Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hungry in the Howard Building

Back in May I wrote a rather stern post about vending machines. The gist of it was that Howard County shouldn't be in the vending machine business at all. Local blogger AnnieRie responded that there was a history to why there were vending machines in county/government buildings. There had been a time when these places provided food service for employees, and over time these places were phased out. The victims of cost-cutting measures, I presume.


What I didn't know--until yesterday--was that this very thing happened to the employees in the George Howard building, when County Executive Kittleman cancelled the contract with the food service operations and discontinued their café. I can see why wanting to have a healthier variety of choices in their vending machines has become of particular interest. The bigger choice employees had was taken away.

In the comments section yesterday, Board of Education member Cynthia Vaillancourt said:

I wondered why the Cafe disappeared one day. I had a meeting at the George Howard Building and was running late - and hungry - but planned to stop in the cafe. But it was gone! I was hungry and non-caffeinated ... and probably not my usual charming self. :) It was very inconvenient. I also thought how environmentally helpful it was to have a cafe on site so people did not have to get into their cars and drive to an off site location for lunch/snack/coffee.

So I think that this is a story worth pondering, and I wonder why it didn't get any press coverage at the time. Not only does it affect the employees of the Howard Building and visitors, it also speaks volumes about the priorities of the County Executive and how he operates. It also seems to me to have backfired. Why?

Well, because in the dispute over vending machines, Mr. Kittleman wants people to believe that the County is irrevocably bound to contracts with the vending machine company. I don't think that line of thinking would have turned up on the local Fox News channel all by itself. And yet Mr. Kittleman seems to be quite capable of discontinuing contracts.

In canceling the food service contract he both inconvenienced County workers and caused financial loss for the food service workers. I suppose he had some underlying justification--cost-cutting measures, perhaps?--but the fact is he is perfectly capable of addressing contracts with vendors. That's a part of his job.

Now that CB-17 is the law, how will he do that job? This story isn't over yet and I think we need to keep watching.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Contracts and Facts

The other day when I was talking about CB 17, Nutritional Standards, and vending machines, this question came up in the comments section:

Serious question, related to this topic. On last night's 10 pm news, Channel 45 had a story on this topic. The reporter made an interesting assertion: the current contract between the county and the vending machine operator extends through 2019. This bill can't force a change in what the vending operator does until that contract expires, unless the county wants to unilaterally break the contract, to its detriment. So this bill won't impact those vending machines for four years, by which time a majority of the County Council will be gone due to term limits.

I had never heard that asserted before. Is there anyone out there who knows whether it's true? Because if it's the case that this bill really won't impact anything for four years, this truly becomes a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

On the other hand, if it was just another case of shoddy reporting by the local media, then I'll don my "complete shock" look again. :-)

I didn't have the answer so I went to work to find out. I started by writing to my County Councilman, Dr. Calvin Ball. I received his reply last night and it is so thorough that I asked permission to share it in its entirety.


Thank you so much for your patience as I awaited the guidance from of our Office of Law so I could ensure accuracy. I’m happy to share some additional information regarding the status of the County’s contract with Black Tie Services LLP, our vending contractor, as well as the impact it may have on implementing CB17.

The contract went into effect on October 1, 2014 and will expire on September 30, 2015 (“Initial Term”). The County has the option to renew for four (4) additional one-year terms, unless sooner terminated. It’s been alleged by Channel 45 and others that the County cannot implement CB17 until 2019. It is true this is timeframe when the County would complete all terms under the contract; however, it is not the only opportunity the Administration would have to implement the nutritional standards.

The County would have at least two additional opportunities to implement CB17. First, the Administration may amend the contract to implement the nutritional standards under CB17. This would require consent from Black Tie Services LLP. Second, the County may terminate the Agreement for convenience and can do so without showing cause so long as we provide at least 30 days written notice to our Contractor.

I understand the comment from your blog stated the bill couldn’t force a change in how our vending operator conducts its business unless the County unilaterally cancels the contact, to our detriment. I’m unclear what is meant when they say “to our detriment”. This is not the first time under this Administration the County would have unilaterally cancelled a contract. In fact in April 2015, the Administration unilaterally cancelled our contact with the vendor of our café, Auction Café, in the George Howard Building. This contract was not scheduled to end until 7/31/15 and had 11 renewals remaining. Auction Café prepared and made available a variety of meals (breakfast, lunch, snacks) and beverages, healthy and otherwise which accommodated our County employees including the County Executive’s office, County Council and majority of County agency employees as well as visitors entering our main government building.

This was one of the catalysts for introducing CB17. Without the freedom or opportunity to order a healthy meal, snack or beverage, our employees and visitors are now left to select from the items remaining in our vending machines. The Administration emailed they would be exploring other alternatives, however none have been offered nor an explanation provided for cancelling the contract. It is likely this has lost revenue for the business, jobs for its employees and commission to the County. However, as it relates to this specific contract, CB17 and the nutritional standards, commissions would still be required to be paid to the County from the Contactor through the termination date. Furthermore, the County could then submit an RFP for a vending contractor that would implement the nutritional standards.

It would never be my intent for the County to terminate a contract or for a business to lose revenue. The terms of our agreement give us flexibility, in fact, to negotiate and amend the terms to implement the nutritional standards. Of course, that does require consent from our Contractor. If the Contractor is not willing to negotiate, we are still approximately 60 days from when the contract is scheduled to expire. We are required to give 30 days written notice if it would be our intent to cancel our current contract, which is the other alternative for the County implementing the nutritional standards.

As you can see, our Contactor would be afforded the option to amend the contract without its losing its business with the County and CB17 can be implemented if the Administration is willing to act. However, the Council does not have purview over negotiating or implementing contracts with our vendors. This is an Executive function.

I hope this answers your questions.

That's a lot to digest. I'll delve into this tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Home Delivery

Saturday in the mail we received a rather perplexing notice: a bill for our subscription to the Columbia Flier. It was indeed perplexing because a) we hadn't initiated a subscription b) we thought the paper was free and c) it was addressed to a Tim McCready. There is no Tim McCready at our address.


For many years a pile of Fliers has been dumped off at our community mailboxes each Thursday--about three or four, I'd guess. If you wanted one, you took one. Then, several weeks ago, we started getting ours delivered right to our front door. And then--bingo!--a bill.


I already pay a monthly fee to get digital access to the Sun and the local Howard County Times coverage. Why would I pay additionally for a paper copy of the Flier? Which I thought was free? I joined a conversation on the topic on Facebook. Someone remarked, "I got that bill awhile back. I ignored it, and the paper still keeps on coming."


Is this a scam? Is some third party trying to make money off of our free community newspaper? Or is it a rather sad attempt by the Flier to solicit donations to a financially strapped publication?


It's just weird.


We really need a local newspaper. I'd like to see more news, more local coverage. And I can see where the Flier needs more money than just advertising to make that happen. Print advertising isn't what it used to be. But billing some people and not other people for what has traditionally been a free paper looks unprofessional and haphazard.


It would apparently cost us $19.54 for a yearly subscription. Why don't they just have a fund drive? Twenty dollars to help support a struggling local institution is certainly reasonable. Then, those who can afford it can chip in. I'm guessing that some folks would be willing to give more than that.


But if you're going to change a free paper into a subscription one I'd like to know more about it first. Here's an idea: maybe someone could write an article about it for the paper?


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

It's Sunday and all the dribs and drabs of unfinished topics and ideas are lurking in the fridge. Time to lay them out for a hodgepodge buffet. Take your pick from undeveloped premises, one-sentence theories, arch pronouncements without a thesis statement, overly candid confessions, and as-yet unresearched claims.


I can't vouch for how well they'll go together. A little catsup or HP Sauce should help. Perhaps some Sriracha.

This week's offerings:

  • Tales from the Second Chance Saloon
  • Why we give a lion the benefit of the doubt
  • Mental health issues and families
  • The Marketing Committee vs. The Neighborhood Enhancement Advisory Committee in Oakland Mills
  • The strange case of the traveling squirrel corpse
  • The Nutritional Standards controversy as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta
  • All the jobs I am not qualified to do, or stories from the job hunt.
All this from just one week!

I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into a blogger's intellectual pantry, as it were. Even when I say I can't think of anything to write about, there are always at least a handful of stub-ends of topics vying for attention. Sometimes they work their way into a whole post.

Sometimes they're just dishes in a Sunday buffet.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Tell Me Something Good

Once upon a time, a long time ago, about last Friday, when Ken Ulman was County Executive, Martin O'Malley was Governor, and Democrats hadn't yet lost their sense of self esteem, I used to be amazed and annoyed by Republican trolls who'd jump on the politicians' social media accounts to say dirty, nasty, filthy things.

Everyone has a right to their opinions, of course. Certainly the party that is not in power has strong feelings and frustrations. I get that. But it doesn't mean that ongoing nastiness is the right way to go in community discourse. Why not celebrate what you love instead of bashing what you hate?

Now the tables are turned. And I am worried that I am seeing Democrats that I like and respect beginning to show some signs of regressing into those angry trolls of yesterday. Not a lot. Just a bit. But it worries me. Again, they have a right to opinions, feelings, frustration. Yet something valuable is lost is our focus becomes attacking our opponents.

I can't speak for Republicans, of course. But as a Democrat, I say--Come on, folks. This is not who we are. Don't get caught in that trap.

Marcia White and Abby Hendrix of the Howard County Democratic Club have been making short videos of members entitled "Why I am a Democrat." I like that. It's an opportunity to bear witness to the good. While I am not a dues paying member of the HCDC, I thought I'd I try my hand at crafting a statement.

Why I am a Democrat.

My name is Julia McCready and I'm a Democrat because I believe in "We, the People." I believe that "we, the people" means that we share our good fortune and our successes with our friends, neighbors, and communities, and that we also share and help to bear the burdens, sorrows, and injustices of our friends, neighbors, and communities. This country which grants us such precious freedoms also calls us to be the change that makes our country better.

I am a Democrat because I believe that "We the People" is more than "I get mine." Being a Democrat is about reaching out, lifting up, making community-minded choices and not selfish ones. It's about our responsibility as citizens to participate in good government for all. It's about promoting what we love, not bashing what we hate.


And that's why I am a Democrat. But, no matter what your political leanings, I think that showing people what's good, honorable, and trustworthy about your cause lays a much better foundation than slinging mud.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Getting Things Done with Girl Scouts in Oakland Mills

With a combined total of twenty-seven years in Girl Scouting, the young women I met on Tuesday night came prepared to share a message. Anthea Pecot, Riya Gupta, and K.C. Lay were at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills to make a presentation to the Village Board on their most recent service project. Along with two of their leaders, Jeanne Lay and Puja Gupta, we sat down in the lobby to discuss "Got Milkweed? Monarch Butterfly Awareness."

When I asked how the girls decided on this particular project, they gave me a glimpse into their brainstorming process. The scouts choose their own service projects, which makes their work all the more meaningful as they craft and enact a plan. Inspired by a neighbor in Oakland Mills, Mrs. Bird-Walker, who had created a certified Monarch Butterfly Way Station in her yard, they chose to spread awareness of Monarch butterflies in the community.
The project has a two-pronged approach. In addition to educating the public on Monarch Butterflies, they undertook to encourage the planting of milkweed in various locations in the area. Milkweed, a native plant, is the only place Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. The scouts were able to get milkweed plants growing in three school gardens in Oakland Mills, (Talbott Springs Elementary, Oakland Mills High School, and Child's Garden Learning Center) as well as in numerous home gardens.
As a follow-up they are creating milkweed seed balls which will be distributed at no cost to community members at the local Farmers' Market. The seed balls will include instructions to freeze until next Spring, then thaw, plant, and begin a new milkweed growing cycle. When they were done describing their project I found myself already so enthusiastic that I wanted to know when I could get a seed ball and get involved. Their commitment was that contagious.
Overall the project was a low cost one, they said, under a hundred dollars, and was funded through family donations. They faced several challenges along the way. They had more places they wanted to plant than they had milkweed pods available. They had to schedule times to plant around their own schedules and those of the participating schools. They had to take responsibility for communicating with all the school participants and finalize plans.
I asked the girls what kept them in Girl Scouting after all these years. They agreed that they had originally signed up under the guidance of their moms, because it sounded fun. But as teenagers their reasons for staying were many and varied: camping, singing, fun activities, volunteering as assisting counsellors at Girl Scout Camp, friendship and camaraderie, supportive Girl Scout leaders, and, yes, helping to make the world a better place. Actually, that was the first answer given.
At the end of the interview I asked the girls to think what the world would be like if there weren't any Girl Scouts. The answer was immediate.
"Nothing would get done."
After meeting with these confident, articulate young women, I'm inclined to believe they just might be right. Thank goodness we don't have to find out.



Thursday, July 30, 2015

Appeasing the Vending Machine God?

To: Calvin Ball, Howard County Council

Subject: CB-17 Nutritional Standards


I'd like to thank you and your colleagues on the council who worked hard to craft this bill and show leadership in public health for Howard County Citizens. Obesity and all its related diseases are a serious concern today. I strongly believe that this is one of the biggest public health concerns of this generation.

Sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks have an entire industry to support and advocate for them. It is difficult to make one's voice heard over the din of advertisement and false claims of "part of a healthy diet". All one need do is look around and see the changes in eating habits and unhealthy diet-related illnesses to see that something is dreadfully wrong.

This bill supports the citizens of Howard County Maryland by taking a stand for public health. It offers more choice, not less. It has a limited scope--Howard County buildings and facilities--and does not prevent citizens from exercising free choice in what they eat and drink.

I was disappointed that the County Executive vetoed this bill. I think he has missed a valuable opportunity to work with the Council on behalf of County Citizens. This shouldn't be about politics. It's about public health. I sincerely hope his position will evolve over time--Howard County needs his leadership on this issue.

In closing, I support a Council override of the County Executive's veto of CB-17. It is time to move forward in supporting healthier citizens in Howard County. There's really no time to waste.


On second thought, this post should really be entitled "Challenging the Vending Machine Gods". But I have a migraine so perhaps that put me in mind of appeasement. Ah, well. You get the idea.