Last week another Maryland elected official, Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, was arrested – along with his wife – on federal corruption charges. And once again, land development deals were the problem: a relatively inexperienced public official was lured by small profits gained by handing out development deals to a few cronies.
Shockingly, the press and the public feign surprise every time this happens. The Washington Post’s coverage of the Johnson arrest earnestly reports that the county seems to have developed a “pay to play” culture – and that you “don’t hear that about other jurisdictions.”
What about Baltimore city, where just nine short months ago former Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted for accepting gifts and bribes from developers? Granted, Dixon was dealing in a few thousand dollars worth of gift cards and baubles while Johnson and his wife were flushing $100,000 checks and stuffing tens of thousands of dollars in their underwear. But one gets the impression that this may be a result of Dixon’s relative inexperience. Given more time, she would likely have learned to ask for more.
How did we get here? How is it that public-private development deals can be handed out to cronies and first-time “developers?”
First, too many people that seek public office expect to be financially enriched by it. There’s a reason it’s called public “service” – it is meant to be a sacrifice made in exchange for the opportunity to participate in private enterprise. When politicians go into office expecting that the power of public office should also include big money, they’ll be disappointed. Only crooked deals can fulfill those expectations.
Second, we have collectively lost sight of what “development” actually means. Today when people say “development,” they almost always mean turning an unsuspecting piece of land “into” something, whether it’s houses, a shopping mall, a hotel, or a stadium. And sometimes that fulfills a real need.
But too often, these are projects that we don’t truly need – but they do hold the potential to make a few people pretty wealthy. A small-time developer can double his wealth over a few years. But like a small-time addict, the beast must be fed: with new land, new projects, new deals. Because very often the gains are one-time hits. A housing project might make a five time return on investment. To keep the perpetual motion machine going, there must always be new deals.
This is where local elected officials come in. Mayors and county executives have just enough power to direct their agenda towards development projects that can enrich developers. Often, cronies of elected officials will become developers just to take advantage of their proximity to this fresh supply of new land deals. This seems to have been the case with Johnson. One of Johnson’s golf buddies had never developed anything, but was given a no-bid contract on a major project. This constitutes an illegal squandering of public funds.
Maybe it’s time to rethink what we mean when we use the word “development.” Do we really need to develop more strip malls, hotels, and suburban housing? In a place like central Maryland, we’re darn near out of land anyway. So this pyramid-scheme of land development has to stop. The corruption will only stop when local elected officials stop thinking that no-bid or restricted-bid contracts for major development deals actually move anything forward.
Instead, let’s start thinking about “development” in terms of “resource allocation.” How are we going to allocate scarce public resources to enrich our citizens through education, equal opportunity, and in repairing and maintaining the infrastructure and buildings we already have?
If the goal of “development” is to advance the economic opportunity and prosperity of the people of our state, maybe we should start by valuing our landscape. Instead of cluttering it up with mile after mile of pointless suburbia, let’s invest in places that mean something to the people that live there. Let’s make the places we have better. Let’s fix blight and make transportation systems that work. Let’s plant trees and make bike lanes.
Development should be about developing our people and making what we already have work more efficiently, not in building shoddy new projects that devalue existing assets and clutter our landscape.
And when contractors are required, let’s put the bidding online, require each bidder to go through the same qualification process, and let the lowest, most qualified bidders win.
When the public changes its perception of what development means, we will have fewer politicians who see elected office as a get-rich-quick scheme. Every time another politician is caught in these shenanigans, the public trust in government is undermined.
So a change in public perception about the nature of development can actually lead to a tangible restoration of public trust in government, and that can’t come too soon.