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We Need an Honest, Open, and Transparent Baltimore

For Baltimore City to grow and prosper once again, several problems must be solved: jobs, crime, and education are chief among them. But these are mere symptoms of the decades of systematic disinvestment which has characterized much of urban America since 1960.

A return to prosperity is possible, and we’ve seen it happen in other American cities like Washington, DC and New York City. But this didn’t happen by accident. It happened through a combination of strong political leadership and outside and local investment.

It happened by creating a level playing field, and creating a fair, open, and equitable business climate that attracted outside investment. It happened by creating city governments that were open and accountable and in which citizens have some confidence.

In cities like Boston and San Francisco, it happened thanks to the lowering of property tax rates across the board, spurring not just Big Developer projects but investment by individual homeowners.

But in Baltimore, we have two distinct problems. One is qualitative: we can’t be trusted. The other is quantitative: we need to fix property taxes.

Baltimore is just not trustworthy. No one trusts Baltimore City government. Outside investors see the city as a parochial, pay-to-play backwater where insiders call the shots. Commercial developers correctly believe that you need to make significant investment in laying groundwork with specific politicians, developers, and contractors to get a project started here.

Prospective residential buyers perceive Baltimore City government as bloated, inefficient, outdated, resistant to change, and focused more on working out deals with insider developers than on creating a solid residential base. And they have good reason to harbor this perception. While there are many good and dedicated people in city government who care deeply about residents and residential issues, the inefficiency and waste are undeniable. And they are everyday reality for city residents — many of whom share their horror stories with their friends and neighbors.

Many Baltimore City agencies have not been audited in decades. The audit of the Department of Recreation and Parks is now almost one year overdue — primarily because of lack of sufficient financial records. Baltimore City is preparing to return $7M to the federal government because it was unable to account for how Baltimore’s Homeless Services department spent any of those funds.

This is inexcusable. In any other setting, if money goes missing, heads roll. But the machine grinds on here with no firings, no outrage, just talking around the facts and playing down the mistakes. It’s no wonder no one trusts Baltimore City government, for it has proven itself not only untrustworthy but systemically incapable of correcting the problem.

Yes, we need to restructure property taxes. Boston and San Francisco both flourished after making changes to their property taxes. Every city is unique, and their fortunes were rising in many ways regardless. Our star is rising too. We are an incredibly well-located city in the richest state in the union. The future is bright — and we can accelerate our fortune dramatically.

Before we worry over fixing property taxes (a quantitative problem), let’s first prove that we’re capable of earning and actually worthy of people’s trust once again (a qualitative problem).

Let’s show that we care about financial accountability by rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in every corner of Baltimore government. Let’s show we’re serious by pledging to:

  • Perform annual audits of every city agency
  • Discipline and fire people who oversee waste and abuse
  • Prosecute cases of fraud, graft, and malfeasance
  • Level the playing field for outside investors (both commercial and residential)
  • Get serious about eliminating inefficiency and waste
  • Open as much of the city’s records and data as possible
  • Cultivate the perception that Baltimore government is fair, honest, open, and efficient

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake is a smart, capable, and honest leader who has become entrenched in the culture of business-as-usual here in Baltimore — which simply must change. We need to call on the Mayor to lead this charge and demand accountability from all of the departments she oversees.

This isn’t going away. The next step in Baltimore’s return to prominence is to become — and be perceived as — a  trusted and honest partner. Sweeping problems under the rug won’t get us there.

Instead, it’s time to start throwing some people — the people who allow waste, fraud, and abuse — under the bus. Comprehensive financial and performance audits of city government are the best way to begin.

On “Development” and Corruption

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.

What’s Your iPhone App Idea?

Safari on iPhone
Yesterday I met up with Jeff Pulver to discuss some business ideas, and one of the topics we touched on was, “If you could build any iPhone app, what would it be?”

The new iPhone 3G and the imminent release of the App Store have created an amazing amount of buzz and speculation about what the next generation of mobile apps might be.

While I am unable to comment on any of my iPhone development efforts or the details of the iPhone SDK, I thought it might be interesting to ask here as well, “If you could build any iPhone app, what would it be?”

So, simple as that. What is your ideal “killer app” for iPhone? Write your idea here, and maybe we’ll build it!

Tip: Be with People who Love what You Love

This morning, I attended another of Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Breakfasts.

Every time I go, I end up risking a parking ticket. The metered spots are invariably for 2 hours, and 10AM comes almost instantaneously. I can’t tear myself away to go mind the meter; been lucky, so far.

At these events, I’m continuously engaged with friends new and old; like-minded people who love ideas like I do, and who can bat them around like tennis pros.

If you’re like me, you find this kind of intense interaction to be exhilarating and stimulating.

This is what we want to facilitate at SocialDevCamp East — a thoughtful conversation about new ideas and how to realize them. We want to discuss the future in an informed way, synthesizing the lessons of the past with today’s emerging trends. We want to include economics, psychology, and design in this discussion. And iPhone and Rails and Twitter.

Anyway, if this sounds like a conversation you want to have, we guarantee that SocialDevCamp is going to be a blast, and that the day (and the party afterwards) will be a blur. A good blur; a blur you can leverage in the form of new ideas, relationships, and opportunities.

We want to thank our two newest sponsors: AwayFind.com and WebConnection.com. Also thanks to David Kirkpatrick, Senior Technology Editor at Fortune magazine, for attending.

Looking forward to seeing you and your ideas in Baltimore on May 10th!

Sincerely,
Dave, Ann, Keith, and Jennifer