Baltimore County: Under-told stories.

Let’s just say that if my pet peeves were pet dogs I’d have to buy a kennel. One of them is what I consider to be the inadequate news coverage of Baltimore County by the mainstream media. In the case of the Baltimore Sun, my criticism has nothing to do with the quality of the Sun reporters covering the county; it has to do with the quantity. There are just too few reporters assigned to cover the county, especially the county government.

People like Ann Constantino of the Baltimore Post and Kris Henry of the Towson Flyer (and Pam Wood of the Sun) do yeoman work, but they could use some help. The following are examples of relatively recent stories that I believe would have benefited from more in-depth coverage.                ____________________________________________________________________________________________

The Chabad-Lubavitch House: How Baltimore County, paraphrasing its own Board of Appeals, “left the neighbors stranded” by failing to protect the residents of Aigburth Manor in Towson from the consequences of an unlawfully-obtained building permit issued by the county.

The saga of the structure built on property owned by Friends of Lubavitch, Inc. to house what is now known as Chabad of Towson and Goucher, a facility serving the Jewish communities at Towson University and Goucher College, is a contentious one. In pertinent part, that history began on 2016 with the application for a building permit by Friends of Lubavitch to construct what was described as a residential addition to an existing single-family home in the residentially-zoned community of Aigburth Manor. The Baltimore County Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections issued the permit, and the addition was built.

Long story short, the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, in a decision issued on September 5, 2017, held that the structure represented to the county as a proposed addition to the house intended to accommodate the expanding family of Rabbi Menachem Rivkin, who is associated with the Friends of Lubavitch, was from its inception intended to be a “community center” serving the mission of the Friends of Lubavitch, a use not permitted in the neighborhood. The Board of Appeals noted that the residential addition ended up being “a 9,000 square foot institutional-looking structure in a residential neighborhood of 3,000 square foot homes,” and the Board described in exquisite detail how the building is designed and outfitted to serve as a community center, not a residence.

The Board of Appeals found that Friends of Lubavitch “acted in bad faith in obtaining the building permit and constructing the addition,” referring to the permit as a “dishonestly procured permit.”  The Board concluded that “Friends of Lubavitch is and has been using the property at 14 Aigburth Road as a community center without having obtained the necessary approvals or complying with the necessary regulations.”

It is worth reading the decision by the Board of Appeals to gain a full appreciation of the fact that the conclusion by the Board of Appeals that the issuance of the building permit had been based on the misrepresentation of facts by Friends of Lubavitch was based on an overwhelming amount of carefully-considered evidence. A link to the decision appears below. In its analysis, the Board commented:

“Sadly, Lubavitch has achieved its goals by manipulating both the administrative system as well as everyone’s natural inclination to defer to religious organizations. In the end, Lubavitch has left [the Board of Appeals] with very few options, but leaving the neighbors stranded cannot be one of them.” [Emphasis added.]

But after the Board of Appeals issued its decision, “leaving the neighbors stranded” is exactly what the Kamenetz administration decided to do. The neighbor who has been leading the fight against the community center recently told a reporter for the Sun that, after the ruling by the Board of Appeals, it was the county’s responsibility to tear down the building. The county did not concur:

“We disagree with [the neighbor’s] interpretation that the County must require the addition to be removed,” county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler wrote in an email, according to the Sun. “The Board’s issue was the use, not the size of the building.”

Ms. Kobler’s explanation ignored the finding by the Board that the building permit was obtained by a bad faith misrepresentation of the purpose of the structure. As described in detail by the Board, the permit never would have been issued if the true purpose of the “addition” had been disclosed to the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections. And Ms. Kobler’s interpretation of the county’s responsibility under the law for removal of the building was wrong.  The following is from the Baltimore County Building Code:

PART 112.6 REVOCATION OF PERMITS. THE BUILDING OFFICIAL MAY REVOKE A PERMIT OR APPROVAL ISSUED UNDER THE PROVISIONS OF THIS CODE IN THE CASE OF ANY FALSE STATEMENT OR MISREPRESENTATION OF FACT IN THE APPLICATION OR ON THE PLANS ON WHICH THE PERMIT OR APPROVAL WAS BASED. IF ANY PERMIT IS ISSUED IN VIOLATION OF THE PROVISIONS OF THIS CODE OR OTHER LAWS, RESOLUTIONS AND REGULATIONS OF BALTIMORE COUNTY, OR LAWS OF THE STATE OF MARYLAND, OR WITHOUT PROPER AUTHORITY, IT MAY BE VOIDED AS IF IT HAD NEVER BEEN ISSUED.

The provision applies whether there has been construction done under the permit or not. Revocation of a permit obtained by a bad faith misrepresentation of fact is the first step in the legal process for having construction done under the permit demolished.

Once a year for ten years I went to Madison, Wisconsin to help teach a week-long course put on by the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering for building code officials. As a lawyer, my focus was on enforcement of building codes. A virtually immutable principle in building code enforcement is that a jurisdiction must seek the removal of construction done under a permit obtained by fraud if only because failure to do so is an invitation to people to lie on applications.

In its decision, the Board suggested that the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections suspected that it had been misled when it approved the building permit but believed itself “powerless” to do anything other than issue the permit. Assuming that excuse is correct, the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections was no longer powerless after the Board issued its decision finding that the permit had been obtained by a bad faith misrepresentation of the purpose of the structure.

Why hasn’t Arnold Jablon, the Director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, revoked the building permit and initiated legal action to have the structure removed? Why hasn’t County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said anything at all about the situation?

In Baltimore County, the answer to such questions typically has to do with the political connections of the principals. There is an important story to be told about why Baltimore County is trying to weasel out of enforcing its own building code in the case of the Chabad-Lubavitch House, but to date no one is telling it.

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The contract of sale for the Towson Station site: How Baltimore County whipsawed its own citizens.

Back in the summer of last year, the deal between Baltimore County and Caves Valley Partners for the sale of county land in Towson to Caves Valley Partners was in trouble. The development proposed by Caves Valley, initially known as Towson Gateway and later as Towson Station, was under fire, primarily because it called for the construction of a gas station and a convenience store (not permitted by the underlying zoning) on this northern “gateway” to downtown Towson. The removal of a treed buffer on the property by the county administration, in defiance of a resolution by the county council, further intensified community anger.

By July, there was a problem for Caves Valley: The contract of sale was expiring on December 31, 2018. Because of the opposition to the proposed development, approval of the Planned Unit Development (PUD), upon which the sale was contingent, had dragged on so long that Caves Valley was at risk of losing the property because the approval process could not be completed by the deadline. Once the contract of sale expired, the county was free to start over and seek a more acceptable proposal from another developer – something many in the community would have viewed favorably. What the public did not know was that the Kamenetz administration had a plan to solve Caves Valley’s problem.

On July 26, 2017, without prior notice or explanation to the public, County Administrative Officer Fred Homan signed an amendment to the contract of sale with Caves Valley that extended the closing date for the sale of the property from December 31, 2018 to December 31, 2023. The gratuitous, lengthy extension took all the pressure off Caves Valley to reach a compromise on its proposed development and transferred that pressure to the community groups negotiating with Caves Valley.

Not only were the community groups facing five more years of battling over the PUD, they now had to contend with the possibility that the developer could just sit on the vacant property and seek an up-zoning of the property during the quadrennial review of the county’s zoning maps in 2020. Two weeks after the extension was signed, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz told the developer and groups opposing the developer to work out their differences.

In summary, the extension of the contract of sale protected the interests of Caves Valley not only by avoiding the expiration of its contractual rights to buy the property, but also by putting all the pressure to compromise on the community groups. Two things stand out about the amendment extending the expiration date. First, the extension was a very long one. Second, there was no consideration to the county for the loss of use of the money from the sale, let alone for any increase in property value.

Both things make sense once you realize that the reason for the extension was to apply pressure to the community groups trying to negotiate with Caves Valley. A shorter, more reasonable extension would not have been as effective in placing the pressure on the community groups. As to the absence of consideration to the county for the extension, it is my opinion that there was no concern about protecting the county against financial harm because neither the county nor Caves Valley thought that the extension to 2023 would be necessary.

Sure enough, Caves Valley and the community groups reached a “compromise” last week. And, it included a provision requiring the closing to take place on or before June 30, 2018, over five years before the extended deadline. After closing Caves Valley will seek formal approval of the revised development plan; if the revised plan is not approved, Caves Valley could revive its PUD and seek approval of the gas station and convenience store.

The new proposal, which includes a reduced purchase price, is a very good deal for Caves Valley. I believe that it is fair to say that the county’s whipsaw of the community groups had the desired effect.

As I’ve said before, I don’t blame Caves Valley for negotiating the best possible deal for itself. It is up to the county to protect the interests of citizens, rather than to try to maneuver them into the toughest position possible.

It was Ann Constantino writing for the Baltimore Post who broke the story about the extension of the contract of sale, and it was reported by the Sun. There has been no attempt, however, to dig a little deeper into the story told above about how Baltimore County agreed to a contract extension with Caves Valley that, in my opinion, accomplished nothing more than put the county’s own citizens behind the negotiating eight ball with a private developer. Why would the county do such a thing?

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The proposal to expand the duties of the Baltimore County Auditor: A smokescreen with absolutely no substantive value.

The next two stories are not earth-shattering ones, I admit.  But it bugs me when things that come out of politician’s mouths are taken at face value, and shouldn’t be.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has found himself under fire for not supporting an independent audit of the purchasing and contracting practices of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) in the awake of the convictions of former school superintendent Dallas Dance and another former BCBS official, Robert Barrett.

Mr. Kamenetz has supported the resistance of the Baltimore County Board of Education (BOE) to demands for an independent audit not controlled by the Board. Mr. Kamenetz did not support HB 428, the purpose of which was described by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services as follows:

“Requiring the Office of Legislative Audits to conduct a special comprehensive audit of the procurement practices and contracts of the Baltimore County public school system to determine whether certain acts occurred during the time period from January 1, 2012, to June 30, 2018, both inclusive; and requiring the audit to focus on certain procurement practices, certain contracts, interactions between certain persons and vendors, and compliance with certain ethics standards and requirements.”

In other words, just what the doctor ordered to put the Dance/Barrett/White controversy behind the BCPS. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee, with a vote generally along party lines.  The Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee apparently agreed with Mr. Kamenetz that no independent audit was needed.

To try to regain some credibility on the issue, Mr. Kamenetz floated a proposal to expand the duties of the county auditor to give the auditor that authority to “review school board contracts,” whatever that means. There is of course considerable irony in his proposal, given the county’s reluctance to have the county auditor perform her primary duty: Auditing the county government. See “No County Circles the Wagons Like Baltimore County,” The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 2018.

In addition to the irony of Mr. Kamenetz’s proposal, there is also this: It lacks substance and is no more than political grandstanding. The county auditor already has the power under state law to perform a financial audit of BCPS and, with the concurrence of the BOE, to perform a performance audit of BCPS functions such as contracting and procurement. If you are looking for a discussion of the relevant provisions of state law, I refer you to 92 Op. Att’y Gen. 137, 141-143 (2007) and 91 Op. Att’y Gen. 145, 146 (2006).

So, it is not clear what Mr. Kamenetz believes the county auditor should be able to do in the future that she doesn’t already have the power to do now. It is worth noting that the county could not compel the BCPS to allow the county auditor to audit or review its contracts for compliance with procurement law without a change to state law, if that is what Mr. Kamenetz intends.

And, if the county auditor, Lauren Smelkinson, is looking for work reviewing contracts, I’d suggest she start by reviewing the county’s questionable agreement with the developers of Towson Row. See “Will Towson Row Funding Come Back to Haunt Baltimore County,” The Daily Record, January 18, 2018. Maybe Ms. Smelkinson should get some practice on the county’s own contracts before she takes on review of BCPS contracts.

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The College Promise scholarship program: A case of getting the cart before the horse.

On the same day (March 19th) that he floated the idea of expanding the duties of the county auditor, Mr. Kamenetz announced his plan to establish Baltimore County’s version of a “College Promise” program. According to Forbes, there are about 200 existing programs in 40 states providing for some form of tuition and fee waiver for community college students.

Under the proposal by Mr. Kamenetz, the county would make up the difference between the tuition bill and what a student gets from grants and financial aid – a so-called “last dollar” scholarship program. To be eligible, students must have graduated from high school within the previous two years with a grade point average of 2.5 or better and have a household income of no more than $69,000.

The students must also be “college ready” and maintain a full-time enrollment of at least twelve credits. It appears that this will exclude students who need remedial coursework before they can begin taking college courses for credit. According to the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) statistics, 59% of its students needed to take remedial math classes in 2017.

The proposal requires budgetary approval by the county council. First of all, however, it  requires a separate ordinance establishing the scholarship program and setting forth the eligibility requirements for participation. Those are policy matters for the county council to decide, and they must be set forth in a separate ordinance because of the prohibition against “legislating in the budget.”

It is of course decisions on the various eligibility requirements that will dictate how much funding must be included in the budget; first things first, as it were. The Kamenetz administration frequently treats the county council as an afterthought (and the council frequently acts like a useless appendage), but the important policy decisions about the scholarship program are for the county council, not the county executive, to make.

I am not saying that the College Promise is a bad idea. In fact, I think it is a good idea. But work remains to be done. No draft ordinance has yet been circulated for comments, and there will be comments.

As College Promise programs go, this is one is somewhat limited, and the restrictions on eligibility raise questions about who will benefit from this program, and who will not. Why exclude part-time students who need to work to support themselves, or students who graduated from high school more than two years ago? Questions like that merit public discussion.

The College Promise program appeared on the CCBC website the day Mr. Kamenetz made his announcement and described the program as if it was already up and running. Although the website was corrected within a day after I pointed out to the Director of Media Relations for CCBC that the program had yet to receive council approval, it made me wonder if things were being done a bit hastily – or if the county council was, as usual, being ignored or its approval being taken for granted.

To get the scholarship program up and running for the fall semester of 2018, the ordinance establishing the program should have been presented to the council for their consideration well before the end of last year. A last-minute scramble to pass a bill of this importance is a poor way to proceed.

For one thing, Mr. Kamenetz must submit the proposed county budget for FY 2019 to the county council no later than April 18th.  There is no way to have the ordinance establishing Baltimore County’s College Promise program enacted by that date.  I suppose that getting the cart before the horse is not the worst thing that has happened in Baltimore County recently.

March 29, 2018

14 Aigburth Rd BOA decision

 

The Treegate Anniversary Rally: A turning point for Baltimore County?

There is an event scheduled for Monday, April 2nd at 5:00 p.m. at the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue in Towson that deserves more attention than it is getting. The event is the Treegate Anniversary Rally organized to remember what, at least in my memory, is the single greatest affront by a county executive in Maryland to a county council and the citizens that the county council represents.

I had nothing to do with organizing the rally but, in my opinion, as many citizens of Baltimore County as possible should try to attend. To paraphrase the infamous admonition by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz at an event in Timonium in 2013, this is the citizens’ turn to talk, and his – and members of the Baltimore County Council – turn to listen.

“Treegate” is a symbol of just how bad the pro-developer, “pay to play” culture of Baltimore County government has become. The goal of the rally, however, is not to look backward. Hopefully, the rally on April 2nd will mark the beginning of a concerted effort by citizens to regain control of their county.

A bit of history: The property at the location of the rally is owned by the county and is under a contract of sale to Caves Valley Partners, which intends to develop the property as a project now known as “Towson Station.” On December 19, 2016, the county council passed Resolution No. 113-16, conditioning future development of the property by Caves Valley on the retention of thirty mature trees that ringed the property.

On Saturday, April 1, 2017, a county contractor, without prior notice to either the Baltimore County Council or the public, showed up at the property and cut down the trees. On April 3, 2017, County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, the second-in-command to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, appeared before the county council and told the council that he ordered the trees cut down over the previous weekend without regard to the council’s resolution.

Mr. Homan explained to the council that Resolution No. 133-16 was legally binding only on a future private developer of the property – not on the county administration. If you are thinking that the Kamenetz administration should have been more concerned with the intent of the county council that the trees be preserved than with a legal technicality, then you know nothing about Baltimore County.

Caves Valley was not happy with the requirement that the treed buffer be retained. Mr. Homan gave the following reason for cutting down the trees, which effectively removed the condition placed by the council on the development of the site:

“And quite frankly, the county is currently moving to accelerate the settlement on the property [with Caves Valley] so the county can receive the $8 million that it’s currently had to forward finance through the sale of debt. That keeps the revenue as a receivable, which does not help. The county needs the cash from the sale of the property. So, the county is trying to accelerate the close of the property. That’s what going on at this point in time.” [Emphasis added.]

Was Mr. Homan telling the truth about the reason the Kamenetz administration defied the intent of the county council? On July 26, 2017, again without notice to the county council or the public, Mr. Homan approved a five-year extension of the closing date for the sale of the property to Caves Valley from December 31, 2018 to December 31, 2023. So, in April he was accelerating the sale, but in July he was decelerating it? To my knowledge, the Kamenetz administration never explained why it changed its mind about the immediate need for the money from the sale of the property.

You might think that the county council would have been outraged by the removal of the trees by the Kamenetz administration. If you think that, I will remind you again that this is Baltimore County we are talking about.

At the council meeting on April 3, 2017 at which Mr. Homan told the council that he had ordered the trees removed, the best that the council could muster came from David Marks, the councilman who represents the Towson area. Mr. Marks admonished Mr. Homan for not giving him a “heads up” about the removal of the trees. A heads up?

Nor was the county council upset enough to do anything about it when the council later found out that the Kamenetz administration paid the contractor to cut down the trees with funds appropriated for the general landscaping of county parks and other property. Not that the council inquired about the source of the funds; it was Ann Constantino working for a news site known as The Baltimore Post who obtained the documents relevant to the funding that I then reviewed.

The funds used to pay the tree-cutting contractor were appropriated by the county council for use by the Property Management Division of the Baltimore County Office of Budget and Finance in its Grounds Maintenance Program. The program is described in the budget as having the purpose “to provide grounds maintenance for all County facilities to the citizens of Baltimore County so that they can participate in leisure activities in recreation facilities in a safe and clean environment.”

The services provided by the program are listed as “including grass maintenance, ball diamond grooming, turf management, and general landscaping.” Removing thirty trees to prepare a site for private development is not “general landscaping,” and it is not “maintenance.”

Councilman Wade Kach appeared genuinely upset when he learned about the source of the funds, describing county government as “out of control.” “As a former auditor, I can tell you, this ill-advised action cries out for a full audit to get to the bottom of this deplorable behavior by county government,” Mr. Kach said.

No audit, “full” or otherwise, has taken place since Mr. Kach made those remarks last November. This is Baltimore County, remember, where there seems to be a peculiar allergy to audits.

Ordinary citizens in Baltimore County have little chance when their interests collide with those of the developers who contribute to the campaigns of County elected officials. Ms. Constantino has done tremendous work in documenting the flow of money going to the campaigns of those officials, and the following are links to stories that I consider must-reading for citizens of the county:

http://thebaltimorepost.com/county-council-consider-43-million-grants-large-campaign-donors                                                                                              http://thebaltimorepost.com/developers-trail-campaign-donations-lead-towson-gateway

http://thebaltimorepost.com/caves-valleys-campaign-contributions-pave-way-towson-gateway-project

What distinguishes Baltimore County from other jurisdictions is not only the large amount of the campaign contributions, it is also the fact that the contributions are spread around to all the members of the county council. When a well-connected developer contacts Mr. Kamenetz about a project and asks the county to jump, it seems that all that remains to be done is for Mr. Kamenetz to call the members of the county council and tell them how high.

Mr. Kamenetz tried to sell the narrative that major financial and other concessions to developers were necessary to help the county grow. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Baltimore County enjoys the advantages enjoyed by the other counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area: A strategic location in a very affluent state with a skilled and highly-educated workforce; access to major sea, land and air transportation facilities; large federal employment centers; and proximity to a major city with educational, cultural, entertainment and medical amenities – but without all the problems of the city.

Growth was going to come to Baltimore County. It was never a question of if; it was always a question of the quality of the development and how well the county planned for it. Howard and Anne Arundel Counties grew without mortgaging their futures to subsidize a favored group of developers, as I described in a previous post. Baltimore County could have done so as well, but it did not.

The good news is that there appears to be an awakening among the citizens of Baltimore County as they realize that they are going to have to pay more attention, and work harder, to make sure that their government keeps their best interests at heart. It is a recognition that applies to the Baltimore County Public Schools, and it certainly applies to the Baltimore County government. Let’s hope that the Treegate Anniversary Rally builds on the momentum that already has begun.

David A. Plymyer
March 24, 2018

 

Be part of the solution, Mr. Gilliss, not part of the problem.

If it is to have any usefulness or credibility, the much-debated audit of the contracting and procurement practices of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) must be done by the Office of Legislative Audits of the Maryland General Assembly or under the supervision of the Maryland State Board of Education, and its scope must be broad enough to include an investigation into the reasons behind any breakdowns or deficiencies in those practices. The auditors must have free rein to follow the facts wherever they lead.

The first thing that I would like to see happen is for Ed Gilliss, Chairman of the Baltimore County Board of Education, to recognize that someone other than himself should take the lead on the audit. He has been the public advocate for the position taken by the board that the audit should be done by an accounting firm selected by the board, and he and that position have become lightnings rod for controversy.

Mr. Gilliss has a solid reputation as a lawyer and has given generously of his time to public service, but he is much too closely identified with former superintendent of schools Dallas Dance to have any role in selecting the auditing firm or shaping the scope of the audit. I believe that, once he acknowledges that fact, the other members of the board who wish to retain control over the audit will also change their minds. Changing their minds would not be an admission that they or their predecessors did anything wrong; it would be a recognition that sometimes appearances do matter.

If the audit is done under the supervision of Mr. Gilliss and the board, it is going to continue the nasty rift among board member and it will lack the credibility that it needs to get BCPS out from in under a cloud. It is difficult the overstate the climate of mistrust that exists. See Ann Constantino’s latest story illustrating why citizens (and teachers and principals) are hesitant to believe anything coming out of the BCPS central office on contracting and procurement issues.

Mr. Dance pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury for failing to disclose nearly $147,000 that he earned from consulting jobs, including payments from a company, SUPES Academy, that Mr. Dance helped win a no-bid contract with the school system to train school principals. The statement of facts read after his guilty plea was jaw-dropping in several respects, but none more so than the fact that Mr. Dance’s chicanery began almost as soon as he was hired by the Board of Education in 2012.

When the story of Mr. Dance and the BCPS is written, it will have two parts. The first part, about Mr. Dance, will be a tragedy of Grecian proportions. Hired by the Board of Education at age 30, Mr. Dance was a rising star in the world of public education. Less than a year into his job at BCPS he already had earned glowing praise from such educational luminaries in Maryland as former state superintendent of schools Nancy Grasmick.

Six years later he probably is headed to prison, and his life and career are in tatters. For what? A few thousand dollars per year on top of his $275,000 salary as superintendent of county schools.

The second part of the story will be how some members of the Baltimore County Board of Education were blinded by reflected glory, and perhaps failed to see warning signs that they should have seen. There is no doubt that some members of the Board of Education basked in the glory of what appeared to be their inspired selection of Mr. Dance as his star continued to rise during his tenure with BCPS.

Mr. Dance’s signature initiative when he arrived at BCPS was his Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) program, under which every student would be supplied with a laptop computer paid for by the school district. For reasons that remain controversial, BCPS chose HP’s Elitebook Revolve to begin the initiative.

In September 2014, shortly after the first schools received the HP laptops, HP invited Mr. Dance to give the keynote speech at a major education conference in New York City. Gus Schmedlen, HP’s vice president for worldwide education, described the event at a meeting of the Baltimore County Board of Education:

“We had to pick one group, one group to present what was the best education technology plan in the world for the last academic year,” Mr. Schmedlen said. “And guess whose it was? Baltimore County Public Schools!”

[Emphasis added.]

Microsoft, whose Windows software runs the laptops, named the district a Microsoft Showcase school system. Intel, whose chips power the laptops, gave Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of the district’s department of innovative learning, an Intel Education Visionary award. As described in the BCPS press release:

“Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the Department of Innovative Learning at Baltimore County Public Schools, has been named one of the Intel® Education Visionaries, an elite group of approximately 40 education leaders from all over the world who will be exemplars for global education transformation; inspire and share best practices with other educators, administrators and parents worldwide; and help Intel design the future of education technology.”

Here is part of a BCPS press release from April 2016 that gives you some sense of the chest-thumping that went on at school headquarters over STAT:

“STAT has since won attention both from national and international observers, including recognition through two national Digital Innovation in Learning Awards, a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, being named the sole ‘Showcase’ school system by Microsoft in 2015, being admitted to the League of Innovative Schools, receiving a Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Education, and earning a grant through Maryland’s 2014 Digital Learning Innovation Fund. Dr. Dance also has discussed STAT before audiences including the Federal Communications Commission and a technology symposium in the Republic of Korea.”

And on it went.  The board members who reveled in Mr. Dance’s celebrity status had the full support of most members of County government. County Councilman Julian Jones said that the school district benefited from Dance’s growing national reputation as a digital-savvy superintendent appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014 to the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and invited to events at the White House.

My point is that some members of the board had hitched their own reputations to Mr. Dance’s star, and had a hard time facing reality when that star began to fade. In my opinion, Mr. Gilliss was one of those members.

Mr. Gilliss jumped to the defense of Mr. Dance after the Baltimore Sun reported in October 2017 that Mr. Dance was traveling outside the school district during more than a third of all school days in 2016, and that most of that travel was for conferences focusing on education technology products and policies:

“Dr. Dance was present at everything that was important,” Mr. Gilliss said. “He was available to me at any time I called him. The mere fact that he was able to do a great job as superintendent is enough said. The fact that he traveled shouldn’t impact the recognition of the good things he accomplished for our district.”

Had I been Mr. Gilliss, I believe that I would have been a bit more circumspect in my response.  By time of the Sun story, Mr. Dance had given Mr. Gillis and other members of the board ample reason to be concerned about his conduct.

After the no-bid contract with SUPES Academy described above was approved by the board of education in 2012, Mr. Dance went to work for SUPES training principals in the Chicago public schools, where his friend and mentor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was the CEO. Mr. Dance, however, did not disclose his employment with SUPES to the board until it was reported in 2013 in a story by Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun.

In 2014, the Ethics Review Panel of the county school board found that Mr. Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a consulting job with a company doing business with the school system. The panel “found no evidence that Dance had been paid” for any work by SUPES, however, which ostensibly mitigated the severity of the violation. As we found out later, the finding that Mr. Dance had not been paid by SUPES was not correct.

In 2016, Mr. Dance had a second run-in with the board’s ethics panel. The panel determined that he should have disclosed both his pay as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond and the fact that he had created a limited-liability corporation in 2012 known as Deliberate Excellence to conduct an outside consulting practice.

Again, the violation apparently was mitigated in the eyes of the panel based on Mr. Dance’s statement that Deliberate Excellence had not received any income. As it happens, that also turned out to be wrong.

In September 2017, the Sun reported that an investigation by the State Prosecutor of Mr. Dance’s relationship with SUPES Academy was underway.  The investigation had been initiated before Mr. Dance abruptly announced his resignation as superintendent of schools in April 2017.

In other words, by October 2017 there were enough questions to warn Mr. Gilliss against getting too far out in front in defending Mr. Dance’s conduct. Even Mrs. Grasmick, who had been effusive with her praise of Mr. Dance in 2013, suggested that Mr. Dance’s frequent absences meant that he could be neglecting his day-to-day leadership responsibilities with the school system. In other words, wiser heads had begun to worry about Mr. Dance.

The bad news kept coming, and the board of education again stumbled badly in the aftermath of reporting by the Sun in November 2017 that both Mr. Dance and his successor, interim superintendent Verletta White, failed to report on financial disclosure forms money that they received from the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), based in Chicago.  ERDI represents technology firms seeking to do business with school systems. ERDI also pays leaders of those school systems to advise them on how technology firms can improve their products.

Ms. White worked for ERDI from 2013 through 2016 while at the same time serving as the chief academic officer for BCPS. According to the Sun, BCPS awarded no-bid contracts to several ERDI client companies, including Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates, during the time Mr. Dance and Ms. White were paid by ERDI. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Dance participated in confidential meetings with two of BCPS’s tech vendors at an ERDI conference last year, the BCPS extended both companies’ contracts.

Under public pressure, Ms. White proposed (with the apparent blessing of the board) that an audit be performed of educational technology procurements that took place between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 by an independent accounting firm hired by the school district. That proposal never should have seen the light of day, and public confidence in the board of education was irretrievably lost.

First, Ms. White should have recused herself completely from any participation in the design or execution of the audit. It is true that I say “only in Baltimore County” a lot, but the fact remains that only in Baltimore County would an official whose conduct helped trigger the need for an audit believe that it was okay to make decisions about the audit.

Second, what about the years from 2013 through 2016 when she was being paid by ERDI? (Both she and Mr. Dance were paid by ERDI in 2014 and 2015.) It was astounding that she would propose an audit that omitted that critical period. It was not until after urging by the state superintendent of schools that the scope of the audit was expanded.

In early December 2017, a group of parents and four of the twelve members of the county board signed a letter to the state board of education. The letter asked that the state be involved in “developing and implementing an independent, comprehensive forensic audit” of how BCPS has conducted its ambitious and expensive program of procuring information technology intended to enhance the education of its students.

Mr. Gillis, who did not sign the letter, reacted testily. He told WBAL-TV: “First, if members of the board went (to the state board), they went without my knowledge. Second, if they went, I hope they said, “we’re just citizens of Baltimore County and not board members.’ They don’t speak for the board.” While the latter statement may have been true, there was a larger point that he seemed to miss.

That point was that a critical mass of people both inside and outside of the school system in the county had begun to question both the wisdom and implementation of the school system’s technology initiative. They had begun to wonder whether the school system took seriously enough the conflicts of interest that had been reported as well as the possibility that decisions about the technology initiative had been driven by the greed or self-aggrandizement of school system officials.

In my opinion, Mr. Gilliss also overreached in his assurances about Robert Barrett. Mr. Barrett pleaded guilty in September 2017 to tax evasion charges arising from his failure to report thousands of dollars in bribes paid to him from 2011 through 2013 while he was a senior Baltimore County school system employee. The guilty plea was not made public until earlier this month.

Mr. Gilliss stated that he was “wholly confident” that Barrett did not influence the award of any school system contracts because Barrett “did not have any role in any manner” in the purchasing process. Mr. Barrett may not have had any formal role, but how was Mr. Gilliss so sure that Mr. Barrett had not used his position to steer contracts in a certain direction?

Less than a month earlier, Mr. Gilliss had explained that local school boards do not provide “oversight of day-to-day administration of local school systems.” So, whose word did Mr. Gilliss rely upon that Mr. Barrett had kept his fingers out of the purchasing process? I am sure that Mr. Gilliss meant well, but his assurances were not very reassuring.

I understand the inclination by Mr. Gilliss to rush to the defense of the institution in which he has invested so much time and effort.  Mr. Gilliss needs to understand that his history of doing so raises questions about his objectivity in the minds of many citizens and public officials.

After Mr. Dance was indicted in January of this year, Mr. Gilliss urged people not to rush to judgment on the charges against Mr. Dance. He denied that the Board of Education had been negligent in its oversight of the former superintendent and said that the board had “been a positive steward of the trust placed in it by its elected officials on behalf of the community.”

Mr. Gilliss is smart enough to know that the citizens of Baltimore County are not going to take his word for that, and the case for the board being a good steward of the trust placed in it by the public was weakened by a story last week in the Towson Flyer. The Flyer reported that BCPS officials had resisted a recommendation in 2015 by the Office of Legislative Audits of the Maryland General Assembly that BCPS “amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods to be used for all contracts for services.” No-bid contracts are, of course, more subject to manipulation and abuse than competitively-bid contracts.

The Flyer also reported that BCPS officials declined to say whether the recommendation had ever been adopted. As if stonewalling the media and public does anything but contribute to suspicion of BCPS.

Mr. Gilliss is not running for election, and this will be his final year on the board. It would be a meritorious end to his tenure on the board, and a credit to his leadership as chairman, if he joined the voices calling for the state to assume control of the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system.  Be part of the solution, Mr. Gilliss, not part of the problem.

∞ ∞ ∞

If you want to see what a worthwhile audit or investigation looks like, look at the Final Report prepared for the Maryland State Board of Education by a company called School Bus Consultants in the aftermath of the death of six people in a 2016 accident caused by the driver of a school bus under contract to Baltimore City Public Schools. The audit was performed at the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “that [Baltimore City Public Schools] request that the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) have an independent and neutral third party conduct a performance audit of (the BCPS) transportation department that includes a review of crash reports and of disqualifying conditions for school bus drivers.”

A few takeaways from the School Bus Consultants audit: It was overseen by the state rather than by the city board of education, and it was performed by an independent and neutral third party. Those measures, recommended by the NTSB, ensured that the entity under review – Baltimore City Public Schools – had no say in either the selection of the auditor or the scope of the audit. And those are exactly the safeguards upon which the citizens of Baltimore County should insist for the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system.

The audit done by School Bus Consultants went beyond what went wrong in the course of the operation of the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Pupil Transportation that allowed a driver with a disqualifying medical condition behind the wheel of a school bus. It also investigated why it went wrong, and concluded that the “culprit” for what is described as an “accumulation of errors” was “a systemic absence of leadership over an extended period of time.”

Similarly, the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system must go beyond identifying what if anything went wrong. If something went wrong, why? Are the proper protocols in place to prevent abuse of “piggy-back” procurements? If so, were they were followed? If they were not followed, why? Was it a failure of management, or was it corruption?  It is only when those questions are answered that BCPS can get past this controversy.

March 18, 2018

 

What in the world are you talking about, Councilman Jones?

The Baltimore Sun approached various people for their comments on the last-minute guilty plea by former Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance. Dance pleaded guilty today to four counts of perjury, admitting that he lied about outside income on financial disclosure forms that he signed under oath, and that he steered no-bid technology contracts to a company he worked for on the side.

Nothing inane or offensive that comes out of the mouth of a Baltimore County official should surprise me anymore, but I was dumbfounded by the statement by County Council President Julian Jones. Mr. Jones reportedly told the Sun:

“I was shocked and disappointed. I don’t like what happened. I don’t condone it, but … he’s owning up to what he did.”

“Owning up to what he did”? What in the world are you talking about, Councilman Jones? Dance pleaded guilty on the day that trial was scheduled to begin and did so only because the state’s case against him was not only strong, it was devastating.

Dance had many chances to “own up” to his misdeeds over the five years that he pulled the wool over the eyes of the Board of Education and the citizens of the county, and never did so.  That’s five years during which he could have come clean, but didn’t.  He didn’t “own up” to anything, Councilman.  He got caught.

Here’s an example of what Dance was up against if the case went to trial: It appears from the statement of facts read by State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt that Davitt had evidence showing that Dance told Gary Solomon, one of the owners of SUPES Academy, that he (Dance) was going to fire Anissa Brown-Dennis, who at the time was Director of Leadership Development for the Baltimore County Public Schools. Brown-Dennis apparently had become a fly in the ointment in the relationship between Dance and SUPES, from whom Dance was receiving income that he had not disclosed to the Board of Education.

Brown-Dennis informed a sales representative for SUPES that she was not interested in pursuing a contract with SUPES for leadership development services. Dance wrote to the sales representative telling him that he would reach out to Anissa Brown-Dennis about the status of the contract. Thereafter, Dance allegedly told Solomon that he would fire her, presumably to remove her as an obstacle. The no-bid contract eventually was approved, after being sent directly to Dance.

A threat to fire an employee to grease the skids for a sleazy deal is ugly stuff, and won’t be forgotten when it comes time for the judge to sentence Dance.  Dance pleaded guilty because he couldn’t afford to pass up a plea bargain in which the State Prosecutor recommended that Dance spend only 18 months in jail.

Given what I read in the statement of facts, and given Dance’s history of ethical lapses, I think that even with that recommendation there is a chance that Dance will spend more than 18 months in jail. Without it, my guess is that Dance was facing twice that much time in jail.

I would not have paid any attention to the comment by Councilman Jones if I thought it was just an isolated, improvident remark. The problem is that I believe that it reflects a certain mind-set. In my opinion, this isn’t the first thing that Councilman Jones hasn’t taken seriously enough or has been too willing to overlook during his time on the Council.

Councilman Jones, there is nothing redeeming about what Dance has done, at least not yet. Be willing to call things for what they are and worry less about whom you are pleasing or offending.

March 8, 2018

No county circles the wagons like Baltimore County.

As Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones noted, the $38 million in damages awarded in the civil lawsuit brought by the family of Korryn Gaines, who was killed by county police after a six-hour standoff in 2016, should prompt a review of police department policies. But it likely won’t: Such a review would be inconvenient to the gubernatorial ambitions of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

We are talking about a county executive who declined to make a public statement about the verdict, apparently unwilling to have his name or face associated with the bad news — which involved police killing the 23-year-old mother in her home in front of her 5-year-old son, who was also shot — any more than necessary. Do you think that Mr. Kamenetz is going to countenance anything implying that the Gaines tragedy may have been the result of deficiencies in a police department that he has overseen for the past eight years?

Actions that might reflect negatively upon Mr. Kamenetz simply are not tolerated in the old courthouse in Towson. Actions by the County Council, presumably an independent branch of county government, are no exception.

And therein lies a real problem for the citizens of Baltimore County: The checks and balances on executive power do not work. No county circles the wagons like Baltimore County, and Mr. Kamenetz is the undisputed wagon master.

Every now and then a member of the council shows a spark of independence, but it is quickly extinguished. In November, Councilman Wade Kach described Baltimore County government as “out of control” after the Kamenetz administration used money that was meant for the maintenance of country parks to benefit private developers by removing 30 trees from the site of the proposed Towson Station project in defiance of a council resolution.

“As a former auditor, I can tell you, this ill-advised action cries out for a full audit to get to the bottom of this deplorable behavior by county government,” Mr. Kach said.

The County Council has the power under Section 311 of the county charter to pass a resolution ordering the county auditor to perform an audit of the tree removal. To date, no resolution has been introduced.

In July 2017, Council Chairman Tom Quirk assured me that the council would discuss an audit of the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy “in much more detail over the next few months.” I had obtained the policy, which had been adopted behind closed doors by one of its beneficiaries, through a public information act request after a Sun story disclosed that former police chief Jim Johnson received a “severance package” of $117,000 in addition to his generous county pension.

Once the policy was made public, Mr. Kamenetz rescinded it amid a firestorm of criticism. An audit should have been performed immediately to determine how the policy had been used, or misused, however. There is reason to believe that improper leave benefits were distributed because of it — at a potential cost to the county of tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is no way for taxpayers to know unless an audit is done, and that hasn’t happened. Maybe Mr. Quirk and other members of the council are still discussing it, eight months later.

Will they similarly mull into oblivion Mr. Jones’ recommendation for a review of police policies and practices post-Gaines? When a jury delivers an historic damages award after only about three hours of deliberation in a case that took three weeks to try, it is telling you that something went seriously wrong.

The speed of the verdict makes clear that the jury completely discounted the county’s version of events. If the county knew or should have known of the weakness of its case, did officials make reasonable attempts to settle the case at less than $38 million? That issue alone is worthy of review.

So, can we be confident Mr. Jones will follow through? Not based on past precedent.

[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on March 5, 2018 but not posted to my blog until June 1, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Have Kamenetz and company mortgaged Baltimore County’s future?

Unfortunately, I believe the answer is Yes. The problems didn’t start with the current administration, but they certainly have accelerated under Mr. Kamenetz’s leadership. His successor, and his successor’s successor, will be left with crumbling infrastructure and revenue streams inadequate to repair or replace roads, schools, storm water management facilities, and government buildings. The day of reckoning is coming sooner rather than later, and it is going to be painful.

I chuckled, albeit ruefully, when I read the story by Pam Wood of the Baltimore Sun about the latest report from the County’s Spending Affordability Committee. Councilman Tom Quirk, who often has served as Mr. Kamenetz’s mouthpiece on the Council, seems suddenly to have found fiscal religion, grousing that Mr. Kamenetz has refused to provide a long-term plan to pay for all the county’s school construction projects and for health care for retirees, among other things.

Mr. Quirk, one of the members of the Spending Affordability Committee, wrote in the report: “The county’s financial outlook presents immense challenges that the next administration and council will be forced to address.” I am thinking that Mr. Quirk’s new-found willingness to challenge Mr. Kamenetz may have something to do with the decision by Mr. Kamenetz to fund the construction of a new high school for Dulaney Valley rather than for Lansdowne, which is in Mr. Quirk’s district.

I am sure that Mr. Quirk felt especially aggrieved by the Dulaney Valley decision, given his loyalty to Mr. Kamenetz over the past eight years. I have only one question for Mr. Quirk: What did you expect? That Mr. Kamenetz wouldn’t kick you to the curb when it served his purposes? I hope that you are a better financial adviser than you are a judge of character.

In any event, Mr. Quirk and the rest of the members of the Spending Affordability Committee are correct: There’s tough sledding ahead.

Mr. Kamenetz has robbed Peter to pay Paul, with Peter being the repair and replacement of infrastructure and financing long term obligations such as retiree health care, and Paul being development interests. The $43 million in assistance to developers intended to kick start the stalled Towson Row development is just the most recent (and most outrageous) example, but Mr. Kamenetz has been nothing if not consistent in the priority that he gives to the desires of developers over the needs of ordinary communities.

There is a reason that Mr. Kamenetz has been reticent to produce the long-term plans described by Mr. Quirk. Such plans can be uncomfortable reminders of expensive and unsolved problems. A few years back the Anne Arundel County Director of Public Works put together a long-term plan to fix that county’s neglected storm water management infrastructure. The price tag for implementing the plan was eye-popping. After the plan was released, politicians in the county expended most of their efforts on attacking the plan and its author, trying to make the bad news go away.

Mr. Kamenetz is the absolute master at reducing his exposure to criticism. He releases the minimum amount of information necessary; less if he can away with it. He doesn’t do interviews with the media on county problems or controversies – he issues self-serving statements on issues. Everything in county government is kept as close to the vest as possible, and public debate is discouraged. You think he is going to allow his departments to produce plans illustrating the unmet needs in the county, and how prohibitively expensive it will be to meet them? Not a chance.

I was glad to see that Ms. Wood mentioned impact fees in her story. The failure of Baltimore County to use impact fees or development excise taxes to fund the expansion of facilities necessary to accommodate new residential and commercial development in the county has been its single greatest fiscal mistake, and it has been an enormous one.

I’ll start with a question: Why do you think that developers lavish such enormous sums of money on Mr. Kamenetz and members of the County Council? Answer: Because development in Baltimore County is extremely profitable, in part because builders and developers do not pay for the costs of the expansion of public facilities necessary to support new development. The general taxpayers of the county do. Development in Baltimore County is subsidized by general taxpayers more than in any other comparable county in Maryland – and that does not include direct assistance such as provided to the developers of Towson Row.

The impact of no impact fees.

The last time that Baltimore County gave serious consideration to the imposition of impact fees was in 2005. It was a study by Anirban Basu and the Sage Policy Group commissioned by the Maryland Homebuilders Association (a trade group) that helped persuade Baltimore County officials that impact fees were not justified in Baltimore County. Mr. Basu concluded in 2005 that existing taxes and fees paid by the owners of new construction more than offset the costs of expanding the capacity of public facilities to accommodate the new construction.

Suffice it to say that other economists have studied jurisdictions with similar tax and fee structures and concluded that, without impact fees or development excise taxes imposed on builders and developers, the owners of existing homes and businesses subsidize the expansion of infrastructure capacity necessary to support new construction. In any case, Baltimore County remains the only metropolitan county in Maryland (and the only county in Maryland with a population of over 100,000 except Wicomico County) that does not impose either impact fees or development excise taxes on builders and developers – and it shows.

When you drive around the streets and road of the county, and visit schools and other public buildings, two words come to mind: Deferred maintenance. Infrastructure is not being repaired or replaced when it should be in Baltimore County. As it happens, I often have occasion to drive the back streets in District 4, the district represented by Council Chairman Julian Jones, one of Mr. Kamenetz’s other biggest cheerleaders on the County Council.

The condition of many of the streets in District 4 is dreadful. If Mr. Jones expected something in return for his unconditional support of Mr. Kamenetz, he sure didn’t get it in the form of improvements to the condition of the streets in his district.

The shortage of funds to do basic maintenance is directly attributable to the absence of impact fees. Money that otherwise could be used for basic maintenance of existing facilities goes toward supporting new development. Let’s look at two neighboring counties for a comparison.

The combined populations of Anne Arundel County and Howard County are just a little more than the population of Baltimore County. In the past three fiscal years, those two counties collected a combined total of about $96.5 million in impact fees.

That’s $96.5 million that the two counties did not have to spend on expanding the capacity of streets and roads and other public infrastructure to support new residential and commercial development and could use to take care of existing infrastructure. Think of what Baltimore County could have done to fix its streets, roads, schools, and other infrastructure with $96.5 million over the past three years.

For example, the developers and builders of Towson Row will not have to pay transportation impact fees. So, who is going to pay for the widening and other improvement of streets and roads in Towson necessary to cope with the traffic generated by Towson Row? That’s right, the same taxpayers paying for the $43 million bailout.

Ironically, it was Mr. Basu and his Sage Policy Group that also helped persuade the Baltimore County Council that the financial assistance package for Towson Row was a good idea. Maybe Baltimore County could ask Mr. Basu to calculate what the developers would pay in impact fees for Towson Row if it was in Anne Arundel or Howard County.

It is almost certain that if Baltimore County had enacted impact fees in 2005 it would not be facing the problems identified by the Spending Affordability Committee. It would have been better able to keep pace with the need for replacing schools, repairing roads, etc., and would not be confronting the choice of either increasing property or local income taxes, or drastically reducing spending.

Citizen apathy.

It is wrong to place all the blame on Mr. Kamenetz and his supporters on the County Council for the fact that the county has mortgaged its future. The notorious apathy of a large percentage of the citizens in Baltimore County has played a critical role. Although Mr. Kamenetz did not create that apathy, he exploited it. He certainly never told citizens that an increase in the rate of their property or local income taxes was inevitable, or that the longer the increase was delayed the greater it would have to be.

So long as their elected officials don’t raise their taxes, many Baltimore County citizens are content to ignore county government. The day is coming when those citizens are going to have to accept either an increase in taxes or a precipitous decline in their quality of life.

Because the problem has been ignored for so long and exacerbated by the policies of the past eight years, the reference by the Spending Affordability Committee to the “immense challenges” that lie ahead may be understatement. One thing is for sure, and that is that Mr. Kamenetz will not be around when it comes time to pay the piper.

David A. Plymyer

[Some of the material in this post on impact fees was drawn verbatim from prior posts on the subject.]