With its plans for the “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park,” Baltimore County again puts the cart before the horse.

Baltimore County’s stealth plan for the so-called “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” (HVGEP) hit the rocks last Wednesday at a meeting of the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board. I can’t think of a better fate for yet another Machiavellian scheme by the county.

The Rec Board heard testimony on a petition by the newly-formed Maryland Equine Resource Council (MERC). MERC wants to supplant the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) as the recreation council responsible for equine-related activities at the Baltimore County Center Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (Ag Center) in Cockeysville. MARC opposes MERC’s petition.

The county’s secret scheme included kicking MARC to the curb and standing up MERC as a compliant recreation council before the county unveiled its secret plan for the HVGEP. In my opinion, the county wanted MERC on its side as a cheerleader when it rolled out its ambitious plan, which the county knew would stir controversy. The proposed equestrian park consists of about 1,500 acres and includes the Ag Center, Oregon Ridge Park, and Shawan Downs, currently a privately-owed equestrian center.

The scheme unraveled when the ambitious and expensive HVGEP plan was discovered through a Public Information Act request by Keith Rosenstiel, a neighbor of the Ag Center, a few weeks before the Rec Board meeting. The plan made it apparent that it was the county’s intent that MERC run equine-related activities not only at the Ag Center but also at the entire HVEGP.

That intent lies hidden in the Articles of Incorporation of MERC, which refer to the purposes of the organization as implementing equine-related activities at the Ag Center “and other associated properties.” How clever. We now know that the “other associated properties” are Oregon Ridge Park and Shawan Downs.

Whose plan is it, anyway?

The county managed to keep the HVGEP plan secret for months by getting the Land Preservation Trust (LPT) to prepare it. LPT hired Populous, a Kansas City architectural firm, to draft the plan. LPT paid Populous with a $69,550 grant from the county. It appears that the plan was even kept secret from the county’s planning director, Andrea Van Arsdale.

On September 4th, I asked Ms. Van Arsdale for the status of the plan. Plans such as the Populous study may not be used to guide decisions on capital acquisitions and improvements to county parks until adopted as amendments to the county’s master plan. By email dated September 5th she told me the following:

“Populous prepared a master plan for its client, Land Preservation Trust. It is not an amendment to the Baltimore County Master Plan 2020 and as such, it has not been submitted to either the Planning Board or County Council.”

My interpretation of her statement: “It’s not the county’s plan, hon.” The following day, however, I heard from County Attorney Mike Field who clarified that the plan was prepared for the county as well as for LPT.

Mr. Field added that the county had not decided whether to adopt the Populous study. If the county did decide to adopt the HVGEP plan, it would have to be reviewed by the Planning Board and approved by the County Council as an amendment to the county’s master plan.

In fairness to Ms. Van Arsdale, she appeared to be unfamiliar with the HVGEP plan when I first contacted her. If it seems unusual to you that the chief of planning for the county would not be familiar with the status of the plans for a project with a price tag of $22.5 million, you need to be aware of something: It is widely believed by supporters of MARC and others that equine-related planning for the county is done by County Administrative Officer Fred Homan himself.

Chris McCollum is the county employee who serves as executive director of the Ag Center. He also appears to be a member of the small circle of county employees involved in equine-related planning.

The county made a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to buy Shawan Dawns in 2016.  The documents indicate that the effort was led by Mr. Homan with the assistance of Mr. McCollum. In my opinion, it is odd that a lowly park superintendent, not Director of Recreation and Parks Barry Williams, worked on such a significant acquisition.

The scheme unravels.

If there was any doubt about the alliance between the county and MERC it was erased by corporate documents listing Mr. McCollum as a member of the board of directors of MERC. That would mean that, if the Rec Board approves MERC’s petition, Mr. McCollum would oversee the activities of a rec council of which he is a director. That would appear to be an obvious conflict of interest, not that such things seem to matter much in Baltimore County.

Mr. McCollum was a target of criticism at last Wednesday’s meeting. MARC members and volunteers accused him of antagonism toward MARC. Formed in 2003, MARC was instrumental in the 2006 acquisition of the former Mount Pleasant Farm, now the site of the Ag Center. Many of the programs at the Ag Center are run by MARC under its “recreation council” agreement with the county.

Jeffrey Budnitz, who describes himself as the founder of MERC, also took a negative approach toward MARC. He wrote a letter to county officials sharply critical of MARC. The letter accused MARC, among other things, of being “opposed to therapeutic equine” and disseminating information that was “either materially or intentional [sic] inaccurate.”

The attempt by the county to push aside MARC in favor of MERC lost steam when it became public knowledge that the county’s motive was to grease the skids for the heretofore secret plan to combine Shawan Downs with the Ag Center and Oregon Ridge to form a large equestrian center. The revelation of the HVGEP plan exposed the scheme for what it is: Just another attempt to insult, bully and marginalize a group of involved citizens willing to stand up to the county.

The Rec Board did not decide on MERC’s petition on Wednesday and gave no indication when it would do so. The Rec Board should deny or table the petition until the county’s grand design for the so-called “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” is reviewed by the Planning Board and approved by the County Council – something that now appears unlikely to occur.

A better way.

Of course, there was a better way. If LPT had asked Populous to do so, Populous would have solicited input from stakeholders and members of the public on their vision for a possible equestrian park before drafting the plan. Why didn’t that happen? Because that has not been the county’s style. Time after time, the county has rolled out development and other proposals at the last minute, placing community members on the defensive, scrambling to respond. The tactic has worked in the past, but the worm now appears to be turning.

The irony is that the county’s addiction to secrecy and general Machiavellian behavior may have cost the county an opportunity to craft a generally-accepted plan to integrate the equine uses of the three parcels of land without ignoring the legitimate concerns of other stakeholders, including park users interested in non-equine activities and members of the surrounding communities. It is hard to imagine anything of the sort going forward in the near future in the climate of mistrust created by the county.

Pick on someone else, Baltimore County.

The Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) is a group of farmers and other volunteers who have made exceptional contributions to the quality of life in Baltimore County. It is also the type of organization that the Baltimore County government finds easy to bully. Which is exactly what is happening, as MARC’s role at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville, commonly referred to as the Ag Center, is under attack by the county and its proxy.

MARC was formed in 2003 as the Baltimore County Agricultural Resource Center. It was instrumental in the county’s 2006 acquisition of the former Mount Pleasant Farm, now the site of the Ag Center.

Although the Ag Center is under the control of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, many of its programs are run by MARC volunteers under a “Recreation Council” agreement with the county. The recent application of the Maryland Equine Resource Council (MERC) to form a new recreation council to run the equine-related programs at the Ag Center now run by MARC, is best described as a hostile takeover.

MERC is a brand-new organization, incorporated in July.  In my opinion, it is nothing more than a proxy for the county in the county’s effort to kick MARC to the curb and stand up a compliant recreation council to run equine-related activities not only at the Ag Center but also the 1,500 “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” envisioned in a heretofore secret county plan.

This is a copy of my letter to the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board:

September 7, 2018

Charles Munzert, Chairman
Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board
9831 Van Buren Lane
Cockeysville, Maryland 21030

RE: Petition for certification, Maryland Equine Resource Council, Inc. (MERC)

Dear Chairman Munzert:

I am writing to express to you and other members of the board my opposition as a resident of the county to the petition of the Maryland Equine Resource Council for certification as a recreational council for programs and activities at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (Ag Center) in Cockeysville. I ask that the petition be denied or, at the very least, that consideration of the petition be postponed indefinitely for the reasons described below.

I apologize for the length of this letter, but I believe that there are many facts relevant to your consideration. Most of those facts have been secreted from the public and possibly from this board. Some have come to light only recently. I will begin with a summary of the reasons for my opposition.

Summary.

• Thanks to the diligence of Keith Rosenstiel in pursuing a request under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), a plan describing the creation of the “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” (HVGEP) was made public about two weeks ago. But for the actions of Mr. Rosenstiel, this secret plan would not have been disclosed to the public in time for the meeting on Sept 12th.

The area of HVGEP includes the privately-owned Shawan Downs, the Ag Center, and Oregon Ridge Park. Although the plan calls for general “programmatic connectivity” among the three parcels of land, the clear focus is on creating a 1,500-acre equestrian park. If the board has not seen the plan, here is the link to where it can be found.

• MERC is a brand-new organization, incorporated in July. In my opinion, it was formed with the encouragement of the county administration for a single purpose: To provide the county with a compliant recreation council as the county implements its plan to repurpose both the Ag Center and Oregon Ridge Park as part of a single equestrian park.

If the board has any doubt about the alliance between the county and MERC, check the list of the directors of MERC. Chris McCollum, the executive director of the Ag Center, is listed as a director. So, Mr. McCollum would oversee the operations of a rec council of which he is a member of the board? Maybe Mr. McCollum should consult the Ethics Commission about conflicts of interest.

You will note that MERC’s Articles of Incorporation refer to the purposes of the organization as implementing equine-related activities at the Ag Center “and other associated properties.” How clever. In my opinion, MERC and the county administration did not want to tip their hand about their grand designs for the “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” until after MERC was certified. We now know, however, from the discovery of the secret plan that “those other associated properties” are Oregon Ridge Park and Shawan Downs.

• The petition for certification of MERC puts the cart before the horse, so to speak. There is no need for a recreation council to coordinate the equine-related activities at the proposed HVGEP until the plan for the HVGEP is adopted. I am informed by the County Attorney that no final decision has been made by the county on the plan and that the plan, completed in February, remains under “study.”

If the county does decide to adopt the plan, it will have to be reviewed by the Planned Board and approved by the County Council as an amendment to the county’s master plan before it can be implemented. MERC can renew its petition if and when the plan is approved.

• It is clear to anyone familiar with the history of antagonism between the county administration and the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) over the past several years that there is a punitive component in this petition that is aimed at MARC. The hostility toward MARC is reflected in highly critical remarks made by Jeffrey Budnitz, who describes himself as the founding board member of MERC, about MARC. Does anyone believe that hostility would form the basis for a sound working relationship between MERC and MARC at the Ag Center?

The attacks on the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) are unwarranted.

The implication of the petition is that the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) is not a capable steward of equine-related programs and activities at the Ag Center. There is no evidence to support such a conclusion, and I believe that such insinuations are the product of the county administration’s general antipathy toward MARC.

I further believe that MARC has done nothing to deserve that antipathy other than raise legitimate questions about the use of the Ag Park. The effort to take equine-related activities away from its responsibilities looks a lot like payback to me.

The relationship between MARC and Chris McCollum, the county employee who is the Executive Director of the Ag Center, has become increasingly strained over the past several years. In December 2016, MARC’s reservations about the county’s plan to build the indoor equestrian arena now known as the Kevin Kamenetz Arena helped derail approval by the Maryland Board of Public Works of $2.3 million in state funding for the arena.

The county ended up paying the entire cost for arena, about $3 million. MARC was concerned about the utility of the 9,800 square foot arena, which is too small to host the shows and competitions upon which the horse industry in the county thrives. In fact, the 2008 Ag Center master plan calls for a 31,250 square foot arena.

In 2017, MARC members were among the many citizens who opposed the county’s plan to build a 7,950 square foot vehicle maintenance facility at the Ag Center. That plan was canceled under intense community pressure.

The relationship between the county and MARC reached the breaking point last month when the county, with little notice, fenced off a 17-acre field at the Ag Center that MARC volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing and cultivating over the past decade. The county intends to turn the field into a horse pasture. The erection of the fence, which I would characterize as a spite fence, sent a clear message to MARC about the consequences of standing up to the current county administration.

Mr. Budnitz wrote a letter to county officials, including Mr. Williams, sharply critical of MARC. He accused MARC of disseminating information that was “either materially or intentional [sic] inaccurate.”

Mr. Budnitz also claimed that MARC is “not supportive of the therapy being delivered at the Maryland Agricultural Center location.” His reference was to the equine-assisted therapy that the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation uses to help veterans suffering from PTSD.

I do not know upon what facts, if any, Mr. Budnitz bases his accusation that MARC is not supportive of the work done by Saratoga Warhorse. In remarks reported by Mike Ruby in the County Crier, however, Mr. Budnitz suggested that MARC made it clear early-on that the therapeutic program was not wanted at the Ag Center, leaving a gap for MERC to fill. In a letter to Tom Whedbee, president of MARC, Budnitz claimed “MARC’s heart is not in therapeutic equine; therefore, it is difficult to be successful in something when the passion is not there.”

Who told Budnitz that MARC’s “heart” was not in equine-assisted therapy? That sounds like the absurd party line espoused by the county administration. Let’s set the record straight: MARC was absolutely correct in expressing reservations about the construction of an arena that appeared to be purpose-built for Saratoga WarHorse.

Because Mr. Budnitz’s criticisms of MARC appear to be based on MARC’s opposition to construction of the arena, I am going to digress a bit more and update the board on the status of Saratoga WarHorse. Saratoga WarHorse is in trouble. Using a poultry metaphor, I will first express my hope that the county’s obsession about attracting Saratoga WarHorse to Baltimore County does not become an object lesson about the folly of putting all of one’s eggs in one (undersized) basket.

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation.

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, founded in 2011 and based in Saratoga Springs, New York, provides what it calls an “equine-assisted experience” to help veterans who suffer from PTSD. It offers programs in Saratoga Springs, Aiken, S.C. and now in Baltimore County.

The Kamenetz administration was intent on bringing the foundation to Baltimore County. I would describe it as an obsession. In May 2016, the county unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Shawan Downs from the Land Preservation Trust (LPT) for $3.5 million. Shawan Downs is a 238-acre private equestrian center not far from the Ag Center.

The terms of the deal proposed by the county, under which LPT would have continued to operate the center, were unusual. The proposal required LPT to make a $1 million donation to Saratoga WarHorse, which would run programs at the center.

In other words, $1 million of the $3.5 million purchase price to be paid by the county was nothing more than a pass-through. It would have been, in effect, a $1 million grant by the county to Saratoga WarHorse, an extraordinary amount by county standards. The county’s generous offer also included an annual grant to LPT of up to $125,000 and a promise to construct improvements such as a large horse barn and a 6,000 square-foot arena.

The county was undaunted in its pursuit of Saratoga WarHorse by the failure of its attempt to purchase Shawan Downs. Later in 2016, the county decided to build an arena suitable for Saratoga WarHorse at the Ag Center. As described above, the county was willing to fund the entire cost of the arena when the Board of Public Works declined to approve any state funding.

The Kamenetz Arena sat mostly idle for a year after it was built. It is big enough, however, for at least one user: Saratoga WarHorse needs less space than equestrian events because its therapeutic activities do not involve riding the horses.

In May 2018, the county entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Saratoga WarHorse for the use of Kamenetz Arena. Under the MOU, the county pays for the maintenance of the arena and for the care and feeding of the rotating herd of horses kept on the site. Saratoga WarHorse pays no rent.

. . . .

Saratoga WarHorse is facing a crisis. In July, co-founder Bob Nevins abruptly resigned, citing differences with the foundation’s board of directors. Nevins is a highly-decorated war hero and was the public face of and principal fundraiser for Saratoga WarHorse.

The foundation board had begun cutting costs to try to achieve a sustainable business model. Nevins complained that participation would “start dropping off when veterans stop coming because they’re not getting what their friends told them they could expect.” [“What’s going on with Saratoga WarHorse?”, Mid-Atlantic Horse, Sept 2018.]

Co-founder and principal trainer Melody Squier, who Nevins and others referred to as the “heart and soul” of the foundation’s program, preceded Nevins out the door. She was fired after refusing to accede to the board’s demand that she work as an independent contractor rather than an employee. [“Saratoga WarHorse Board Sues Founder,” Saratogian, August 7, 2018.]

Squier’s departure caused the cancellation of classes this summer at the foundation’s home location in Saratoga Springs. Squier’s termination was followed by the resignation of Program Coordinator Janelle Schmidt, another key employee.

The ongoing “transition” at the foundation is an especially nasty one. Saratoga WarHorse offices are on the same floor as the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. According to the Saratogian, Chamber Executive Vice President Denise Romeo said she saw Allison Cherkosly, the WarHorse executive director, dispose of Nevins’ plaques, gifts and “tons and tons of paperwork” in a dumpster behind the building before he could clean out his office. Ms. Romeo added: “My question to this day is, who does that?”

The board has sued Nevins for $1 million, alleging fundraising losses because of his failure to relinquish control of the foundation’s website. The damage to the fundraising capacity of the foundation done by the departure of its founders and the ugly publicity remains to be seen. The response by alumni and supporters of the program on social media to the unceremonious treatment of the widely-admired Nevins was intense.

. . . .

Suzanne Berger is listed on the Saratoga WarHorse website as the Equine Trainer for the foundation’s program at the Ag Center. Ms. Berger is the Deputy Director of the county’s Office of Human Resources.

Dr. Cherkosly informed me last month that Ms. Berger works for WarHorse as a volunteer. She also informed me that Gerald Brooks, a county police officer listed on the foundation’s website as the Veteran Program Facilitator at its Ag Center location, is under contract to the foundation but as of yet has submitted no invoices for his work.

Needless to say, a business model that depends on free labor provided by county employees is not sustainable. Less than two months after the upheaval at Saratoga WarHorse, it is too early to tell what is going to happen to the foundation’s programs in Sarasota Springs, Aiken, S.C., and Baltimore County.

We all hope that Saratoga WarHorse survives this crisis. If it doesn’t, we may wish that the county had heeded the warnings from MARC about building an undersized arena seemingly purpose-built for Saratoga Warhorse. In either case, it is wrong for the county to punish MARC for speaking up on behalf of the users of the Ag Center and the taxpayers.

Conclusion.

I urge the board to deny the petition for certification submitted by MERC. If the plan for the so-called Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park ever is approved, the idea of having a single recreation council for the equine-related activities at the three facilities can be revisited. In the meantime, there is absolutely no reason to certify another recreation council to do what MARC has proved perfectly capable of doing.

And I am going to add one more thing, even at the risk of offending some county officials. The matter before the board contains elements of two of the things that the past administration did best: Carry out the public’s business in secret and punish anyone who stood in its way. I hope that the board rises above the politics at work here and does the right thing for the Ag Center and the county.

Thank you for considering my comments.

Sincerely,

David A. Plymyer

 

 

Johns Hopkins gets the old double whammy from the Baltimore City Council.

Last March, the Baltimore City Council passed Resolution No. 18-0073R opposing the plan by Johns Hopkins to establish its own police department. Last week, four members of the council sent a letter to Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle asking him to discontinue the supplemental deployment of officers to the campuses of Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine, to which I will refer collectively as Johns Hopkins. The letter was an incredibly cheap shot aimed at Baltimore’s most important and prestigious private institutions.

It looks like those four members of the City Council, including its president, Jack Young and the Vice Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Brandon Scott, want to give Johns Hopkins a double whammy, the old one-two punch. First, the council helped block the initiative by Johns Hopkins to set up and pay for its own police department to keep its campuses safe.

Now, four members of the council want to eliminate the city officers assigned to the vicinity of the medical campus that officers of the proposed Johns Hopkins police force would have replaced. What is going on? Do the four members of the council not care about the safety of Johns Hopkins students, patients and employees?

The background.

Legislation authorizing Johns Hopkins to establish its own police department was before the General Assembly for approval in the spring of this year. It received the support of former Police Commissioner Daryl DeSousa and Mayor Catherine Pugh. Companion bills to approve the proposal were filed in the Senate and the House of Delegates by Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cheryl Glenn, respectively. After the council passed its resolution opposing the proposal, however, the city’s delegation to the General Assembly withdrew its support for the bills and they died in committee.

The supplemental deployment of officers that is the subject of last week’s letter is modest. It consists of seven officers generally deployed between the hours of 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. in an area of the medical campus bounded by Eager, Broadway, Monument and Caroline Streets. There also are two regularly-assigned officers at Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins Hospital ER. Those two posts are overtime assignments for which the city is reimbursed by Johns Hopkins.

Why did this nonsense happen?

The ostensible reason for wanting to end the deployment of the additional officers to Johns Hopkins campuses is the general shortage of officers in the city. The council members believe that the officers are more needed somewhere else. Where?

The supplemental deployment was initiated by former commissioner Kevin Davis and continued by former commissioner De Sousa and current interim commissioner Tuggle in response to a perceived need. In his testimony explaining why he believed that Johns Hopkins should establish its own police department, university president Ron Daniels pointed to the upsurge in violent crime in and around the campuses, particularly armed robberies.

One of the most important jobs of the police commissioner is to decide where limited personnel assets are needed most after carefully considering the best information available. If the commissioner isn’t capable of that, who is? The City Council? Can you imagine what would what happen if the decision on where to assign officers was given to any type of committee, much less to a legislative body such as the Baltimore City Council?

In my opinion, it was nothing more than petty politics that derailed the proposal by Johns Hopkins to establish its own police department. Long story short, members of the City Council got their noses out of joint when their blessing was not sought by Johns Hopkins before Johns Hopkins went to members of the General Assembly to seek support for the proposed police department.

There also was the matter of the city’s internal politics. It is hard to overstate the destructiveness of the competing power centers in Baltimore, where a weak mayor is up against a generally-obstreperous council president and young and ambitious council members like Mr. Scott. The contentious situation is producing more heat than light, and the Hopkins proposal went down in flames because of it.

The mayor was not free from fault. When Johns Hopkins went to the mayor to discuss its proposal, it was up to the mayor or one of her highly paid staff members like Chief of Strategic Alliances Jim Smith to help guide Johns Hopkins through the thicket of city politics. The council’s formal approval clearly was not required for the proposal, but if the mayor believed that it was prudent for Johns Hopkins to touch base with members of the council then it was her responsibility to say so.

I don’t know that we’ll ever know the full story. It is always possible that there was something else going on behind the scenes that citizens were not aware of. The fact remains that regardless of any political faux pas the Hopkins proposal never should have been made a political football by the City Council, which is exactly what it became.

What were you thinking, Delegate Glenn?

When Del. Glenn withdrew her support for her own bill she did not give petty politics as the reason. It was worse than that.

“I believe that the way you go about achieving something is very important, and right now this process has not been inclusive of the community at large,” she told the Baltimore Sun, adding:

“There are all kinds of ancillary issues that have been a part of Johns Hopkins University’s history that we would need some assurances as to their appreciation for diversity and how issues of diversity would be addressed.”

Baltimore’s striking history of structural and institutional racism is well-documented, and the effects linger to this day. No reasonable person disputes that, and Johns Hopkins was part of that history.

It was grossly inappropriate, however, for Del. Glenn to cite “all kinds of ancillary issues that have been a part of Johns Hopkins University’s history” as justification for holding the formation of a police department by Johns Hopkins hostage to her demands that the police department be sufficiently diverse – and I am sure she has very specific ideas of how diversity should be achieved.

First, it is insulting for her to imply that in 2018 Johns Hopkins needs to assure her or anyone else that it has an “appreciation for diversity.” Johns Hopkins Medicine has an excellent record when it comes to employing a diverse work force, whatever its history may have been. If Del. Glenn doesn’t trust Forbes’ assessment of that record, she can try blackdoctor.org for verification. Never let the facts get in the way of political rhetoric, I guess.

Second, I have a particular thing right now about the issue of diversity in police forces. If we have learned anything from recent experiences with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), it is that that the quality and integrity of officers matters far more the color of their skin or where they live.

Here is what I would say right now to the folks in charge of recruiting officers to the BPD: Worry less about diversity and more about getting men and women into the department who aren’t going to fly off the handle and beat up citizens who verbally provoke them. I would say the same thing to Johns Hopkins if it had a police department.

I am in favor of diversity and trying to recruit more officers from the city. I am against the idea of elected officials from either the state or the city putting pressure of any sort on a law enforcement agency that results in the relaxation of entrance standards. I would like to believe that Del. Glenn feels the same way, but I am not so sure.

Third, let’s keep in mind that Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine are private institutions. If Del. Glenn believes that private educational and medical institutions need to do more to promote diversity, then pass a law applying to all such institutions. Don’t use a piece of legislation on another topic as an opportunity to extract a commitment from a private institution on how many black employees it will hire.

And here’s what not to do.

City Council Res. No. 18-0073R called for the General Assembly to require that the Johns Hopkins Police Department be approved by ordinance of the City Council to assure proper “oversight” of the department. Based on the track record of the City Council, I can’t think of a worse idea than giving it more agencies to concern itself with. When it comes to trusting someone to stand up and “oversee” a first-class operation, I’ll take Johns Hopkins over the city or state any time.

It is known as looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Of course, there also is the fact a Johns Hopkins Police Department could be a tremendous asset to the city and its citizens. When the proposal was debated in the spring, I suggested that city and state leaders take a field trip to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. As it happens, we have a good example right up I-95 of the contributions that the police department of a private university can make both to the institution and the city in which it is located.

The University of Pennsylvania has faced many of the same challenges faced by Johns Hopkins in having facilities located in urban neighborhoods. Its police department, founded about 40 years ago, now has about 120 sworn officers, including 13 detectives. The “Penn patrol zone” policed by the department is roughly 2.5 square miles.

By all reasonable accounts, the University of Pennsylvania Police Department has been an invaluable asset both to the university and Philadelphia. As one might expect in a university environment, it is firmly committed to community-oriented policing.

For ten consecutive years Security Magazine has rated it the best department in nation in the “Education (University)” category. The Security Magazine rankings are a benchmark in the industry and use a series of metrics to measure overall performance. There is no reason that an institution with the resources of Johns Hopkins could not emulate that success.

Baltimore is chronically short of money. Johns Hopkins wants to accept the financial burden of policing a small area of the city in the vicinity of its campuses, but the City Council seems determined to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.  The council’s action feeds the narrative that it is a poor steward of the taxpayers’ money.

The way forward.

I know that members of the City Council hear from the “all police are bad” element of the Woke Left. The number of citizens in the city who generally distrust police and categorically oppose the formation of another police department is not surprising, given the recent history of the BPD. That antipathy, however, cannot be allowed to discourage reasonable approaches to improving the manner in which the city is policed.

There is a form of provincialism peculiar to Baltimore, which I would describe as applying to this situation as follows: We don’t care what works in Philadelphia; this is Baltimore, and we need a “Baltimore” solution. I hate to be the one to bring this up, but Baltimore solutions aren’t working so well right now, and it might be time to look to other cities for proven ideas.

With about 45,000 employees, Johns Hopkins is by far the largest employer in the city, and its importance to Baltimore is inestimable. That does not mean that it does not have to cooperate with the city and abide by its laws. It does mean that the City Council should not go out of its way to jerk it around. I get the distinct impression that some members of the council get a thrill out of flexing their tiny little political muscles and showing such a large and elite institution who’s “boss.”

I trust that Interim Commissioner Tuggle will ignore the letter from the four members of the council and deploy officers as he deems necessary. When a bill to approve the establishment of a police department by Johns Hopkins is introduced in the next session of the General Assembly, the General Assembly should approve it without allowing it to be derailed by considerations that have nothing to do with its merits.

Once given the authority to establish the department, Johns Hopkins can begin working in earnest with the mayor and police commissioner to develop a program that enhances public safety in the city and that also serves the interests of the students, patients and employees of Johns Hopkins.  The City Council should be consulted and its input considered, but otherwise the council should try to stay out of the way.

Time for Democrats and other voters in Baltimore County to get behind Johnny O.

Having eked out the narrowest of victories for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County Executive, John Olszewski, Jr. deserves the enthusiastic support of Democrats who backed his opponents in the primary election. Mr. Olszewski has a sound and forward-looking vision for Baltimore County that offers county residents their best hope of achieving a much-needed change in both the substance and style of county government.

During the primary campaign, Mr. Olszewski was the only candidate willing to acknowledge that Baltimore County should consider imposing a development impact fee or excise tax on builders to take the burden of paying for the public facilities needed to support new development off local property and income tax revenues. His stance took courage in a tax-adverse county with too many residents who recognize the need to improve the county’s infrastructure but who refuse to accept a role in helping pay for the improvements.

In February, the county’s Spending Affordability Committee reported that the county is facing a decision: Either increase taxes or cut back on its plans to replace aging and run-down facilities, most notably county schools. During the administration of the late Kevin Kamenetz the county ran the budgetary equivalent of a pyramid scheme, relying on taxes from new development to make ends meet.

Not only did that approach drive dubious land use decisions, it set the timer on a fiscal time bomb. As the pace of development slows, which it will, the county will come under increasing financial pressure. It is a problem without easy answers that will take courage and strong leadership to solve. “Business as usual” in Baltimore County won’t work; as pointed out by the Spending Affordability Committee, the county cannot afford to replace schools and other facilities that need replacing unless revenues are increased.

Mr. Olszewski also understands that creating more access to affordable housing is a key to the county’s future well-being. Land use and other policies that promote the creation of pockets of poverty will be the ruination of the county in the same way that it was the ruination of the City of Baltimore. The failure to prohibit landlords in the county from categorically refusing to accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers has redlined neighborhoods in the county as effectively as the refusal of banks to lend money in neighborhoods with “undesirable racial concentrations” redlined neighborhoods in the city decades ago.

Again, it took courage for Mr. Olszewski to come out in favor of the so-called HOME Act, which would prohibit county landlords from categorically refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers. The thing that many county residents seem to fear most (even more than an increase in taxes) is the out-migration of poor black families from the city to the county. Out-migration is going to occur; the only question is whether it continues to result in the expansion of the existing pockets of poverty in the county.

Supporters of State Senator Jim Brochin were suspicious of Mr. Olszewski’s commitment to ending the pay-to-play culture that dominated county government over the past two administrations and was elevated to an art form by Mr. Kamenetz. Developers contributed to Mr. Olszewski’s campaign and he is, after all, the son of former County Councilman John Olszewski, Sr., a charter member of the county’s good old boys’ club. Those suspicions did not go away when it became clear that Mr. Olszewski was the primary beneficiary of attack ads aimed at Mr. Brochin and paid for by pro-development interests, including a slate fund controlled by former County Executive Jim Smith.

I have no problem with developers having seats at the table; they should. The problem under the Kamenetz administration was that a select group of developers and their lawyers owned the table, and ordinary citizens and community groups seldom were invited to sit at it. Until proven otherwise, I will take Mr. Olszewski at his word that ordinary citizens no longer will be closed out of major decisions in the county and I believe that other voters should do so as well.

During his campaign, Mr. Olszewski repeatedly stressed his intention to make county government open, transparent and accessible, something sorely needed in Towson. Mr. Kamenetz ran what certainly was the least open, transparent and accessible local government in Maryland. Understanding that knowledge is power, Mr. Kamenetz and his appointees withheld as much information as possible from citizens, especially when that information could be used to oppose the interests of one of his favored developers. Compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act ranged from dreadful to non-existent.

The fact that Councilwoman Vicki Almond, the candidate favored by developers and the heir apparent to Mr. Kamenetz as the nominal head of the Democratic machine in Baltimore County (under the supervision of Jim Smith, of course), received less than 32% of the vote in the Democratic primary was a clear statement by Democratic voters that they are fed up with the culture of soft corruption in Towson and want a significant change in the way that their county government is run. I believe that Mr. Olszewski understands what the voters want and will provide that change.

                                                                        ∞ ∞ ∞

Leadership style also is important, and I believe that Mr. Olszewski’s general affability and inclusive style will serve him and the citizens of the county well. It certainly will be a refreshing change from the imperiousness of the Kamenetz administration in which intimidation was used to suppress public debate and overcome opposition to the county executive’s proposals.

As an aside, Mr. Olszewski called me the day before the primary election to discuss a post that I wrote suggesting that, based on poll results showing Mr. Brochin in the lead and Mr. Olszewski well behind, a vote for Mr. Olszewski was tantamount to a vote for Ms. Almond. I knew that Mr. Brochin’s lead over Ms. Almond was shrinking because of the barrage of attack ads against him.

For purposes of the Democratic primary, I was firmly in the ABV camp – anyone but Ms. Almond. I viewed the fact that there were two excellent candidates running against her – Mr. Olszewski and Mr. Brochin – to be as much a curse as a blessing, worried that they would split the “reform” vote and allow Ms. Almond’s developer buddies to retain control of the county.

During our conversation, Mr. Olszewski good-naturedly told me that I was in for a surprise on election day and took the time to explain why he believed he would win. He didn’t confront me or chastise me for my post; he just talked to me, and we had a pleasant discussion about the race. I have been around way too long to form conclusions based on a single conversation, but I liked his attitude: Politicians who recognize that people who do not entirely agree with or support them should not be treated as enemies are in short supply nowadays.

                                                                     ∞ ∞ ∞

Although this post began with a message to Democratic voters who supported Mr. Olszewski’s opponents in the primary, my message to Republicans and independents is the same: Baltimore County is at a crossroads and desperately needs new ideas and fresh leadership. The Republican candidate for County Executive, Al Redmer, Jr. is a solid candidate who has some good ideas, including establishing a county Office of Inspector General, but he is less a leader than a manager.

Mr. Redmer may appeal to voters who don’t want the county to change or want it to go back to the way it was twenty or thirty years ago, but that is not going to happen. Change is inevitable in the county, and the only question is how well the county will prepare for and adjust to it. In my opinion, Mr. Olszewski is the candidate best suited to tackle the difficult tasks ahead and to move the county forward.

Supporters of Johnny O and his commendable ideas for good government should vote for Jim Brochin on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Baltimore County will decide on their nominee to be the next Baltimore County Executive. Even though there are two worthy candidates opposing Vicki Almond, the stakes are far too high to take any chances on the outcome of the election by voting for Johnny Olszewski, Jr.

At this point, only Jim Brochin can stop Vicki Almond from becoming the next County Executive and continuing what the Baltimore Sun described as “politics as usual” in the county.  Unfortunately, a vote for Johnny O falls into the trap set for Baltimore County voters by the rich, powerful men who benefit from the pay-to-play culture in the county and who have selected Ms. Almond as the heir-apparent to the late Kevin Kamenetz as the titular head of the pro-developer, Democratic machine.

A poll done by the University of Baltimore and the Sun several weeks ago showed Mr. Brochin ahead of Ms. Almond, with 30% of the vote to her 22%, with Mr. Olszewski trailing well behind at 14%. I am sure that Mr. Olszewski’s campaign knows that he can’t close that deficit quickly enough to win the primary election, no matter what happens. It is down to Brochin vs. Almond.

Release of the poll showing Mr. Brochin in the lead unleashed one of the ugliest episodes in the history of Baltimore County politics, and that is saying something. I addressed the sudden torrent of attack ads against Mr. Brochin financed by Ms. Almond’s wealthy and influential backers in a prior post, and it was further chronicled by Mark Reutter in a must-read story in the Baltimore Brew.

The goal of the oligarchy consisting of developers and their lawyers (and orchestrated by former County Executive Jim Smith) that has run Baltimore County for decades was to cut into Mr. Brochin’s lead over Ms. Almond by tearing down Mr. Brochin with misrepresentations and outright lies. Attack ads are much more effective if only a single candidate is targeted, and Ms. Almond’s supporters knew that Mr. Olszewski was too far behind to threaten their candidate.

A vote shifted from Mr. Brochin to Ms. Almond is a bonus for the developers and their lawyers. A vote shifted from Mr. Brochin to Mr. Olszewski serves this cynical strategy just as well. Don’t fall for the trap.

It is harder for someone without 31 years of experience inside a county government, as I have, to understand the impact of the pay-to-play culture on Baltimore County. The effect is insidious and goes far beyond the obvious consequences like the $43 million bailout of the Towson Row developers.

The domination of these special interests affects fundamental decisions on land use and environmental policy, and even decisions such as which schools to replace; in a developer-dominated county you can be sure that resources will go to where the development opportunities are greatest, not necessarily to where resources are most needed. It should not surprise anyone that in a county controlled by the rich and powerful, the rich tend to get richer and the poor poorer.

The control exercised by builders and developers has shaped the county’s revenue policies by placing the burden of building the infrastructure necessary to support new development on ordinary taxpayers rather than on the builders and developers. The lack of a development excise tax or impact fee in the county over the past two decades is the single greatest reason that Baltimore County faces a financial crisis in the coming years, a crisis admitted by its own Spending Affordability Committee. It also is a reason that there has been insufficient money to maintain the county’s schools and roads, because general operating funds have been diverted to pay the costs of supporting massive new developments such as Towson Row.

I admire Johnny O’s support of affordable housing in the county and his willingness to study the need for a development excise tax or impact fee. Those are visionary ideas that must be discussed. But neither of those ideas are going to be realized if Ms. Almond wins and the pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County continues.

As things have panned out in this election, only Jim Brochin can pry Baltimore County out of the hands of the Baltimore County oligarchs. I believe that Baltimore County Democrats should consider that fact when they vote on Tuesday.

It goes against my grain to suggest that voters should vote for anyone other than the candidate that they consider most qualified.  But this a fight for the heart and soul of  Baltimore County, which is a point with which I believe Johnny O would agree.  In my opinion, citizens cannot afford to lose the fight by voting for a candidate who in all probability cannot win the election.

The campaign on behalf of Vicki Almond: A study in mediocrity and mendacity.

The Baltimore Sun posted a letter to the editor from Scott Hall that is well worth reading. Mr. Hall built the case against Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s candidacy for Baltimore County Executive thoughtfully and methodically. The letter was hard-hitting, but fair and accurate. My hat is off to Mr. Hall for having the guts to write it.

Ms. Almond has no significant business or professional experience – or education or training – to shape our expectations of how she might approach the job of county executive. Experience as a community or education activist may be adequate preparation for membership on the County Council, but it has little bearing on the skills necessary to be a successful county executive of a major county.

Because of her thin resume, we must judge Ms. Almond’s candidacy on her performance on the county council. As detailed by Mr. Hall, Ms. Almond’s record is largely one of voting in lock-step with the interests of builders and developers in the county. She became increasingly loyal to those interests as the 2018 election approached, undoubtedly because she wanted to secure the support of the oligarchy for her campaign to be county executive.

Indeed, Ms. Almond secured the support of the oligarchs in a very, very big way. Another must-read piece is the story written by Mark Reutter for the Baltimore Brew. Do you believe that the movers and shakers would have gone all in for Ms. Almond like they have with loads of money, and shameless and dishonest attack ads, if they weren’t confident that she would remain loyal to their interests? Do you think that they expect nothing in return?

There are two highly qualified candidates running against Ms. Almond in the primary that offer Democratic voters responsible options. Johnny Olszewski, Jr. is the more “progressive” candidate with his strong advocacy of the HOME Act and affordable housing, and his willingness to consider the imposition of development impact fees.

State Senator Jim Brochin is more of a centrist and has made dismantling the pay-to-play culture in county government the centerpiece of his campaign. According to a poll taken several weeks ago, he is the clear front-runner in the race – and therefore the primary target for the attack ads paid for by Ms. Almond’s rich and powerful friends.

Even Ms. Almond’s campaign strategy has been insulting to the intelligence of Baltimore County voters. As described by the Sun in its endorsement of Mr. Olszewski, Ms. Almond “hasn’t articulated much sense of what’s broken much less how to fix it” during her campaign. The editorial board added that “her insistence, for example, that developers don’t wield outsize influence over county government is mind-boggling.” Mind-boggling and ominous.

In other words, Ms. Almond has said little or nothing of substance during her campaign and is relying on the attack ads financed by her sponsors to prevail over her opponents. How uplifting. The conclusion is inescapable that wealthy developers and their lawyers are supporting such a mediocre candidate because they believe that she would make the perfect pawn. Based on her track record as described by Mr. Hall, they probably are right.

And now for the mendacity. Ms. Almond and her developer buddies are targeting Mr. Brochin for his record on gun control and his past (and I emphasize past) support from the NRA. Not only do the ads deliberately misrepresent Mr. Brochin’s current position on gun control, they concern an issue in which a county executive plays no meaningful role.
Meaningful gun control is done at the state and federal level, not the local level.

Effective gun control involves controls at the points of manufacture, sale or other distribution, and licenses to purchase or possess firearms, matters over which a county has no legislative authority.  Ms. Almond, if you want to do something meaningful about gun control, run for the General Assembly, not for County Executive.

Democrats have a clear choice on Tuesday. There are two qualified candidates who have pledged to move Baltimore County into the sunlight and toward a governing culture in which the needs of communities and ordinary citizens are given more consideration than the special interests that have dominated Baltimore County for decades and that have mortgaged the county’s future to serve themselves.

Then there is Vicki Almond, who believes that the status quo is fine and unapologetically represents what the Sun described as “politics as usual” in Baltimore County. We are all counting on the good judgment and common sense of Baltimore County voters to make the right decision.

Why not just go ahead and make Vicki Almond an Honorary Partner of Caves Valley Partners?

Another day, and another glossy, oversized mailer showed up in my mailbox attacking State Senator Jim Brochin, a Democratic candidate for Baltimore County Executive. According to the polls, Mr. Brochin is the candidate most likely to defeat County Councilwoman Vicki Almond in the primary election. Ms. Almond is the standard bearer for the Baltimore County Democratic machine that has been faithfully serving the interests of builders and developers in the county for many years.

This latest attack ad was, like the first attack ad that I received, paid for by the “Baltimore County Victory Slate” (BCVS) controlled by former County Executive Jim Smith. The BCVS was the subject of a post that I wrote on Saturday.

The good news is that the BCVS is just about tapped out. The bad news is that developers, led by Caves Valley Partners, have turned to another pot of money for promoting Ms. Almond and for attacking Mr. Brochin and Johnny Olszewski, Jr., the other leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

Kris Henry reported in today’s Towson Flyer that in a single day last week a super PAC (political action committee) known as “Baltimore County Votes” received $30,100.  [“Developers pour money into Almond super PAC, Almond ally attacks Brochin on guns,” June 18, 2018.]  According to a later report in the Baltimore Sun, various entities related to Caves Valley Partners, including affiliates and executives, gave a combined $17,500 to the PAC last Thursday.

Caves Valley is the developer of the controversial project known as Towson Station and was the sole developer of Towson Row until Greenberg Gibbons took over as lead developer. The long-stalled Towson Row project was the recipient of a $43 million County bailout.

Baltimore County Votes got another $12,600 from other development-related firms on Thursday. The Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), a teachers’ union, had also transferred $12,000 to the super PAC. Ms. Almond has been endorsed by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

The Sun also reported that the Baltimore County Votes PAC, after receiving the $30,100 on Thursday, spent nearly $32,000 on direct mail on Friday. We have not yet seen what that direct mailing looks like, but you can bet that it will include more attack ads.

The Towson Flyer reported that Baltimore County Votes was established last month to benefit Almond. The super PAC’s chairperson is attorney Kathleen Bustraan, a prominent Towson lawyer active in Democratic politics in Baltimore County.

The contributions made last week by Caves Valley Partners to Baltimore County Votes hardly were the first contributions made by Caves Valley to support Ms. Almond. Caves Valley Partners has contributed generously in the past to the campaign account of Ms. Almond, as have other developers, including Greenberg Gibbons, the current lead developer of Towson Row. It is Caves Valley Partners, however, that seems most eager to try to push Ms. Almond over the finish line in her campaign for County Executive.

Ms. Almond has expressed her irritation at being accused of being a central figure (if not the central figure, with the passing of former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz) in the pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County government:

“There is not a pay-to-play system and I do not like that term and it is just not a term that is something that I will put up with anymore,” Ms. Almond said at a recent debate. “I have to say that most people on this stage have taken money from developers, from community people, from special-interest groups, but it doesn’t mean you’re giving something back. It just means that they want to see you elected to the office because they know you’re fair, because they know you will work with them, communicate with them. It’s all about those relationships and those partnerships.”

Right, Ms. Almond, you’re getting all this money from developers because they know you’re fair. As described by the Baltimore Sun editorial board, your denial of the pay-to-play culture in Towson is “mind boggling.” Fortunately, the voters of Baltimore County are not nearly as stupid as you take them to be.

Under current Maryland law, what Caves Valley Partners is doing is perfectly legal.  It is up to a candidate for Baltimore County Executive to decide when a relationship with a developer that does business in the county is too cozy.  If this relationship gets any cozier, Caves Valley Partners might just as well make Ms. Almond an Honorary Partner.

 

 

 

 

 

The Baltimore County oligarchy takes aim at Jim Brochin.

There is an oligarchy comprised of rich, powerful men who exercise an inordinate amount of control over the Baltimore County government and who are the principal beneficiaries of the pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County. They are determined to install Councilwoman Vicki Almond as the next County Executive to preserve their power and influence.  And they are increasingly fearful that they will not succeed.

That oligarchy, orchestrated by former county executive Jim Smith, is now taking dead aim at State Senator Jim Brochin who, according to a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll, is the decided frontrunner in the Democratic primary race for Baltimore County Executive. Mr. Brochin also happens to be a declared enemy of the pay-to-play culture in Towson.

In a post yesterday, I stated that a campaign of dirty tricks against Mr. Brochin was inevitable. Less than a day later I received in the mail a large, glossy mailer sent out by the “Baltimore County Victory Slate” (BCVS), a “slate fund” controlled by Mr. Smith. The mailer featured a demeaning photograph purporting to be Mr. Brochin with two fingers crossed behind his back.

The mailer urged me to vote for the “Southwest Team” of Ms. Almond and Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents my district. It attacked Mr. Brochin for not being a “Real Democrat” and for his alleged opposition to gun control.

Never mind that gun control is an issue decided on the state and federal levels, not the local level. Or that any favor Mr. Brochin enjoyed with the NRA ended when he co-sponsored a 2009 bill that allows judges to require subjects of temporary protective orders to give up their guns and voted in favor of Maryland’s ban on assault weapons in 2013.

The mailer did not go after Johnny Olszewski, Jr., the other Democratic contender in the primary, even though he voted against both the 2009 and 2013 gun contol bills when he was a state delegate. Why wasn’t he mentioned in the ad? Because he is lagging well behind Mr. Brochin and Ms. Almond in the polls, and it is Mr. Brochin who is the main obstacle to the oligarchy’s goal of getting Ms. Almond elected. A mailer like the one in question is more effective when a single candidate is targeted.

Slate funds have always been controversial in Maryland, not only for an initial absence of limits on contributions to individual candidates but also because of their lack of transparency. The BCVS, however, has had an especially controversial history.

The BCVS was established in 2006 by Mr. Smith when he was the Baltimore County Executive. He set up the slate fund, contributed $400,000 to it from his own campaign account, and promptly transferred $315,000 from the slate fund to the campaign of Scott Shellenberger, then running for his first term as Baltimore County State’s Attorney.  Mr. Smith ultimately contributed $585,000 to the slate fund from his own campaign account and moved $465,000 to the campaign account of Mr. Shellenberger in 2006.

It was a whopping amount of money for one candidate to give to another, especially when the candidate giving the money was the sitting County Executive and the receiving candidate was the would-be State’s Attorney for the county. It raised eyebrows around the state and drew immediate criticism.

Common Cause of Maryland noted its opposition to slate funds in general. Mr. Shellenberger’s opponent in 2006, Steve Bailey, was more specific:

“I never expected and was quite frankly shocked the county executive [Jim Smith] would form what appears to be a sham slate,” Mr. Bailey said. “Even if it technically complies with the letter of the law, it clearly violates the spirit of the law.”

Mr. Bailey filed complaints with both the State Board of Elections and the State Prosecutor. He was right; Mr. Smith may have violated the spirit of the law, but he did not violate its letter and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

A few words to explain the unease about the amount of money steered by Mr. Smith to Mr. Shellenberger in 2006: The allegations of a pay-to-play culture and too-cozy relationships between developers and County officials did not begin when the late Kevin Kamenetz took office as Mr. Smith’s successor in 2010, and the good old boys’ network was in full swing during Mr. Smith’s tenure as County Executive. Baltimore County had a robust history of corruption in prior decades.

Although Mr. Smith, a former Circuit Court judge, had an untarnished reputation, a few of his predecessors as County Executive such as Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson did not. The idea of a Baltimore County State’s Attorney beholden to a Baltimore County Executive to the tune of almost one-half million dollars in campaign funds just did not sit well. For example, the State’s Attorney for a county is one of the few public officials who has the power under state law to refer a matter involving a county executive to the State Prosecutor for investigation.

To my knowledge, Mr. Shellenberger has never referred a matter involving alleged corruption within Baltimore County government to the State Prosecutor. Given some of the events that I have studied in Baltimore County, I find that difficult to understand.

In 2010, the BCVS ran into controversy for a second time. Even though Mr. Smith wasn’t running for any office at the time, he transferred money in his campaign account to candidates for County Council through the BCVS.

In 2015, the General Assembly amended the law governing slate funds to limit membership in a slate fund to persons running for office. It was referred to as the “Jim Smith rule.” Also, donations to individual members of the slate fund were capped at $24,000 which, incidentally, was $441,000 less than the amount given to Mr. Shellenberger by Mr. Smith via the BCVS.

The third time that the BCVS ran into trouble was in 2017, when it was accused by the State Prosecutor of making a $100,000 loan to Catherine Pugh in April 2016, a loan that some believed helped get Ms. Pugh over the finish line in her primary fight with former mayor Sheila Dixon. Although Ms. Pugh was running for mayor at the time of the loan she was not an official member of the slate as required by law.

By the time the civil charges were filed in January 2017, Ms. Pugh had been elected mayor and had appointed Mr. Smith to a $175,000 position in her administration as Chief of Strategic Alliances. I have been unable to find a specific job description for his position.

When the civil charges were filed against the BCVS in 2017, Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told the Sun that Mr. Smith had a reputation for being an “extremely honorable and a decent guy.” I take Mr. Norris’s word for that.

In fact, I have no doubt that the principals of Caves Valley Partners and all the other rich and powerful guys who lavish money on the campaign accounts of Baltimore County elected officials are also honorable and decent guys. But that’s not the point. The point is that a handful of rich and powerful men pursuing their own interests should not be wielding such extraordinary influence over the affairs of County government.

I also believe that honorable is as honorable does. The mailer that I received today attacking Jim Brochin suggests that honor has given way to desperation.  In my opinion, it was misleading and shameful at best, scurrilous at worst. Mr. Smith needs to come out of hiding and tell us who designed and approved the mailer. It was what one would expect from political bottom-feeders, not from rich and powerful men. Unless the two are one and the same.

The denial by Vicki Almond of a pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County isn’t just “mind-boggling.” It is insulting to the intelligence of county voters and ignores a problem that needs to be fixed and fixed soon.

The endorsement by the Baltimore Sun of John Olszewski, Jr. for Baltimore County Executive in the Democratic primary stated that one of his opponents, County Councilwoman Vicki Almond “represents politics as usual in Towson,” pointing out that “she hasn’t articulated much sense of what’s broken much less how to fix it.” The editorial board added:

“Her insistence, for example, that developers don’t wield outsize influence over county government is mind boggling.”

Ms. Almond’s denial of the existence of a pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County government is much more than mind-boggling. It is insulting to the intelligence of the voters of Baltimore County and would endanger the future of the County should she be elected County Executive.

A personal disclosure: I am not affiliated with nor have I endorsed any candidate for Baltimore County Executive. I am, however, based on considerable research and analysis, a strong critic of the pay-to-play culture that prevails in the Baltimore County government. My post on the history of Towson Station and the culture of soft corruption in Baltimore County describes my concerns.

I believe that, unless the pay-to-play culture and the dominance of builders and land developers and their attorneys over County elected officials is ended, the quality of life in Baltimore County will erode at a quickening pace, and the financial challenges that the County already faces in the near-term future will grow exponentially worse. Simply put, the County has mortgaged its future to pay for unrestrained growth that primarily benefits a handful of special interests, and those chickens are coming home to roost.

As a secondary effect, the pay-to-play culture has resulted in what often is an adversarial relationship between County government and its citizens, with developers and the County on one side and citizens on the other. County officials bend over backwards to protect these special interests. That frequently means that County agencies make it as hard as possible for citizens to exercise their right to find out what is going on in their government and to make their voices heard when it comes time for the County to make decisions.

There is an excellent chronicle of the pay-to-culture and how it has corroded Baltimore County government written by Michael Ruby in the Villager. My favorite example of the grief experienced by citizens and members of the media when trying to penetrate the fog generated by County agencies to obscure their pro-developer leanings was a story written by Ann Constantino in the Baltimore Post.  It is must-read story with an accompanying must-watch video.

In terms of the County Executive race, my opposition to the pay-to-play culture does put me squarely within the ABV (Anyone but Vicki) camp in the Democratic primary.  Of all the candidates, only County Councilwoman Vicki Almond has denied the existence of a pay-to-play culture. She has gone from the old saw about developers donating money to the campaigns of elected officials to secure “access” rather than to gain influence to now claiming that developers give gobs of money to her and others simply because they want to see the best candidates win. Best candidates for whom, and for what?

Ms. Almond, the voters of Baltimore County are not stupid. Torrents of money flow from developers and their law firms into the campaign coffers of selected candidates, including you, because they expect those candidates to support their development proposals. As pointed out by the Sun, you can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge that it exists.

There is a pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County, and the voters of the County know that Ms. Almond is knee-deep in it. I have said in the past that Ms. Almond deserves credit for at least adding gender equity to the good old boys’ network that has run Baltimore County for decades. If Ms. Almond is elected County Executive, the pay-to-pay culture will continue unabated.

If you want an example of how addicted elected officials are to the gravy train of developer money, watch the Baltimore County Council work session on May 29th beginning at about minute 59 on the recording. The ostensible subject of that part of the work session was Bill No. 52-18, a minor bill introduced by Ms. Almond to further restrict access to firearms by minors.

Council Chairman Julian Jones, in what he later described as taking a “liberty” as chairman (a gross understatement), launched into a gratuitous attack on State Senator Jim Brochin, who was not present, that had absolutely nothing to do with the bill. As if on cue, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins chimed in with a comment on donations by the NRA to Mr. Brochin. The pathetic display looked like it had been orchestrated.

Mr. Brochin, like Ms. Almond, is a Democratic candidate for County Executive, and he has made dismantling the pay-to-play culture the centerpiece of his campaign. Consequently, his candidacy threatens to derail the gravy train on which Mr. Jones and Ms. Bevins are aboard.

The fact at these two council members, especially the chairman, were willing to debase themselves to attack Mr. Brochin is a testament to the determination of the developers, and the elected officials whose campaigns they finance, to do whatever it takes to protect their pieces of the action. The financial stakes are very high, and those who benefit from the pay-to-play culture from both inside and outside County government apparently are not going to surrender control of the County without a dirty, no-holds-barred fight.

I can’t resist a word about the endorsement of Ms. Almond by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Baltimore County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police that represents rank-and-file members of the Baltimore County Police Department. I don’t know what was said to obtain those endorsements, but I believe that the members of those unions can be confident that their interests will always take a back seat to the interests of builders and developers if Ms. Almond is elected.

I was never impressed with the vision or selflessness of public employee unions during my career in local government. I did learn, however, that individual teachers and police officers tend to make up their own minds about candidates for local office. I urge teachers and police officers (the ones who live in Baltimore County, that is) to weigh the long-term interests and financial health of the County against any promises made to increase their salaries or improve their benefits.

The good news is that there are two highly-credible candidates for Baltimore County Executive running against Ms. Almond in the Democratic primary. Neither Mr. Brochin nor Mr. Olszewski have been swallowed up by the pay-to-play culture in Towson and both are far more likely than Ms. Almond to end what the Baltimore Sun euphemistically described in its endorsement as “politics as usual” in Baltimore County government.

Is it time for another Donald Pomerleau?

The most recent revelations about the command environment of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) have persuaded me of the truth of two facts: The first is that the BPD is at this point a bullshit operation. The second is that the next Police Commissioner should come from outside the department.

What do I mean by a “bullshit operation”? A bullshit operation is one in which all kind of bullshit is allowed to happen because of the absence of effective leadership.

I also mean that anything now being said by city or police officials about improvements made to the department or about positive changes to the norms and values of both commanders and rank-and-file officers must be taken with a grain of salt; in other words, as bullshit. The BPD has been in crisis for some time, and the crisis is deepening. Things won’t improve until the leadership improves.

There was an excellent letter in the Baltimore Sun on Sunday making the case that the city must look outside the department for the next Police Commissioner. The writer suggested that the problems within the BPD could no longer be written off as a “few bad apples” because it now appears that the barrel is rotten from the top down. Who is willing to take the risk that someone from within the department has not been compromised by the corrupted culture?

The allegations regarding former police commissioner Daryl De Sousa illustrate the problem. De Sousa, ousted because he is under federal indictment for failing to file income tax returns, now stands accused of favoritism by allowing Major Kimberly Burrus to go on a fellowship with the International Association of Chiefs of Police earlier this year.

Mr. De Sousa approved the fellowship, generally reserved for rising stars within the department, even though Major Burruss was under investigation for theft from a private foundation that she founded in 2015. The claim of favoritism was based on allegations that Major Burruss was having an affair with Colonel Osborne Robinson, De Sousa’s closest friend in the department, at the time she was awarded the fellowship.

Major Burruss’s former husband, BPD Captain Torran Burruss, also accused Colonel Robinson of harassing him about the affair by making lewd comments and gestures at work. Captain Burruss stated that he was on paid leave for a year because of the stress from the harassment, which he claimed that the department ignored.

If the allegations are true, it is a perfect example of what a bullshit operation looks like: Captain Burruss, by all accounts an exemplary police officer, suffers while Colonel Robinson retains his lofty position in the department. There is no other description of that outcome than bullshit. The behavior of which both Mr. De Sousa and Colonel Robinson are accused is toxic, destroys trust among superiors and subordinates, and would not be tolerated in any functional organization. The BPD currently is not a functional organization.

When Mr. De Sousa was sworn in as police commissioner in February, he stated that “I promise that I will not let this city down.” Maybe he meant that he wouldn’t let his cronies down. That seems to be the guiding principle of BPD commanders, for better or for worse.

Three years ago, I concluded that the system for maintaining the discipline of rank-and-file officers in the BPD was broken and could not be fixed until changes were made to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR). I have absolutely no doubt of the accuracy of that conclusion: Discipline is imposed too slowly and often too lightly, if it is imposed at all, and the situation is a direct consequence of the provisions of the LEOBR. Over the years, the systemic failure of the discipline has allowed a critical mass of mediocre and problem-causing officers to accumulate in the department.

The LEOBR is couched in terms of the “rights” of law enforcement officers. What it really does is confer privileges on law enforcement officers that no other employees, public or private, enjoy. It strips police chiefs of disciplinary authority over their own departments. I could go on and on, and I have done so many times.

I gradually have come to believe that there is a second serious problem with the BPD. The second problem is a deficiency in the general quality and integrity of leadership at the senior levels of the department. The two problems are separate, but together they have devastated the department.

When the Majestic Body Shop towing scandal broke six years ago, the question on my mind was how could a criminal enterprise involving so many officers go on for so long without it coming to the attention of BPD commanders? Did the large numbers of police vehicles routinely parked at the repair shop escape notice? In any event, the massive kickback scheme was not uncovered until a complaint from a competing towing company was turned over to the FBI.

The same question has arisen in the aftermath of an even worse scandal, the corrupt activities of the Gun Trace Task Force. Again, how could what amounted to a criminal gang operate with impunity inside the BPD over a period of several years or more? No commander ever had an inkling of what was going on?

A couple of weeks ago I floated the idea on Twitter that the next commissioner should come from outside the department. I got pushback from a couple of former members of the BPD for whom I have a lot of respect. They pointed out that a lack of knowledge of the city and the department can be a serious disadvantage. A new commissioner isn’t going to get rid of everyone, and it is helpful to know where the strengths and weaknesses of the department are right from the start.

I don’t disagree, but the advantage of familiarity must be weighed against what I now believe should be a presumption that anyone from within the department has, at the very least, formed alliances with commanders who either participated in or turned a blind eye toward corruption. It is worth recalling that, after the Majestic towing scandal, former commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III brought in an outsider to head the BPD division charged with rooting out corruption. Mr. Bealefeld had removed the previous director for socializing with an officer indicted on a charge of heroin trafficking.

It was not finding someone guilty by association; it was acting out of an abundance of caution when necessary to do so. I believe that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh should adopt the same approach going forward.

I am not saying that there are not candidates with strong ties to the department who could not overcome the presumption of taint; there undoubtedly are. An additional reason that I believe finding an “inside” candidate will be difficult, however, is that I believe that the new commissioner should bring with him or her a cadre of experienced senior officers who also have no history with the department.

The new commissioner will need more than one set of trusted eyes and ears to get a handle on the BPD. I don’t know whether it is realistic to expect that even someone from the outside can put together that type of team, but I believe that it would be much harder for someone whose experience lies solely within the BPD to do so.

Is it time for another Donald Pomerleau? The hard-charging former Marine colonel was appointed commissioner in 1962 for the express purpose of modernizing and sanitizing an almost hopelessly antiquated and corrupt BPD.

History suggests that the BPD exchanged one set of problems for another during Mr. Pomerleau’s 15-year reign, but he dramatically modernized the department and cleaned out much of the corruption that had plagued the department for decades. He was ruthless in his approach to revamping the department, but it is doubtful that any other approach would have succeeded under the circumstances.

I hasten to add that I am talking about a latter-day Donald Pomerleau, black or white, updated to contemporary standards of racial and gender sensitivity and respect for the sanctity of civil rights. But I am talking about a commissioner with the determination and forcefulness of personality to halt the free fall in which the BPD finds itself; a lesser personality will be overwhelmed by the challenges facing the BPD.

Do I believe that the seven-member panel announced by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh to help her select the next commissioner will recommend such a candidate? I doubt it. Such panels can have a mediocritizing effect in the sense that candidates representing more radical change have a harder time gaining consensus. Maybe it is time for Mayor Pugh to take the bull by the horns – for once – and risk selecting a potentially transformative commissioner, rather than settle for someone along the lines of Kevin Davis or Daryl De Sousa.

Even if Mayor Pugh finds the ideal candidate, do I believe that he or she will have the rapid impact that Donald Pomerleau had on changing the department? No, especially not in getting rid of the deadwood and worse that has been allowed to accumulate in the ranks of lieutenant and below because of the destruction of the disciplinary system by the LEOBR.

The irony is that it was Mr. Pomerleau’s efforts to clean out under-performing and corrupt police officers when he came to Baltimore that was the impetus behind enactment of the LEOBR in 1974. The General Assembly somehow was persuaded that the ability to get rid of bad officers quickly and efficiently was a problem rather than a solution to a problem. It is worth noting the bill enacting the LEOBR was pushed by legislators from the city who were knee-deep in the corruption that Mr. Pomerleau was brought in by former governor J. Millard Tawes to combat.

I emphasize, as I always do, that that there are many good men and women in the BPD who are plugging along, doing their jobs, despite inadequate leadership in the department. It is more important than ever that these good police officers hang in there and keep trying to make the city safe. I am sure that there is light at the end of the tunnel, although I admit that I don’t yet see it.