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Local
Construction begins on Second District fire and rescue building

Officers from the county’s only combined fire and rescue squad held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony Friday evening following the start of construction on their new building, located next to the current site of the Valley Lee station.

A 30,000-square-foot fire and rescue station is under construction next to the current Second District Fire Department and Rescue Squad building as part of an estimated $13.4 million project, which has been seven years in the works, according to the fire department.

At the groundbreaking, Second District public information officer and former chief Michael Roberts thanked current and former county commissioners, as well as Joseph “Bubby” Knott, whose construction company, Great Mills Trading Post Co., is building the new fire and rescue station.

Fire department officers recalled the history of the second district department at the groundbreaking, as well as Commissioner Eric Colvin (R), whose grandfather, Jerry M. Colvin, was a member of the department’s original incarnation in the McKay’s Beach area in the 1950s. Jerry Colvin, a treasurer and lifetime member of the fire department, was also involved in the building of the current firehouse in Valley Lee, which was dedicated in 1965 following several years of construction.

Eric Colvin, along with county commissioners Todd Morgan (R) and Mike Hewitt (R), issued a proclamation at the groundbreaking, commemorating the construction of the new building.

The current building that houses the fire department has been renovated six times, and does not adhere to building codes, Roberts said previously regarding the need for a new building.

The new building is expected to last about 50 years, county financial officer Jeanette Cudmore told commissioners last month, and will feature three bays for EMS apparatus and four bays for the newer fire trucks.

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews


Local
County officials want Thomas Johnson Bridge to be transportation priority

St. Mary’s County commissioners discussed regional transportation priorities with state delegates at their meeting on Tuesday and decided the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge should be at the top of the list.

Each Southern Maryland county submits its transportation priorities to the Maryland Department of Transportation annually and, in turn, the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland also submits a regional transportation priority letter. Commissioners approved the St. Mary’s County MDOT Regional Transportation Priorities Letter on March 24.

The Tri-County Council reviewed Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s submissions and drafted a regional transportation priorities letter which did not pass the council earlier this summer. While the original letter did not include the Johnson bridge replacement as a funding priority, several officials called for a revision.

The new letter listed three regional top priorities, in no specific order, which included the Southern Maryland rapid transit project and the Route 231 corridor assessment study along with the bridge replacement.

According to meeting documents, on July 16 a meeting was held with county and Tri-County Council representatives, where each county was asked to review the revised draft letter, with commissioners and delegation members to provide feedback by July 28.

At the usual business meeting on Tuesday, Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) said he’s “been heavily involved” in the discussions regarding regional transportation priorities, but not much progress has been made.

“Charles County seems to be holding strong” to rapid transit as a funding priority, he said. “Personally I think maybe this letter is a waste of time because we won’t have the funding anyway,” Guy said. “Priorities probably will be changing” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Del. Gerald “Jerry” Clark (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s), who has been a member of the Tri-County Council for around 10 years, said, “It’s always been that the Thomas Johnson Bridge was the No. 1 priority” and it should continue to be the No. 1 priority.

“You can say, ‘Well there’s no funding’ … but consistency of the region is important,” he said, adding the bridge is significant to St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert County, Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) said.

“I believe every commissioner on stage today and delegates who represent St. Mary’s County, if you asked us what our transportation priority is, it would be the Thomas Johnson Bridge, point blank,” he said, mentioning he does not agree with the notion that the council should not send a letter at all because of potential lack of funding, but rather the letter should emphasis the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge as the most important project.

“An equally-weighted list doesn’t make any sense,” since transportation money all comes from the same pot, the delegate noted.

Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) said, “Commissioner Guy was correct, there is no money for this project. ... We need to stay on course and oppose sending this letter.”

“I don’t think it’ll make a difference overall in the way the state is going but I think it’ll make a difference in the long-term of just stating the current position,” Commissioner John O’Connor (R) said regarding the letter.

Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) recommended making the Johnson bridge the first priority in the letter and if it doesn’t pass the council, to not send a letter at all.

O’Connor moved to have the proposed letter set the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge as the first priority and have the other two drop off as regional priorities below the bridge, with all other commissioners agreeing.

The Tri-County Council executive board was set to meet again on July 30 to continue discussing the letter and a virtual full council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 13.

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews


Local
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New leashes on life

Wearing a bright blue collar, Junior paced excitedly around the Humane Society of Calvert County in Sunderland. He poked around on a couch, sniffed the floors and walls and even happily licked a camera lens while a photographer attempted to snap a picture.

What a difference a couple of months make.

A few months ago, Junior was housed in a small cage on a dog meat farm in South Korea awaiting a dire fate to be served in a restaurant or during bok nal, which are the three hottest days between July and August according to the lunar calendar, when 70% to 80% percent of dog meat is consumed.

But Junior, who is a Tosa mix, and 104 other dogs — including 60 from a farm in Hongseong-gun, South Korea — were rescued through a joint effort by the Humane Society International and Humane Society United States. After staying in a temporary shelter in Korea until travel restrictions were modified, the animals finally arrived at Dulles Airport in the early morning hours of July 15 following a grueling 20-hour flight to begin new lives.

“Thanks to the hard work of our staff and partners, both in Korea and the U.S., these dogs will now have the happy lives they deserve: with families who love them,” said Kitty Block, the CEO of Humane Society International and president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, in a news release.

Junior was one of 11 dogs that was picked up at Dulles by the Humane Society of Calvert County. Prince Frederick Chrysler donated two employees and two vans to aid in the transportation.

“To see the dogs come in, and knowing what they’re life was like,” said Pat Beyer, the treasurer of the Humane Society of Calvert County, which is not directly associated with the national or international Humane Society organizations. “We understand it’s [Korean] culture and it happens, but we’re all very proud to help them knowing the process that these dogs went through. This is what we believe in.”

Another eight animals were sent to the Tri-County Animal Rescue facility in Hughesville.

“I’m always excited to help save animals,” said Tri-County Animal Shelter supervisor Kim Stephens, whose facility also took in dogs from Korea in 2018. “That’s really why we’re here.”

A long journey

The dogs — 60 of which were rescued from one farm — were transported to facilities in Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, while another 14 were flown on to Montreal.

Humane Society International vice president Kelly O’Meara said her organization has rescued 2,000 dogs and helped close down 16 farms since January of 2015 during a “very large, robust campaign” to try and end the dog meat trade.

O’Meara said the group is trying to help the farmers convert from what is a slowly dying tradition.

“In the last 10 to 15 years trade has been steadily diminishing to the point where the farmer is even unable to make ends meet, so they’re actively looking for a way to get out of the industry,” O’Meara said. “They see it themselves as a dying industry [so] they are eager and anxious to work with us because it’s an opportunity to move on and also finding a humane alternative for the dogs, which in this case is rescuing them.”

O’Meara said her organization will help farmers move into other fields, such as agriculture or water delivery. Stipulations in the “transition agreement” include a 20-year contract, which bans the farmers from raising any animals at all.

“What we’re doing is providing an opportunity for them to transition into something new and do something with the dogs,” said O’Meara, who added that HSI does not purchase the dogs from the farmers. “In this case, thankfully, we were able to rescue them and move them onto a happy life that they deserved in the first place.”

Now the animals are at local facilities becoming acclimated to their surroundings and being prepared for adoption.

“The prospective adopter has to understand that these animals have been in cages and will need a little socialization and housebreaking,” Stephens said. “It will take time and patience, but they will make excellent pets.”

Heidi Lichtenberg of Hollywood knows that first-hand after she adopted a pair of Jindo puppies from the Tri-County Animal Shelter in 2018.

“They’ve seen stuff so they’re timid of men because that’s who abused them,” said Lichtenberg, referring to Honey and Soju, who were adopted together because they are emotionally attached. “But they will warm up to them. They’re very good with kids and overall they’re just very sweet dogs.’”

Last year, Kathleen Knisely of Four Oaks, N.C., adopted a Jindo — a hunting dog known for its toughness and bravery — from the Tri-County Animal Shelter.

“She was very scared when I got her,” Knisely said. “I couldn’t even pet her, but now she’s attached to me and follows me everywhere.”

On July 22, Knisley made an 11½-hour, 538-mile round trip back to the Hughesville facility to pick up another Jindo.

“We had to get her two plates [of Arby’s roast beef] and then she tried to get my sandwich,” Knisley said with a laugh, referring to Pearl, a name she selected because it was easier for training purposes. “I was expecting to do a lot of rehabilitating with her, but I won’t. Maybe it’s her temperament.”

While some of the dogs are instantly adoptable, some have a longer road ahead of them. Stephens said four of the animals at the Hughesville facility “are a little shy and will need a little time to settle in.” At the Calvert facility, a Jindo named Wolf remains inside his enclosure, rarely venturing to the outdoors area. And Dreama, a Tosa mix, was diagnosed with what Beyer said was “a large mammary mass” and was scheduled to be operated on on Wednesday.

But all that pales in comparison to what the dogs would have endured in South Korea, according to the Humane Society.

During boknal days, the dogs, many of which are kept in cramped cages and fed very little, are killed and then prepared in a hot, peppery soup. According to www.hsi.org, the soup is believed to “reduce lethargy and revitalize one’s health during the summer,” and is eaten by some, though not a majority, of South Koreans.

“Seldom do you ever see a dog in good condition,” O’Meara said of the trauma and malnourishment the dogs, many of whom were pets. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

Changes are afoot

“There is a strong societal change happening in South Korea, especially among the younger generation who see dogs as companion animals,” O’Meara said. “And so it’s really only the older generation now that still has this idea to consider the consumption of dog meat. And it’s a very small minority who do consume dogs on a regular basis.”

O’Meara added South Koreans view dogs differently.

“There’s a strong myth that was developed by the dog meat industry that there’s a difference between a dog used for dog meat and a dog that is a pet,” she said. “One of our major initiatives in the country has been to dispel that myth.”

As she cuddled a Jindo puppy named Nani, Calvert Humane Society of Calvert County vice president Tanya Gott said her organization was more than happy to help out.

“It was overwhelming to see the dogs come in and see the caring nature of the humane society and how they treated them,” she said. “We’re just grateful we could help these dogs.”

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews


Local
Charles commissioners approve criminal justice coordinating council

The Charles County commissioners at their July 21 meeting highlighted criminal justice reform and voted to create a new council to coordinate responses of local agencies to criminal justice issues.

Two subcategories under the umbrella of criminal justice reform include a civilian review board for the county, which has been in talks for decades, and a criminal justice coordinating council, which was given “conditional approval” by the commissioners last week.

The coordinating council would consist of 20 “full members” with the right to vote. Full members of the council would include the Charles County commissioner president, the local state’s attorney and the county sheriff.

Commissioner President Reuben B. Collins II (D) told Southern Maryland News the likelihood of a civilian review board also coming to fruition is “a pretty strong possibility.”

“The murder of George Floyd created a totally different paradigm that was not in existence even four months ago,” Collins said. “There are so many open questions ... Even on a more legal level, the ability of the county to enforce a body” is not easy.

Collins said in an interview the county can implement such a program, however it “cannot tell the sheriff” to participate and enforce officers to follow a review board’s guidelines.

As an advocate for reformation of the criminal justice system for two decades, he said he submitted a proposal for a civilian review board as a young attorney.

“Before I was a public officer, I was the attorney for the Charles County chapter of the NAACP,” Collins said. “During my time acting as their attorney, I submitted a proposal to create a citizens review board.”

Collins explained one of the biggest impediments during the past twenty years in implementing a review board has been the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“Because of the officers’ bill of rights, it created challenges for the ability of the Charles County commissioners to propose and employ a CRB.”

Examples of civilian review boards are prevalent throughout the nation, providing guidelines for Charles County. Therefore, implementing the program could happen naturally and efficiently.

“Each one, depending on where you are, operates differently,” Collins said. “I think one of the key discussion points is ensuring that all of those that are members, or a part of this board, be fully trained in understanding the law and how we would make decisions if there were an incident of possible officer misconduct.”

Although talks of a civilian review board in the county are escalating between citizens and political leaders, a clear discussion on the guidelines and policies the board would operate under has not been broached.

“That is why this is a continuing process,” Collins said. “From my perspective, it is extremely important for this process to be as transparent as possible. I want the citizens to be full participants. ... That is the only way it will be literally looked at as being reflective of the interest of our population.”

Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington (D) told Southern Maryland News the mission of a criminal justice coordinating council is to bring all the decision makers in the county to address local criminal justice issues.

“To me, the way that I see it ... bring them all together,” Covington said. “They can then try to get resources and basically address all the issues regarding criminal justice in Charles County.”

Covington said a criminal justice council would collaboratively formulate decisions and agree on solutions of criminal justice issues.

“It is supposed to be a collaborative effort, through all of these different organizations, with all the decision makers in the room to say, ‘Hey yeah, this looks like a good idea. Let’s try to push for that,’” Covington said.

The 20 criminal justice coordinating council members, Covington said, are all of equal importance. Additionally, there are five subcommittees. The duties of the subcommittees will be to facilitate the council’s activities and address specific areas.

Covington said the resolution for the council was “approved conditionally” by the commissioners on Tuesday, July 21. “The next meeting that we are going to have — where everything is full without any conditions — is early August. ... That should finally and fully bring it into being,” he said.

He added people have already been doing work of the coordinating council. “We had a meeting last week on pretrial release services [and] programs for victims. ... There will be some issues as far as funding or staffing. ... Right now, we don’t have an official funding sources.”

Furthermore, he said the funding will be “very minimal,” but there will need to be administrative people to coordinate. “Aside from that, it is all the different organizations putting their minds together, doing their research and absorbing the workload to make it happen.”

As an advocate, Covington said his objective was to get the “conversation started,” on the topic. “I am all for a civilian review board. ... One, whether or not everybody else wants it, two, how it is going to be comprised and all that. That all needs to be done.”

Covington said that for reform to happen, citizens must take charge. “It has to be a citizen lead initiative. The citizens are the ones that are going to have to carry the ball to the end zone.”

Twitter: @MorganSoMdNews


Local
top story
Audit marks errors in St. Mary's College finances

Lex Birney, chair of the board of trustees.

An audit report showed St. Mary’s College of Maryland failed to accurately report costs related to its food vendor, provide supporting documents and safeguard sensitive information, among other faults.

The state’s department of legislative services published its audit review of the college on July 14. It covered the college’s finance history from Aug. 24, 2015, to Aug. 25, 2019, and flagged six findings.

“I’m not too concerned. There’s some big numbers there I guess. It’s really more a matter of procedure,” Lex Birney, chair of the college’s board of trustees, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

It’s Birney’s first audit as the chair, but he said he ran a business for over 40 years. He said he thinks the findings are all “fixable.”

“Institution budgets like St. Mary’s College always have opportunities for improvement,” he said.

One of the findings stated the college did not ensure the propriety of labor charges billed by its food services vendor in fiscal 2019. The contract called for the college to reimburse Bon Appetit, the college’s food vendor, for costs like labor and goods that exceeded the revenue collected by the vendor.

The report labeled this a “repeated” finding.

Mike Bruckler, spokesperson for the college, said Paul Pusecker, the college’s vice president for business and CFO, was not available for an interview.

However, Bruckler told Southern Maryland News that in a prior audit, the department of legislative services “took exception to the college not auditing every expense item on a weekly basis. We had agreed at the time to audit expenses on a spot-check basis randomly requesting supporting documentation for all cost of goods categories, and to work with the vendor to improve the payroll reporting.”

He said the college implemented procedures to verify invoiced costs for sold goods, but procedures to verify the invoiced labor costs were not put in place.

“Chris True [assistant vice president for finance] has worked with the [state’s department of legislative services] on a system to reconcile numbers in a weekly invoice along with supporting documentation,” Bruckler said, adding the college is working with Bon Appetit on its labor schedule and invoices. “The DLS has agreed that these procedures will answer their concerns the next time they visit in three years.”

Another finding states changes in student residency status, from out-of-state to in-state, were not subject to independent review and approval, and not always supported.

“For example, one student was granted in-state status due to their spouse being an active military member (an accepted condition), but the college did not have documentation to support the spouse’s active duty status,” the report stated.

Tuition for the upcoming school year is $12,116 for Maryland residents and $28,192 for out-of-state students.

The college did not accurately report the cost of a contract to implement a system that manages admission, academics, finances and human resource activities to the state’s board of public works in 2018.

The college reported $2.4 million when the total cost was $3.5 million. It also did not have documents to support changes to the contract terms.

It also did not have adequate control over its $22.7 million in fiscal 2019. Collections were not always safeguarded or deposited on time, daily deposit verifications were not being performed and there was no procedure to ensure all non-cash credits were independently reviewed and approved.

“As a result, collections could be misappropriated and the related accounts receivable records could be adjusted to avoid detection,” the report stated.

The last two findings state the college did not safeguard a computer application that contained sensitive personally identifiable information, or PII, involving 127,717 records.

“College personnel advised us that this sensitive PII was subject to other protective data transfer controls; however, our review determined these controls were not comprehensive,” the report stated.

And the college granted 202 non-IT employees administrative rights on their computers, which increased malware risk, according to the report.

Twitter: @KristenSoMdNews