Council Debates Surveillance Cameras

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Chestertown councilmen Marty Stetson (L) and Ellsworth Tolliver listen to the monthly police report.

“How effective is the surveillance camera on Calvert Street?” Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked that question at the Chestertown Mayor and Council meeting Monday, during the monthly police department report. Tolliver is the council representative for the Third Ward, which includes the Calvert Street area, a predominantly black neighborhood.

Sgt. Steve Lozar, who delivered the report, said the camera has solved a lot of crimes, including narcotics enforcement. He said the cameras provide a lot of “behind-the-scenes” information to police.

“How often are they used?” Tolliver asked. He asked if indications of drug transactions are followed up by K-9 patrols with drug-sniffing dogs.

Lozar said the camera feed is available to every officer in a patrol car. It is also shared with the Kent County Narcotics Task Force, which includes members of the Sheriff’s department. “We’re all working together,” he said. The camera feed can also be accessed from an app on officers’ cell phones, he said. He offered to show it to council members if they are interested.

Councilman David Foster said that when he lived near the corner of Kent and High streets he requested a camera for his neighborhood and saw a significant decrease in criminal activity there. He said he requested the camera because he felt the area was dangerous for his daughter.

Lozar said that camera was removed several years ago.

Tolliver said, “I have to explain to people in the neighborhood why they’re the only neighborhood in town with a camera, under 24/7 surveillance. That, to me, is uncomfortable.” He said school-age children are “under suspicion the minute they go out the door.” He characterized the effect of the camera as a “stigma” on the neighborhood.

Sgt. Steve Lozar of the Chestertown police department delivers the monthly report on the department’s activities.

Councilman Marty Stetson, a former Chestertown police chief, asked “Who’s uncomfortable? They can put one on my front porch if they want.” He said children in the area are being protected by the presence of cameras.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper said she learned a lot by riding with officers in a police car. She said it’s common for people to call in noise complaints to draw officers away from an area where something illegal is going on. Having the camera feed lets the officers see what’s really happening.

Mayor Chris Cerino said the Calvert Street camera was requested by residents of the neighborhood after a drive-by shooting. He said the neighbors also complained of litter, public drinking, and drug use.

Lozar said the request was fulfilled by moving the camera from High Street. He said a lot of residents of the neighborhood praise the camera.

Tolliver said singling out Calvert Street stigmatized the neighborhood. “It’s not the only problem area in town,” he said.

“There’s a lot going on up there right now,” Lozar said.

Cerino asked what other neighborhoods Lozar would put cameras in if funds were available. Lozar said the business area of High Street would be one spot.

Stetson said they would also be useful in the town’s shopping malls. Lozar said the owners of Kent Plaza have approached the police about putting a camera there.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the mall owners can put up cameras on their property and give the town police access to the feed. He said the Calvert Street camera was funded by a state grant for “hot spots” of criminal activity. He added that if funds were available, he would like to see cameras in the town’s parks and along the rail trail and near the town street department yard.

Cerino asked what cameras cost — “about $2,000 mounted?”

Lozar said the infrastructure to support the cameras costs a lot more. However, he said, the current system could accommodate up to 180 cameras on a 24/7 basis. He said the surveillance camera technology is becoming the norm in police and security work, supplementing foot and vehicle patrol work, He extended an invitation for any council member who is interested to ride with a patrol officer to see what the police are doing on a regular basis.

In addition to the discussion of surveillance cameras, Lozar reported that the Elks Lodge has donated a drop box for disposal of unwanted or outdated prescription drugs at the town police station at 601 High St. The box is available 24/7, and is in addition to the box at the Sheriff’s office off Flatland Road. He said the box was available for all prescription drugs, as well as over the counter medications such as aspirin. However, he asked that no needles be left in the box.

Police Chief Adrian Baker, who normally delivers the report, was at a conference.

Other topics discussed at the meeting– including farmers’ market rules, a bond bill for marina work, and a line of credit for the town from Chesapeake bank– will be covered in a Spy report later this week.

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Kent County’s Most Pressing Needs with United Way’s Glenn Wilson

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For sixty years now, the United Way of Kent County has unquestionably been successful in supporting great organizations in the community that handle a multitude of social needs. And while its Board of Directors has been proud of this track record, it did occur to them recently that as stewards of hundreds of contributions made every year to further their mission, they didn’t exactly have the best overview of what the most pressing and underserved needs are that currently exist in Kent County.

As a result, the United Way of Kent County commissioned their first comprehensive study, working with the consulting firm of  Chesapeake Charities, to provide that kind of needed in-depth analysis, as well as a review of existing stakeholders and other assets that might partner with the UWKC to better align solutions to address those concerns.

The results of that study are now complete, and the Spy thought it would be a good time to check in with the president of United Way of Kent County, Glenn Wilson, to help summarize these findings.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. Please go here for a copy of the report

New Federal Budget Does Not Contain Funds to Build Oyster Reefs in Maryland

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The federal budget recently passed by Congress failed to provide any dedicated money to continue reef construction in either Maryland or Virginia, putting in doubt the future of oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been building oyster reefs in the Bay for more than 20 years, and in recent years it has been a major partner in the state-federal initiative to restore oyster habitat and populations in 10 of the Bay’s tributaries by 2025.

But the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018 — approved March 23 and signed the same day by President Trump — marks the second year in a row with no specific appropriation for the Corps to continue reef restoration in the Bay.

The omission threatens to stall work already under way in Maryland’s Tred Avon River. It also jeopardizes future projects in both Maryland and Virginia where the federal government had been expected to take the lead.

Supporters of the oyster restoration effort say they hope the Army Corps can still put some money toward it this year from a $1 billion pot of discretionary funds Congress approved for the Corps’ construction program.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, explained to a group of Bay advocates Thursday that he and others were unable to designate money for oyster restoration in the appropriations bill because congressional rules forbid earmarking funds for anything not proposed in President Trump’s budget.

But he noted that Congress approved more construction funding for the Corps than the Trump administration proposed. Eugene Pawlik, a Corps spokesman, said the total was about double the requested amount.

Cardin expressed optimism that the extra money will prompt Corps leaders to allocate some of those funds toward the effort this year.

The omnibus spending bill did urge the Corps to request funds for Bay restoration in future budgets.

After meeting Thursday with senior Corps leaders for a tour of Poplar Island, a restoration project using dredged material from the Bay, Cardin said that he is “pretty confident” some of the extra money put in the Corps budget will go for oyster restoration.

It won’t be known until perhaps May 22 if that gambit paid off. That’s the deadline for the Corps to submit its work plan to Congress. The plan, due 60 days after the omnibus bill’s passage, will lay out planned expenditures on projects specifically listed in the legislation. The Corps can add some of its extra funds to those projects, as well as spread some money among projects not designated for funding.

Cardin acknowledged that it’s still possible, given the nationwide competition for federal public works funding, that the Corps won’t designate any money for oyster restoration. Before being submitted to Congress, he noted, its work plan must be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which also may have a say in the matter.

Bay advocates said that the uncertainty surrounding oyster restoration funding has roots in a controversy two years ago, when Maryland officials put a hold on the Tred Avon project after watermen objected to the Corps’ use of granite to build the reefs there.

“Now, we’re sort of reaping the consequences of those delays and those challenges to the Corps’ efforts, in the fact that there’s no appropriation,” said Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

From the mid-1990s through fiscal year 2016, the Corps had received annual funding for oyster reef construction in the Bay, with the Baltimore District getting a cumulative total of $28.8 million and the Norfolk District $22.1 million, according to figures supplied by Cardin’s office.

In 2014, in recognition of the ecological value of oysters and their reefs to the overall health of the Chesapeake, the Bay watershed states and federal government jointly pledged to restore native oyster habitat and populations by 2025 in five tributaries each in Maryland and Virginia.

The annual funding stream ended two years ago, when then-President Barack Obama requested no money in the Corps’ fiscal year 2017 budget for Bay oyster restoration. That came shortly after the Hogan administration had called on the Corps’ Baltimore District to halt work in the Tred Avon — a request prompted by small group of watermen, who complained to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford about the cost and efficacy of the restoration effort, particularly the methods and materials used.

Watermen objected to the use of granite to build reefs in the Tred Avon and in an earlier restoration project in Harris Creek, another Choptank River tributary. They contended that the stone reefs snagged fishing gear and damaged boats, and that oyster shells are the best surface on which spat, or baby oysters, grow best. Scientists countered that oyster spat will do well on any hard surface in the water, and monitoring on Harris Creek reefs later that year found a much higher density of new oysters growing on granite than on shells.

At the time, Cardin warned that the stoppage could threaten future federal funding for oyster restoration in Maryland. It had immediate impact, as the Baltimore District shifted $1 million it had for that purpose to the Norfolk District. With that extra money, and no major reef construction planned this year in Virginia, the Norfolk District is not yet as strapped.

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources called the Tred Avon stoppage then a “pause” until the DNR could complete an internal review of the state’s oyster management.

The Hogan administration lifted its hold on the federally funded project, and work resumed in the Tred Avon in April 2017, more than a year after it had been interrupted. Even then, the state insisted that the Corps not use any more granite in constructing reefs. The Corps opted to build the reefs with clam shells from a processing plant in New Jersey, but the contractor couldn’t get enough shells. Only six of the 10 acres of reefs planned to be built that year were completed.

In November 2017, Col. Edward Chamberlayne, the Baltimore District’s commander, made a personal appeal to the DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission, warning that the Tred Avon project and future federal funding for oyster restoration were in jeopardy if the state did not relent in its opposition to use of stone in building reefs. Oyster shell is too scarce and expensive to be used for such large-scale construction projects, Chamberlayne explained, and there aren’t enough clam shells, either.

Delays and construction interruptions already had added $133,000 to the $11.4 million estimated cost of the Tred Avon project, Chamberlayne said. If forced to continue using only clam shells, he said, it could take another four to five years to finish the job — at that rate, he warned, Congress and Corps leadership may be unwilling to keep funding oyster restoration.

The DNR Oyster Advisory Commission responded by recommending that the Corps be allowed to use stone to finish the Tred Avon reefs. The four acres left from last year were finished in March, but 45 more acres of reefs are planned, and funding is now in question.

“We are still requesting funding through the Army Corps work plan,” said Sarah Gross, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Baltimore District. Officials there have estimated it will cost $3 million to $5 million to finish building reefs in the Tred Avon, after which they are to be seeded with hatchery-spawned baby oysters.

Stephen Schatz, communications director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the department “is very confident that there is currently adequate funding to continue advancing the state’s oyster restoration efforts and projects.”

“With roughly $7.25 million in state capital funding [for oyster restoration] available and federal funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Schatz continued, “the partners should have enough to complete the work in Tred Avon.”

Schatz furnished documents showing that the DNR had asked Congress to maintain NOAA’s current level of funding for habitat conservation and restoration, including $1 million for oyster habitat restoration. That money goes to seeding and monitoring reefs, not building them.

The Bay Foundation’s Colden said that while she’s hopeful the Corps will allot some money for reef construction this year, federal funding is no longer guaranteed.

“Now, the priority we place on oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay has to compete with Mississippi River flood control and dam operations in the Pacific Northwest,” Colden said. “Before, we had a dedicated pot of funding because it’s been recognized as such a significant project and significant priority.”

While Cardin expects Corps officials to put some of this year’s discretionary funds toward oyster restoration, given the extra money in their budget and a clear statement of congressional intent, he expressed dissatisfaction with having to go through such maneuvers.

“It’s not a very transparent way of doing things,” he said. And he noted that supporters in Congress will have to fight the same battle again later this year, because Trump’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 did not contain any money for Corps reef-building.

by Timothy B. Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal

The 1st District: Introducing Candidate Steve Worton

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It is almost too hard to believe that the 1st Congressional District of Maryland, which most political observers would say was specifically designed to be a safe and perhaps the only Republican district in the state, now has four very credible Democratic candidates eager to take on U.S. Representative Andy Harris this November.

Steve Worton is one of them. The last of the four candidates that the Spy has recently profiled, Steve comes to the race after working at the Department of Defense for 33 years. During that time, he managed over 3,000 people at 23 sites around the world maintaining operations and reducing personnel, as well as eliminated waste and improved business processes through sound management and electronic commerce.

With a degree in accounting from Temple and MBA from the University of Delaware, Steve wants to use these skills and experience in the next Congress.

The Spy met up with Steve at the Bullitt House a few weeks ago to talk about how his approach is different from his opponents in the Democratic primary in June as well as how he differentiates himself from Andy Harris in a possible Fall contest.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information about Steve Worton and his campaign please go here.

Town, County Strike Deal to Fund Chestertown Movie Theater Opening

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Kent County Commissioners Meeting, 2 April 2018: From left, Bryan Matthews and Mayor Chris Cerino ask Kent County Commissioners Ron Fithian, William Pickrum and Bill Short to lend $75,000 to the principals of Chesapeake Theaters, who plan to reopen the Chester 5 movies in Chestertown. County attorney Tom Yeager is in the background.

The Kent County Commissioners and the town of Chestertown have struck a deal that should result in the reopening of the town’s movie theater, hopefully by May 31st of this year.

At the county commissioners’ meeting, Tuesday, April 3, Mayor Chris Cerino and Bryan Matthews, representing the economic development committee of Main Street Chestertown, asked the commissioners to advance $75,000 to the Chesapeake Movies group, which is planning to refurbish the vacant theater for an opening Memorial Day weekend. The funds would come from the county’s revolving loan fund, which was created to facilitate economic development in the county. As an incentive to businesses and entrepreneurs, these county business loans have interest-rate below current market rate with terms of five to seven years. The town plans to repay the loan from proceeds of the entertainment tax, which the theater would pay after opening.

The Chester 5 theater closed in June 2017, leaving local residents with little option beyond driving to Middletown or Dover Del., Annapolis, or Easton for first-run movies. The long-time theater manager under the old management, Charlene Fowler, said that the newer theaters in Middletown and Dover had been drawing movie-goers away from Chestertown for several years, with tax-free shopping and dining opportunities as additional reasons for locals to make the thirty- to forty- minute drive. The condition of the local theater, which had not been renovated for many years, was also a factor.

Representatives of Chesapeake Movies were seen working in the theater, removing old seats, in September, and at the time they said they planned to open for the Christmas season, traditionally a busy time for theaters, with many Oscar contenders being released at that time. However, an anticipated deal with Silicato Development, the owners of the shopping center, fell through, and for a while it appeared the theater would not reopen.

But negotiations warmed up again in February, and the principals of the theater company appeared at the March 19 Chestertown Council meeting to request the town’s help in closing the deal. Mike Klein, Ira Miller, and Bob Weinholdt told the council they were near to a deal with Silicato. They said they were prepared to invest $500,000 in the renovation, and Silicato had offered to provide another $270,000, much of which would go toward the purchase of state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment for the theaters. To close the deal, they asked the town to advance them $75,000 on anticipated entertainment tax revenue to close the deal. The town would make the advance back from proceeds of the entertainment tax, which they said could be as much as $20,000 in a good year. The theater would be completely renovated, with upgraded seats, an expanded concession area, new restrooms, and a program of first-run films along with some indie films. “It’ll be unlike anything Chestertown has ever seen,” said Weinholdt.

Chestertown council members were enthusiastic about the prospect of the theater reopening, but as Cerino noted, the requested advance would amount to nearly 10 percent of the town’s cash on hand. Guarantees would need to be in place in the event of the theater going out of business before the advance was repaid. After discussion at the Mar. 19 meeting, the council authorized Town Manager Bill Ingersoll to carry on negotiations with the theater group to find a way to help them bridge the monetary gap and reopen the theater.

Then at the April 2 Chestertown Council meeting this past Monday, Ingersoll said the town had settled on a plan to sponsor a request for the Kent County Commissioners to make up the advance from Kent County’s revolving loan plan. He said that Cerino and Matthews were on the agenda of the next County Commissioners’ meeting scheduled for the next day. Ingersoll credited Kay MacIntosh and Jamie Williams, economic development coordinators for the town and county respectively, for helping to facilitate the plan.

Then at the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting last night,  Tuesday, April 3, Mayor Cerino succinctly outlined the proposal for the theater reopening and for funding it from the county loan program, with the town forwarding the entertainment tax proceeds on a quarterly basis to repay the loan.

Matthews gave an overview of the economic benefits of keeping theater-goers in Kent County instead of Delaware, spending their money in stores and restaurants in addition to the movies. He noted that the theater would employ 12 to 15 people, which he calculated as an annual influx of some $300,000 into the county’s economy.

Commissioners Bill Short and Ron Fithian were enthusiastic about the possibility of the theater’s reopening. Commission President William Pickrum, on the other hand, hit a note of caution about the use of taxpayer money to finance a private business. He said the plan to repay the county from entertainment tax revenues was dependent on the theater staying in business long enough to realize that level of income.

Cerino said the town would be willing to commit to a memorandum of understanding or some equivalent mechanism to guarantee the loan. He said he realized the $75,000 being asked for exceeded the $50,000 cap for the revolving loan fund, but he noted that the theater was a business that would benefit both the town and the county as a whole, describing it as “a win-win.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to grant the loan. While the final details need to be settled, the theater appears to be on track for its Memorial Day opening. Get your tickets now!

Pink Safety Hunting Gear Now Available in MD thanks to Easton’s Simonsen Sisters

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Anna Muckerman Thanks to the work of two novice hunters — young sisters from the Eastern Shore — Maryland hunters will soon be allowed to wear bright pink safety gear.

Before taking a hunter safety class in October 2016, sisters Paige and Brooke Simonsen, from Easton, stocked up on pink hunting clothes. Then, they found out that Maryland law did not allow hunters to wear any color besides blaze orange.

Brooke Simonsen, 9, looks at her father, Michael Simonsen, during a hearing in Annapolis, Maryland, on Feb. 23.

“Our instructor mentioned that other states have pink and we only have orange, and we wanted to change that so we went to Senator (Addie) Eckardt,” Paige, 12, said.

The legislation, which passed in both chambers Monday night, adds “daylight fluorescent pink” as an alternative color for hunters. The legislation is based in part on the Simonsen family’s research.

Part of that research, which made its way into testimony, included a blog post referencing a European Union study that found forestry workers were safer wearing pink than orange. But the post — and its references to a “major study” that included “cognition tests and adrenaline measurements” — turned out to be an April Fool’s joke by the Stihl chainsaw company.

The Stihl company confirmed in a tweet that the April 1, 2016, blog entry was a joke.

Eckardt, R–Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said she didn’t read the blog post until a Capital News Service reporter showed it to her.

“Yep, it’s all bogus,” Eckardt said March 27, while looking at the post. “To me it’s immaterial. It wasn’t a part of what we were all about.”

The joke study did not appear in the bill’s legislative analysis and the senator did not use the study in her own testimony, although she accompanied the girls to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where it was heard.

Vice Chair Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said he was unaware the testimony was in part based on an April Fool’s Day joke, but said the information doesn’t change the premise of the bill.

“The idea that using pink to stand out against green still makes sense,” he said. “Reading each piece of testimony…is beyond our ability to do.”

Michael Simonsen called the mistake “a learning experience for the entire family” but said he is proud of his daughters for participating in the legislative process.

“It is so important to share, that Paige and Brooke used multiple sources in their research and it is unfortunate that this one used, was not legitimate,” he wrote in an email to Capital News Service. “They will want to continue researching everything, even more thoroughly, particularly on the other six states … who have already approved daylight fluorescent pink as an additional safety color choice.”

It’s no joke, however, that Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Virginia, New York and Wisconsin allow hunters to wear pink.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources wrote in a letter to lawmakers that “there has been no nationally recognized study completed … on the effectiveness of this daylight fluorescent pink as a safety color.”

The department also noted that while there is a standard for hunter orange, none exists for pink, even in other states. Maryland’s bill leaves the definition of “daylight fluorescent pink” to the department.

When the Simonsens began looking into the topic during the fall of 2016, they had no idea that Eckardt, who represents the Simonsens’ region, has had an interest in pink since long before the sisters were born.

“Since I campaigned in 1994, I chose pink. I was outside the box. Everybody said don’t use that color,” the senator said. “I said … ‘I will do it the way I want to do it because I want to have fun.’”

Eckardt, a former psychiatric nurse, decided to use a bit of operant conditioning, she said, by associating herself with the color for more than two decades. She’s known for wearing pink on the Senate floor almost every day.

Paige and Brooke, 9, noticed the pink decorations in her office right away, but Eckardt contemplated the potential backlash of sponsoring the bill.

“My initial response was ‘Oh my goodness, I can just see it now – she doesn’t have anything better to do than to promote pink in an election year,” Eckardt said. “I was a little nervous about that.”

Brooke, whose favorite color is green, and Paige, who likes light pink, said their bill has little to do with being chic.

“We don’t like to think of it as a fashion statement,” Brooke said. “We just want it to be a safer choice and maybe another choice, but we’re not trying to eliminate fluorescent orange.”

The sisters pointed out that it is safer than orange for people like Matthew Hurst, a family friend who hunts and is colorblind.

“I have a really hard time picking up the fluorescent orange in the fall when the trees change, especially with the small amount you’re required to wear,” said Hurst, who also testified before lawmakers. “The blaze pink stands out more in the natural environment.”

When Talbot County, Maryland, hunter Leslie Milby first heard about the bill, she thought it might be another attempt to “pink it and shrink it” — manufacturers’ strategy of targeting women through less durable, brightly colored clothing.

“At first when I heard (of the bill) I kind of rolled my eyes because I was picturing bright pink camouflage,” she said. “As long as the gear is as tough as a man’s there’s no reason I wouldn’t support it.”

Now that the bill has passed, it won’t just be girls in the Simonsen family wearing the new color.

“I’m definitely going to wear fluorescent pink,” Michael Simonsen said. “I’m their dad but more important I’m going to be their hunting partner so the thing is I want to be seen.”

The girls occasionally shoot clay pigeons and said they plan to go hunting soon. In Maryland, children younger than 16 can hunt with an adult.

The girls said last month that they planned to share the joy of passing a bill with friends and classmates.

“We would be really happy if blaze pink became a color because we would be known for that,” Brooke said in March. “Sometimes it’s just nice to be known for making a law in Maryland.”

The law, Senate bill 341 and House bill 1118, will go into effect July 1.

by Anna Muckerman

Maryland Bill Would Put an Armed Officer in Every School

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Determined to pass meaningful legislation in the wake of the Parkland and Great Mills high school shootings, Maryland lawmakers are considering a measure to put an armed school resource officer in every public school. The bill comes as part of a four-bill package being rushed through the General Assembly as session nears end.

Advocates label this the “deterrence” stage of the package, which also includes prevention, anticipation and protection stages. Pushed by lead-sponsor Sen. Steve Waugh, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, proponents see this as the stopgap step while other proposals are considered and potentially implemented.

“(This bill is) the one that’s going to have the most immediate effect to reduce risks – today,” Waugh told Capital News Service.

There are just over 1,400 public schools in the state. Of those, the Maryland Center for School Safety estimates that between 360 and 400 already have a School Resource Officer, or SRO. But some local jurisdictions can’t afford to place an SRO in their schools. In those cases, the Department of State Police would then assign a state police officer.

The bill, which would go into effect July 1, calls for 1,000 new officers, roughly the amount it would take to fill the remaining schools. This is where it gets expensive.

The cost of stationing each state police officer would be roughly $224,300, according to a fiscal analysis – $101,617 for salary; $61,675 to complete State Police Academy training; $59,000 for a fully equipped police car; and $2,054 for uniforms and other equipment.

In total, the law would cost around $224 million in just the first year.

“Not everything is a quick fix, so you have to come up with a stopgap measure. This is it,” said co-sponsor Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County and Harford. “It might be expensive, but you know what, these are our children. They need to be protected.”

While the bill has significant bipartisan support – Democratic Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, is the third sponsor – it still faces some pushback.

Skeptics of the proposal make clear that they don’t question the motive, but the priority and funding.

Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, questioned whether funding an SRO program is the best use of money to combat school shooters. Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, raised concerns that some children in over-policed areas are intimidated by officers and would struggle to concentrate in class.

It’s in everyone’s interest to keep children safe, Kelley said, but “not everything we’re talking about would make it so.”

Carroll County Sheriff Jeff Gahler said, to the contrary, an SRO presence improves the student-police dynamic. He’s been involved with the SRO program for nearly 20 years, and said he’s seen a positive impact.

“We’re working from those early ages to try to repair those relationships, where people are trying to put fear in the police,” Gahler told lawmakers. “The students trust the school resource officers and feed us information on all kinds of different crime issues facing our area. I think those relationships have to be fostered.”

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, echoed the sheriff’s position. But he told the Capital News Service that funding is complicated and perhaps unfair. Counties have to prioritize how they spend local money, he said, so it wouldn’t be right if taxpayers had to front the bill for a county that didn’t prioritize SROs.

The other three school safety measures in the package have bipartisan support, each bill also with at least one Democratic and one Republican sponsor. But there’s a sense among some lawmakers that they’ve already been covered – at least in some part – in other pending legislation.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the other three proposals in the School Safety Act:

Senate bill 1262, sponsored by Miller, Waugh and Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, would call for closer investigations during gun-ownership background checks. It would establish a specialized workgroup to make quarterly recommendations on conducting background checks. Lastly, the bill would give local sheriffs a specialized school-crisis welfare officer. In all, it would cost roughly $1.8 million in the first year, an analysis found.

Senate bill 1263, sponsored by Waugh and Miller, would establish a “Threat Assessment Team,” comprised of a mental health counselor, teacher, principal, and possibly the state’s Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Human Services, by the 2019-2020 school year, to evaluate students. It also expands prohibitions on making a threat of mass violence. General funding for the Maryland State Department of Education could increase by $125 million or more by the 2020 fiscal year, according to a state fiscal analysis. The state’s judicial system could pay more than $220,000 in the first year for programming costs, the analysis said.

Senate bill 1265, sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, Miller and Waugh, would require all public schools to have lockable classroom doors, an area of safe refuge (safe zone) in each classroom, and security technology by the 2020-2021 school year. It also calls for an active training drill for students in the first quarter of the fall semester. A pay-as-you-go bill, it would cost just over $10 million a year, from 2019 to 2023, according to a fiscal analysis.

Right now, the first three bills are pending in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, while Senate bill 1265 remains with the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. All four had hearings in late March and are awaiting committee votes to hit the full Senate floor.

With the 2018 session ending April 9, lawmakers know it will be difficult to prepare all four bills for passage. Waugh, the lead architect of the School Safety Act of 2018, said he doesn’t prioritize any proposal over the other, but maintained that the SRO part would provide more immediate safety.

“You can do it now and it will reduce risks,” he said. “Not completely, but it will reduce some risk right away.”

By Zach Shapiro

Nutrient Reductions Credited for Remarkable Resurgence in Bay’s Underwater Grasses

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Nutrient reductions over the last 30 years are the primary factor behind the resurgence of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake — something that scientists cite in a new study as tangible evidence that efforts to improve Bay water quality are paying off.

Seagrass beds are in decline globally, but the Chesapeake Bay is one of the few places — and the largest example — where that trend has been successfully reversed, according to an article published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s good news for the Bay, as underwater grasses provide important habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. The scientists who led the study also said that the recovery likely foreshadows a broader comeback in the estuary’s health.

“We are thinking of the resurgence of the grasses as being the harbinger of things to come,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a co-author of the study. “We are using them now as an early signal for the restoration of the Bay.”

The study, built upon an analysis of a wide variety of data collected over three decades, found that a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus were the primary factors behind a nearly threefold increase in underwater grasses since 1984.

Like all plants, underwater grasses require sunlight to survive, and scientists have long known that algae blooms and sediment in the water can block light from reaching plants, causing them to die.

But the study found that nutrients play a “dominant role” in causing the loss of grass beds because they not only spur algae blooms, but also promote algae growth directly on the plants. That “epiphytic” growth, the study found, was three times more harmful to plants than the indirect effects of phytoplankton blooms in the water column.

“We show that nutrients are actually the primary control over these underwater grasses,” said Jonathan Lefcheck, the lead author of the report, who conducted this work while a post-doctoral student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He now works at the Bigelow Institute of Marine Science in Maine.

The amount of underwater grasses still fluctuates from year to year, in large part because of weather — rainy years drive more water-fouling nutrients into the water than do dry ones. Nonetheless, while the amount of grasses has varied, their overall acreage has increased over time, from a low of 38,229 acres in 1984 to a high of 97,400 acres mapped in 2016.

“Beyond the noise of inter-annual variability, we’ve got the right trajectory, and we can link it to specifically the nutrient reductions,” Dennison said.

While nutrients are the driving force, other factors still play a role. Areas with several underwater grass species do better over time than those with a single species, the study found. The importance of diversity may explain, in part, why grass bed recovery in high-salinity areas, which has always been dominated by a single species — eelgrass — has been less robust than in other parts of the Bay.

It also offers a clue as to how to maintain comebacks in mid-salinity parts of the Bay, where widgeon grass dominates but its abundance often fluctuates greatly from year to year. The researchers said that Bay restoration efforts — which now focus only on water quality — should put more focus on restoring a mix of species in mid-salinity areas.

“When we look at those beds historically, we know diversity was important,” said Bob Orth, also of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who co-authored the study and has overseen the Bay’s annual underwater grass survey since its inception. “When you add one species, it has a significant effect on the stability of the meadow.”

The study has 14 co-authors representing universities and agencies from around the Bay region and the country. This team met five times over the course of two years in Annapolis, digging deep into the data. They compiled extensive datasets about land use, manure and fertilizer applications, wastewater treatment plant discharges and water quality, as well as the abundance, diversity and density of grass beds.

Using sophisticated new analytical techniques unavailable just a few years ago to analyze that data, the scientists were able to draw conclusions that sometimes challenged their assumptions about factors affecting the grasses.

For instance, while wastewater treatment may be locally critical for grass beds, actions on the landscape — such as changes in land use or fertilizer applications on farms — were more important to larger trends in grass bed acreage.

Similarly, while sediment in the water column may be locally important, it was a less important factor than nutrients in Baywide underwater grass abundance.

“With this multi-author, multi-partner synthesis type of science, you can bring in different types of expertise,” said Jennifer Keisman, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study. “It is really important.”

Further analyzing that data, the authors said, could provide new insights for managers and promote an additional comeback of grass beds. “This is not the end, but the end of the beginning for all of this work,” Orth said.

The Chesapeake is still far short of the goal to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses, but it is doing better than any other place on the planet, the article said.

Seagrasses have declined globally by 29 percent, largely because of nutrient and sediment runoff. While they have come back in places such as Tampa Bay and the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, researchers found that the Chesapeake has seen a “greater total and proportional recovery.”

A continued comeback would be good news for the Bay. Grass beds are a critical component of its ecosystem. They pump oxygen into the water, trap sediments, buffer shorelines from wave action, provide food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and blue crabs.

That trajectory is likely to continue, at least for now. Orth said a preliminary review of data from last year suggests that the Bay’s underwater grasses will likely set yet another record.

By Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.

Supreme Court hears Oral Arguments in Maryland Gerrymander Case

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Attorneys presented oral arguments Wednesday before the Supreme Court in a landmark case that challenges the constitutional limits of political redistricting in Maryland.

Benisek v. Lamone, the second gerrymandering case the high court has heard this term, focuses on whether redrawing district lines in favor of one party is a violation of the First Amendment.

Michael B. Kimberly, representing O. John Benisek, a resident of Washington County, argued the partisan gerrymandering that occurred in Maryland’s 6th District under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 was a violation of the First Amendment due to the additional challenges created by shifting districts for voters.

“The evidence is unequivocal,” Kimberly told the justices. “It’s deliberately making it more difficult for particular citizens to achieve electoral success because their views are disapproved by those in power.”

In 2011, O’Malley created the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee (GRAC) to redraw the congressional and state legislative districts in Maryland. A new map was created, passed both the Maryland House and Senate, and was signed by O’Malley.

Before the redistricting, Maryland Democrats controlled six of the state’s eight U.S. House districts. After the election following the new map, the Democrats controlled seven. Republicans argue the partisan redistricting caused irreparable damage to voters in the new district.

 

Kimberly went on to argue that “Governor O’Malley and others involved in the redistricting have candidly acknowledged their intent to dilute Republican votes in the 6th District to prevent Republican voters there from reelecting Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.”

“Given their evidence, (the appellants) certainly have enough to go to a jury on that question,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

“Government officials may not single out particular individuals for disfavored treatment on the basis of the views that they have expressed at the ballot box in prior elections,” Kimberly argued.

Some justices questioned whether voters had truly been harmed by the redistricting.

Chief Justice John Roberts called the length of time between the redistricting and the oral arguments into question.

“To let go the elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016, suggests that maybe 2018, you’re not going to be irreparably harmed in a broader sense,” he said. “If you’ve been willing to accept that harm in three different cycles, I don’t know if we should get concerned about irreparable harm for one more.”

Many justices questioned the intent of the redistricting, suggesting O’Malley’s reason for redistricting was unconstitutional.

“The effects were exactly what the intent would suggest,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “A long-standing Republican incumbent is unseated by a Democratic newcomer, who withstands a wave election, who prevails three straight times. I mean, it appears that the Maryland legislature got exactly what it intended, which was you took … a safe Republican district, and made it into not the safest of Democratic districts, but a pretty safe one. … I mean, how much more evidence of partisan intent could we need?”

Steven Marshall Sullivan, representing Linda H. Lamone, Maryland’s elections administrator, insisted otherwise: “(The 6th District) is not safe. It was judged competitive.”

Sullivan said that 20 percent of voters in the 6th District are registered as independents. The result is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats make up a majority there, he said.

“The independent vote is critical because, in the first election, the Democrat won more of the independent vote than the Republican,” Sullivan said. “The redistricting lines couldn’t have caused that to happen. That happened because of the views of those voters and the strength of that candidate.”

“What effect does the fact that this map was subsequently approved by the people themselves have when we’re trying to determine intent?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked.

Ginsburg compared the current case to an historic racial gerrymandering case from 1995, Miller v. Johnson, in which the court struck down districts solely created based on race, known as “max-black” districts.

“It seems to me that what we have here is ‘max-Democratic’ (per district)” she said. “If ‘max-black’ was no good, why should ‘max-Democratic” be okay?”

Sullivan responded that the historic ‘max-black’ districts were “drawn from a history of exclusion of African Americans from our political process, something that Republicans can hardly claim,” because their party currently controls both the federal and state governments.

Earlier this term, the Supreme Court heard the Gill v. Whitford case from Wisconsin regarding gerrymandering. In January, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked a redistricting order from a lower court in North Carolina.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested waiting until next term, at which point those two cases and the Maryland case could be heard together.

“It seems like a pretty clear violation of the Constitution in some form to have deliberate, extreme gerrymandering,” Breyer said of the Maryland map. “But is there a practical remedy that won’t get judges involved in dozens and dozens and dozens of very important political decisions?”

Courts have previously treated challenges to political redistricting as a “nonjusticiable ‘political question,’ based on the lack of a determinate, judicially enforceable standard to judge political gerrymanders,” according to the Preview of the United States Supreme Court Cases.

By JULIA LERNER