1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
I'm a product of Maryland's public school system. Because of a great elementary school teacher in a great public school, I overcame dyslexia, developed a love of reading, and graduated from high school while holding down a half-time job. I've been a working man since then.
At age 19 I began managing a local, independent retail business that was just starting up at the height of the mid-1970s recession. We broke even by the second year because we had a good understanding of the business we were in, ran the operation efficiently, stocked it well, offered a level of customer service that nobody else understood, and then offered follow-up customer service. The customer was the only reason we were there, and the customer was always right. These are principles I'll carry into my service as a City Council representative.
Since the age of 30 I've worked in the film industry, here in Baltimore and around the country. I've worked as a Locations Scout and Manager, Assistant Director, and Producer. The film industry is all about managing people, time and money, and getting the job done by the deadline. You deal with contracts, insurance, logistical planning and execution. You coordinate with a diversity of individuals, from government officials and representatives of unions and large corporations, to actors and directors and ordinary citizens. You have to understand union rules, talent contracts, time schedules, and budgets. Especially budgets. You make informed decisions about what part of a plan has to be cut and where you have to go ahead and spend the money. You don't survive without excellent problem-solving and negotiating skills and the ability to get along with almost everyone. You have to pay attention to detail and you have to be able to listen well enough to understand what the client wants, even if the client isn't communicating very well.
In the film business, if you don't produce results they don't invite you back for another gig. It's a good principle for Baltimore City voters to follow.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
My vision for the 14th District -- and for Baltimore as a whole -- is for residents of each neighborhood to feel that they can live their lives in a safe and healthy environment; they can count on their government to do what is supposed to be done; their time and their rights will be respected; and they don't have to continually wonder when the second or third shoe is going to drop. We deserve to feel like citizens, not like contestants in a game of Survivor that we didn't sign up for. There is so much that's wrong about the way Baltimore City government interacts with citizens. There is so much room for improvement. But it isn't going to happen under our current representation.
The incumbent has become increasingly out of touch, ineffective, unwilling or unable to follow through, and tied to the demands of powerful politicians and special interests. That's not serving the individual constituent. We can't afford to continue this way and expect things to improve. I want to be a voice for the voiceless and a voice of reason.
My top priorities, in addition to good customer service and fair treatment of citizens, are to end the violence that plagues portions of the 14th District and neighboring districts; to have a vigorous school construction program; to have more funding, not less, for recreation and parks; and to create a sustainable market for renovation and occupancy of our existing stock of homes. These things all fit together.
I want the City Council to establish a fair process for the upcoming Comprehensive Rezoning. We also need to establish a People's Counsel modeled after the one in Baltimore County to protect citizens from unfair land use decisions, and end the dysfunction of agencies like the Zoning Board.
3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you advocate for to improve public safety in the city?
People need to feel safe in their homes, on the street, where they work and where they study and play. We're obviously not getting it right on crime prevention. The odds of getting away with a crime are still too good for individuals who are inclined to solve their economic and social problems by victimizing others. And those economic and social problems, so often fueled by substance abuse, are like a revolving door.
Crime, and especially violent crime, is a plague on our City. Violent crime isn't just gang/retaliatory crime; it includes domestic violence, which often takes place behind closed doors. Addressing these problems is not all about policing. On the front end, we obviously have to dedicate ourselves to serving the developmental needs of children. On the back end, we need to bring in innovative violence-prevention programs that have been tested and found effective in other cities. And we need better and more comprehensive programs for ex-offenders. I intend to spearhead a strong, City-wide push to create a non-violent society.
Putting more resources into investigating and solving crimes will go a long way toward preventing more crime, especially violent crime. It will also instill more confidence among our residents, who tell countless personal stories of insensitivity, neglect and incompetence by law enforcement. In my 32 years in Baltimore, residents have always told me they distrust the Police.
I don't believe the answer is more Police. I've participated in citizen-Police interactions including the ride-along, Cadet class meet-and-greet, and other training-related workshops. We need better Police with better, more comprehensive training.
4. Do you support the recent reforms in the Baltimore City school system? Do you believe any changes are needed in the schools' governance structure (such as direct mayoral control or an elected school board)?
I agree with the new suspension policy. I'm glad more effort is being made to address bullying. I'm not in favor of placing Middle School children together with High School students. And we wouldn't need Middle School choice if we had better neighborhood schools. Generally, I support strategies that result in more children staying in school and getting their diploma.
The recent expansion of Charter Schools, while good for some children and their parents, places many other families at a disadvantage. We need more equity in public education, not less.
Generally, in talking with both parents and older students, I don't hear a lot of confidence in the Baltimore City school system. I hear good intentions coming from the top, but they don't seem to be trickling down.
Parents have to do so much more advocacy and be so much more involved than my parents did when I was struggling in elementary school. This seems counterintuitive. A lot of parents just aren't able to interact with the school system in that way. We have to give children access to a great education, whether or not their parents are cheering them on.
I do believe we should elect at least half of our City school board for more diversity and accountability. I do not believe direct Mayoral control of public schools is a good thing. Why make the schools even more beholden to the political power structure?
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
We adults are $2.8 billion behind in our homework. I call that a failing grade.
The July 2010 ACLU report card, which puts a number to State neglect of Baltimore City children, doesn't calculate the ultimate cost. The State must come up with our long overdue share. We have to add City funds, as well as private funds obtained through creative financing.
Do it now.
6. Property taxes have become a major issue in this year's election. Do you believe the city's tax rate needs to be cut? If so, by how much, and what steps would you take to keep the city's budget in balance while lowering the rate?
The City's property tax rate has to be cut. Our current tax rate interferes with normal patterns of mobility in which a growing family moves into a larger house within the City, or a house is sold so the breadwinner can follow a job or a senior citizen can move to other housing. People who need to sell can't, while people who would like to buy -- including potential new City residents -- can't afford the yearly tax. We have put ourselves at a terrible disadvantage.
Our property tax rate needs to be on a par with surrounding jurisdictions; we need to start now and take no more than seven years to make it happen. As we do that, we have to keep the budget in balance by funding core functions and services while coming down hard on dysfunction, corruption and waste. There is plenty of waste, fraud and abuse. Ask any citizen who has dealt with City government.
City government hands out huge amounts of public money weekly, with little accountability to the taxpayer. We have to stop doling out tax breaks to large, politically connected developers. And we need to charge them their fair share for the public infrastructure improvements needed to support their projects.
7. The city has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. If that trend continues, what top priorities would you protect from cuts? In what areas would you pursue spending reductions?
As a priority, I would protect children's services from cuts. Public education and recreation need to be expanded instead of cut back. How in the world did we ever lose sight of the value of investing in Baltimore's children?
Cut: Waste, fraud and abuse must go, as stated earlier. Competence and effective communication save time and money; it costs less to do a job right the first time.
If the Circulator isn't getting residents to and from their jobs, then we shouldn't be funding it; tourists use public transit in other cities.
The amount of support staff for the Administration is excessive. There is too much Police overtime. Law Department staff waste resources defending unlawful actions and filing frivolous pleadings against the public interest. Downsize that department and others through attrition.
8. Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade. What would you do to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents?
Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade, but we've also lost tens of thousands of citizens. I believe public education is at the heart of both the problem and the solution. Public education can and should be the economic engine that drives us out of the doldrums. We have to dedicate ourselves to becoming the center of excellence in education not just private schools and world-class universities, but public schools. There was a time when Baltimore City schools were the envy of the region. An aggressive, high-profile program of building and rehabbing public schools will put a lot of City residents back to work and will attract and keep residents at the same time. More residents mean more jobs in home renovation and other businesses.
The world of work is changing and in many ways, will never look back. Big smokestack industrial is in the past. Jobs will go where the skilled work force is. Public education is our key to a skilled work force. We can't rely on our institutions of higher learning, which bring in people who become skilled and then leave.
Finally, in order for 21st century industry and business to come here, Baltimore City has to be an attractive place to settle. Safe streets, good schools, reasonable taxes -- full circle.
District 14: Douglas Armstrong
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