a free app. THIS is a public service folks should know about.

Here’s the “simple as pie” way to make it happen: Google or search App Store for “Swim Guide” (not “Swim Guide in Stories”) and click on “Download the App.” Allow access to your location and up pops a list of all the nearby sites that have been tested—safe sites in green, unsafe in red. Click on the name of a site for more information, including the date and time of testing.

(Alternatively, you can have ShoreRivers email you the whole list of results weekly by calling 443-385-0511, or consult your riverkeeper’s Facebook or instagram accounts.)

For those interested, ShoreRivers explains that its ratings use the standardized EPA safety threshold of 104 enterococcus per 100 milliliters of water.

Communities or individuals can arrange to have bacteriological testing done on a regular basis at additional sites of interest if they can deliver samples to Easton weekly. The cost is $525 for the entire season.

Note that the Swim Guide application actually has a good deal more information than the health of our local swimming spots. For example, you can use it to find nearby beaches wherever you travel, including maps. (In fact, ShoreRivers itself samples many sites on the Chester, Corsica and Sasafrass.) And it is also a means to submit reports to riverkeepers if you find anything amiss.

So get the kids outside, enjoy the waters when you can…. but first check that it’s safe to do so! And lets get to work improving our local rivers and the Bay so in the future such a question will seem just so 20th century.

 

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

 

Focus On Talbot: A Strange Fact by Dan Watson

Talbot County has over 600 miles of shoreline but operates nary a single public beach. That’s not something one thinks about, we just take it for granted…but is it really the natural state of things?

Decades ago it was common for people—kids especially–to swim and wade in the rivers and bays of Talbot County. It’s summer in Maryland after all: hot and humid. Some way to cool off is what’s needed. We may not have had Tolchester or Betterton, but old photos in the CBMM and the Talbot Historical Society’s collections show that folks did enjoy the water right outside the door. All those stories we hear word-of-mouth from “born here’s” about soft crabbing in grasses on the shoreline, about seeing the bottom 5 feet down—those anecdotes are from people who recall being in the water when they were kids. But today, not so much.

The only thing that qualifies as an actual public beach is the Strand in Oxford, maintained (and perhaps soon to be improved!) by the Town of Oxford. Question #4 on the County’s tourism website is this: Where are the Beaches? And here is the rather sad reply: “Talbot County is on the Bay side, which means we have very few beaches. There’s a small strip of sand on The Strand in Oxford and at the public park, and there’s a small riverfront beach at Bill Burton Pier State Park in Trappe.”

I haven’t figured out why “being on the Bay side” means no beaches, and I suspect visitors to the website would be puzzled too.

(I guess having a sandy spot near the north end of the fishing pier technically qualifies, though it is State property. But I’m not the only one who’s never heard of it: a very high County official did not know about it either, and the only reference to it I could find is quoted above. But right across the Choptank sits Dorchester’s very nice Sailwinds Park.)

The Talbot County Parks and Recreation Department lists fifteen parks that it operates, but not one includes swimming or wading in the description of activities offered. It operates twenty-five public landings for recreational and commercial boaters, but none of those include swimming—understandably so, as the functions certainly would be in conflict. However, the County does operate two public swimming pools–as would most any landlocked community in say central Kansas.

We all know why beaches are not part of our community landscape: no demand, because the waters are so uninviting. Though often over-stated, the water just seems “dirty” due to the overload of sediment and especially nutrients that feed unnatural levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton that combine for a murky brown color, sometimes like weak coffee. No wonder lots of folks—and the County—have gone the route of swimming pools, notwithstanding the 600 miles of shoreline at our doorstep.

Still, kids (and a few adults) do occasionally go swimming off the docks, and there are a handful of sandy spots along the rivers where boats might pull in for an unauthorized dip. And kids tubing or taking sailing lessons at our yacht clubs are in the water too. So, people do want to know whether or not our waters are actually polluted—that is, unsafe for swimming due to bacteriological contamination from septic systems or other sources. The next “Focus on Talbot” column will provide details on that issue, and just how parents (and grandparents!) can find out about the current health of our local waters as it changes week to week.

It is simply not natural that a community on the water, a community completely intertwined with the water, does not feel comfortable swimming and wading there. Very many of us—both individuals and organizations like ShoreRivers and CBF–are working hard for the day when our waters are considerably cleaner, so much so that a swim in the River seems a great idea on a hot day in Talbot. Come join the effort!

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus On Talbot: Talbot County’s Pentagon Papers? By Dan Watson

Parked in a file in the Courthouse are ten (10) emails and eight (8) text messages that at least three of the Members of the Talbot County Council really, seriously, do not want you to see.

Who is that majority? I do not know. It is a secret.

Why do they not want you to see these ten emails and eight text messages? I do not know. That too is a secret, and we may never find out. What the Council has acknowledged (in its response to a Public Information Act (“PIA”) request) is that withholding these items is completely discretionary, completely the choice of three (or more) Council members.

Readers of this column will recall my claim that the Council violated Section 212(f) of our County Charter (“No business may be transacted…except in public session.”) when in February a majority (not unanimous) authorized Mr. Pack to send certain letters to the Legislature, and did so secretly, with no public notice or discussion. I raised that point to highlight a worrisome attitude on the Council regarding transparency and proper procedure, which are important issues.

(Curiously, just two weeks later the Council authorized similar letters on similar issues using normal procedures in a regular meeting. Why the different approach? Another mystery. The second round was problematic not procedurally, but only because the Council heard just one point of view from a particular special interest group before acting.)

Anyway, the Council could have responded to the accusation with something like this: “Sorry, that was on us. Just a procedural snafu or a matter of modest import; we were rushing to meet some Annapolis deadlines. We’re sensitive to these procedural issues and it won’t happen again.” End of kerfuffle. (The substance of the letters was not of great significance by the way, and soon became moot as the Legislature moved forward.)

The Council did not respond like that; in fact, no response was forthcoming at all. Instead came an instruction that any information would be produced only through a formal Public Information Act request, which was promptly filed. A few relevant documents were produced, but as previously reported, the County refused to make public ten emails and eight texts exchanged by the Members in the 24 hours before they voted (in secret) on authorizing the initial letters.

Under the PIA law, the County “may deny the right of inspection to certain records or parts of records, but only if disclosure would be contrary to the “public interest.” The PIA Manual says this about the public interest standard:

“Whether disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest” under these exceptions is in the custodian’s “sound discretion,” to be exercised “only after careful consideration is given to the public interest involved.” In making this determination, the custodian must carefully balance the possible consequences of disclosure against the public interest in favor of disclosure. If the custodian denies access under one of the discretionary exemptions, the custodian must provide “a brief explanation of why the denial is necessary.” [The custodian in our case is the County Attorney, who has advised he is acting as directed by the Council.]

The County failed to provide the explanation as to how disclosure would damage the public interest in its initial response to the PIA request, and has not responded to a follow up request to meet that requirement of the law. (The Council also declined a request to simply reconsider releasing the emails and texts, even in a redacted form showing the header: to whom, from whom, time and subject.)

Moreover, the Council went out of its way to expressly ask that two state bodies looking at aspects of this matter avoid commenting on anything to do with its decision to withhold these documents—or, for that matter, on the question of the Council’s violation of the Charter. (Complaints are currently outstanding with both the Open Meetings Compliance Board and the PIA Compliance Board, to be reported on at a later date. The Council is rigorously resisting both complaints, devoting considerable legal department time and raising numerous technical issues, including jurisdiction.)

In the final analysis, even after the involvement of the two Compliance Boards mentioned, the County Council still has the power to withhold whatever it wants to, without explanation; only through a lawsuit could disclosure be compelled.

I think we all just want to know why three or more members of the Council believe that disclosure of these emails and texts would so damage the public interest that that must be kept secret? And what do other members think? We’re not talking about the Pentagon Papers after all. My own guess is it’s all pretty insignificant, but politicians can get touchy when called to account.

Next Week: A report on the outstanding complaint under the Open Meetings Act …or perhaps an update on the requested refund of the County’s $616 charge for answering PIA request. Or maybe an examination of how these “discretionary decisions” are even getting made in the context of required County procedure. Stay tuned.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

Focus On Talbot: Roadsides, Roadsides by Dan Watson

Obvious perhaps, but fundamentally our impression of Talbot County comes from the immediate views we see out the car window, going up and down the roads every day. That, more than any other thing, defines Talbot. The County is small enough that most of us are moving daily through both the “built environment” (towns, villages) and the rural landscape that connect them. What we see on the roadsides is in fact a big deal; it’s Talbot County. Yet most of us take it all for granted, hardly noticing the details that roll by.

It is the shared, collective experience in this public realm that creates a special sense of Talbot–for the travelers passing through, for the weekend tourists drawn here (in no small part by those vistas), and most importantly, for us lucky ones who have chosen to build our lives here. We should be attentive to the little things, appreciate the value of the vistas we share, protect and even enhance them. In my opinion, using Dave Wheelan’s word from last fall, we should be “fussy.”

Because the unique peninsular geography of Talbot creates a hub-and-spoke arrangement on the west side of Rt 50 (where most people live), the main collector roads—the Bypass and Routes 333 and 33 especially—are the constantly used arteries that really set the tone…. though others are important too.

So, as to our Talbot County landscape, is the glass half full or half empty? Is the “look and feel” of our roadsides getting marginally better or worse? Is it in the nature of things that slowly but inevitably, we go downhill?

In my opinion, there is plenty to celebrate and plenty to criticize too.

Celebrations? Most of these examples are “just” the beneficial by-product of decisions property owners make for their own private reasons. But still…

Talbot’s farmers work the fields as a business, as a career, and as a way of life. And we get to watch! For many years I lived in the city and never had the slightest notion of what I was missing. In some abstract way I knew crops got planted and crops got harvested, but I didn’t “get it” in the least. In Talbot we all can mark the cover crop maturing to Kelly green; then the fields getting prepped; those first seedlings popping up inches high, the whole land light green. Next thing you know you can’t see beyond the first row of 8 foot stalks! (All of that if the field wasn’t flooded out at planting time; that’s another story.) A similar tale for beans and wheat, each its own slightly different changing vista as the seasons unfold. (And who even knew of sorghum?)

A number of civic-minded property owners seem to landscape their roadsides especially to benefit the public, can you imagine? No doubt it’s a matter of personal pride and improves their own property values as well…but we are all the beneficiaries, every day, every pass by. On Rt 33 near the pincushion, for example, is a quarter mile stand of carefully tended loblolly pine. There are many other examples.

Similarly, thanks be to every property owner who pays attention to the look of their property from the roadway—not just along the County roads, but in Easton and other towns and villages as well. Each is attending not just to their own private interest, but also to the “look and feel” of Talbot County that all of us share every day. (The same is true of business owners, though, in my opinion, with significantly less positive impact.)

Criticisms? Here are some:

Very many trees and shrubs along Talbot County’s roadsides are sadly overrun with invasive vines, destructive and unsightly parasitic overgrowth. (Thankfully, a master gardener group led by Lisa Ghezzi is beginning work on this problem, and some others (e.g., Easton Utilities) seem to be getting engaged too.)

Utilitarian to the core, the public sector players who control much of what we see (think SHA) are often the worst offenders, relatively insensitivity to the impacts they have on our road scapes. Death by a thousand cuts.

Visual screening of necessary equipment that is thrust into the rural environment, from small utility boxes to entire solar installations, could be much more effective.
For our towns and most villages, there is scant sense of arrival as one enters, a haphazard transition at best from the “rural” to “built” segments of our County. It is a lost opportunity and invites further blurring of the distinct qualities between the rural versus built-up elements of the community, what should be a complementary yin and yang relationship.

As you travel the roads and streets of Talbot County, take notice. Make your own list of vistas to celebrate, and what makes them so. Make your own list of failures, where as a community we could do better, for the everlasting (one hopes) benefit of the County as a whole.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

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