Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Three old things I know: Reporters should be as a fly on the wall. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Flies on walls are more attended than political spouses. Thus I blog.

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Name: Viki Volk
Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not to Say Fishermen Aren't Scoundrels

Not to say fishermen aren't scoundrels, liars, maybe even thieves -- at least of fish and oysters and crabs. Until recently that seemed penny ante compared to, say, derivative trading, whatever that is.

Fish thievery was more in keeping with the waterman who asked a legislative panel, "You don't think we'd take the last oyster, do you?" Indeed, the legislators did and legislated accordingly.

It isn't easy to legislate fish, or crabs for that matter. Oysters can be a tad bit simpler, staying in one place as they do. Thus fishery laws end up as complicated as proverbial fish tales. To make the point, a New England maritime museum displays a four-inch thick three-ring binder filled only with current tiny-print regulations.

By and large fisheries laws boil down to limiting when and where a certain number of fish can be taken and by what method. The result is that every fish, oyster, lobster and crab caught commercially carries a manifest from sea to platter.

Scoundrels can still steal fish and lying about their size and how they were caught is as old as fishing itself. But a lying, thieving fisherman will have to eat an undersized, out-of-season fish. Selling the wrong sized fish in the wrong season isn't going to work.

That does, however, leave the Bait and Switch Con -- recently demonstrated by mortgage lenders and again those derivative traders. Consider the bait, "You can afford this house." And the switch: But only at the first year rate. Or,"This house is worth a half-million dollars." Last year.

If it didn't sound so Biblical you could almost call those folks Fishers of Men.

Recent federal indictments surrounding the baiting of watermen and switching of fish manifests are now sending a handful of St. Mary's County watermen to federal prison. It seems their manifests contained lies about the method they used to entrap the fish. And the way the feds figured this out was to entrap the watermen, which somehow seems to wind back around and make the feds Fishers of Men. Or, as one of the men who bit on the bait described it, "You might be able to walk by a $100 bill lying on the ground one time. Maybe you can even walk by it a second time."

In a Bait and Switch the point is to make more money than the delivered product is worth. When the indictments came out the amounts of money the watermen were accused of making were laughable. The value of those landed fish must have been based on Cafe' des Artiste's dinner prices, joked local watermen. That was before the specter of federal prison rippled through the local watering community.

"If I was speeding up this highway, a cop would stop me and I'd get a ticket," said another fisherman. "They wouldn't wait until I'd gathered five years worth of tickets and make a federal case of it."

Fisheries are federal cases, partially because of the transitory nature of fish. Unlike the folks at the bankrupt banks, the bankrupt mega-insurance agencies or the financial investment firms, these fishermen broke federal laws dealing with how they caught fish. Traders and bankers and other derivative folks didn't break laws. They broke the nation. Maybe the whole world.

It seems, though, greed motivated all of them. And it happens that greed makes wrongly manifested fish a federal offense but wrongly manifested livelihoods legal.

So the punishment for lying about fish doesn't warrant a bail-out. Still, it seems that would be cheaper. Probably only one of the derivative folks' bonuses would cover even the Cafe' des Artiste prices applied to these watermen's fish. It seems possible only one bonus would suffice to convince all of these busted fishermen to never fish again. That's what the federal laws are all about -- stopping overfishing. Federal law presumes overfishing makes fish so rare they deserve federal protection -- it doesn't assume what some folks suspect, that the explosion of over-mortgaged houses lining the waterfront might have had something to do with the rarity of fish as well.

Then again, in some lights, it does seem odd that overfishing is the federal offense. If that is really why the fish are gone how come you can't catch any of those old toadfish anymore? There has never been a fishery for them. No manifest necessary for those bardogs. Just used to throw them back and hope they didn't bite again. Maybe they'll come back, too, once those fishermen reach prison, that is if the folks struggling to find jobs or pay their mortgages ever get a chance to just take a day off and go fishing again.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Constantly Yielding to the Teachers

Tuesday night St. Mary's County government's 2010 budget hearings were televised. What a relief. I used to have to attend.

When I first attended -- this would have been in the mid-1980s -- the very richest man in the county was a county commissioner. He held fast to a policy of absolutely no property tax increases whatsoever, no matter what, come hell or high water. The tax rate was close to the lowest in the state, which saved most property owners some bucks but saved him bundles.

Two groups of people typically testified: Parents who wanted more money for recreational activities for their children. And teachers. The people who wanted more parks and sports asked that more money be spent on them. The teachers were more outspoken. They asked for tax hikes. They were working in schools from hell suffering from high water.

Public schools were visibly crumbling. The elementary school closest to my home had buckets collecting rainwater in classrooms and down the hallways. It was the solution to leaking roofs in other schools as well. Local teachers were among the lowest paid in the state. Recruiting and retaining teachers were Herculean tasks. Classrooms bulged with well more than 30 students at even the youngest grades. Closets in some schools were turned into instructional space.

It took another decade before all the roofs were repaired, new schools were under construction, teacher salaries became competitive and class sizes regularly fell below 30 students. The richest man in the county was still the richest man in the county but he wasn't a commissioner anymore. Term limits.

Teachers were the driving force of the changes. Some years recreational proponents gave way to library patrons who other years were overshadowed by sheriff deputies who other years were outdone by pleas from senior citizens to keep tax rates low. But every year teachers made the biggest show, created the headlines, demanded that St. Mary's County cough up the money to keep its educational system competitive. And they were successful.

Even during the years taxes were reduced -- in the late 1990s -- and the years they were raised to compensate for the depleted coffers -- in the early 2000s -- the teachers came one after another to speak for increased educational funding. They insisted, one after another, that the increasingly well educated population would support paying more for the benefits of quality education.

But this year -- and maybe it was the medium, maybe the television itself warped the message -- but this year, even as they asked for more money, a vocal cadre of teachers wielding umbrellas applauded an even larger cadre of speakers calling for tax cuts.

The umbrellas symbolized the teacher's perennial call for more spending on education. But as the same teachers applauded those calling for tax cuts the umbrellas reminded me of the old leaking roofs. That past was remedied by teachers and parents who insisted that the average home owner would forgo their relatively modest savings from reductions of pennies on the tax rate in exchange for a quality school system.

Of course, the richest man in the county would save a great deal more from those pennies than the average home owner. He's gone now. But I thought about him Tuesday night and imagined how he would have grinned at such a turn.

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