Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Do People Get Angry with Government? A Golfer’s Story

By Woody Brosnan.

The moment was surreal. I was being ordered to leave an open meeting of the board of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority so they could meet behind closed doors with their lawyer to discuss... the Open Meetings Law.

Why, I asked. “It’s in the state code,” the lawyer responded.

But upon reflection the action Tuesday was only the latest example of the disdain for the public that I have seen from two of Montgomery County’s most powerful agencies as I worked with others to try to save the Sligo Creek Golf Course.

Public officials who express alarm over the hostility and lack of civility at town hall meetings and health care forums might consider that this behavior may not be just a reflection of the impact of hyperbolic talk show hosts, but also is the result of the encounters of citizens with the agencies to which elected officials have entrusted so much power.

As a reporter for 35 years, I covered both elected bodies and regulatory agencies. I received an AP award in Tennessee for a series on how state regulatory agencies often became captive of the industries they regulated and stifled competition.

But I gained a new perspective this summer as an activist for Sligo Creek Golf Course in dealing with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Revenue Authority. (I won’t go into the entire history of the golf course so well documented in this blog’s series. These opinions are my own and not that of the Sligo Creek Golf Association.)

On May 26, parks staff members held a community event to gather opinions on the reuse of the golf course. They encountered more than 100 golfers, many of whom had only learned of plans to close the course the week before. After some boisterous discussion, the parks staff, to their credit, agreed to include a golf course option in their recommendations to the planning board.

In the next few weeks, I and other golfers and non-golfers submitted their ideas to the staff for how to combine golf with other purposes at Sligo Creek. We and the County Council operated in the belief that M-NCPPC would come back to the Council in December with golf and non-golf options.

Those hopes were dashed July 16 when the planning board met. Perhaps it was a signal of the evening to come when Chairman Royce Hanson and then-board member John Robinson dallied over dinner, keeping the standing-room only crowd waiting 15 minutes past the scheduled start time.

After hearing from more than 30 witnesses, the vast majority of whom favored golf, Hanson declared he did not want “our staff to waste their time” on the golf course option. Gee, don’t they work for us, not them, I thought.

Jean Cryor looked down from the dais, and in a mama-to-little-children voice, said she did “not want to raise our expectations.”

That night spawned the Sligo Creek Golf Association, a community of golfers, neighbors and environmentalists who were once strangers. Now 68 days, 1,000 yard signs, and 2,000 signatures on petitions later, we have hope.

The County Council has met with us individually and collectively, and we are hopeful they will find a way on Tuesday to keep the course open past Oct. 1 so we can work together on a long-term solution.

So maybe I was expecting a little more receptiveness when fellow SCGA board member Ted Power and I dropped by the Revenue Authority board meeting Tuesday morning.

The authority’s Executive Director, the oft-maligned Keith Miller, was courteous. The board was another story.

Chairman Stephen Edwards accused me of setting “pre-conditions” when I said that SCGA wanted to discuss many options at the course but could not support lights or night-time activities on the course. Another board member asked our opinion on the Revenue Authority’s original proposal for a two-decker, 72-stall, course destroying, and lighted driving range. My god, I thought, they still think they can peddle that old chestnut.

Perhaps they had not seen the “Keep Sligo Golf Open” signs.

Four out of the five board members live in Potomac or North Potomac, according to the most recent appointment announced by County Executive Ike Leggett. Nothing against Potomac, but is it the only repository of knowledge about revenue bonds in the county?

But the reception was no better from the Silver Spring, but not-near-Sligo member, Phillip Feliciano. When I talked about making the course more attractive and an environmental education by planting flowers and native plants, Feliciano sneered, “Why don’t you make it into a park?”

Feliciano went on to recommend that the county close and sell the Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center on Forest Glen Road near the course and use the proceeds and part of the property to build a driving range and a putt-putt course.

When I suggested that Sligo needs to be marketed as a community course to inside-the-Beltway businesses and residents, I was told that that the Revenue Authority markets “the system,” not individual courses. (Not true, in my opinion. The authority expends a great deal of effort to try to market Little Bennett Golf Course, the biggest money-loser in the system.)

These are the folks that SCGA is expected to work with in the coming months if we can keep the course open. I expect we’ll manage with the help of the county executive and the council.

In contrast to the agencies, county elected officials have treated the Sligo Creek community with respect and openness, even when some have a different point of view.

But I have a couple of suggestions for the executive and the council members when they appoint or confirm the members of these powerful boards.

Don’t just look at their technical qualifications or political background.

Quiz them on their knowledge of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws and make them swear fealty to both.

And then write up some guidelines for how to deal with citizens and make them swear to follow those too.

Why are these suggestions important? Because in the final analysis these boards/commissions will continue to negatively impact the public's image of elected government to the citizens of Montgomery County.

Woody Brosnan is the Chairman of the Political Outreach Committee, Sligo Creek Golf Association.