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.