Sewage spill at Lake Roland poses an important test for Johnny Olszewski

The sewage outbreak that took place on or about August 9 from manhole 6883 at Lake Roland was more than an unpleasant, foul-smelling event.

It was a curtain raiser to an important test of the young administration of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

The Dundalk Democrat won last November by promising to be a different kind of politician – one who embraces openness, transparency and environmentally sustainable development. In other words, an advocate for citizens rather than a pawn for the builders and developers who have dominated county government for decades.

It’s now time for Olszewski to make good on that promise with a straightforward answer to the following question: Are the county’s wastewater facilities adequate to handle the burgeoning development in and around Towson?

It’s a question that county officials have dodged for many years.

What Lies Beneath

In 2012, former county executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that he wanted to make Towson a regional destination, “even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring.”

The county released a glitzy video titled “It’s Towson’s Time” to promote his vision.

Suspicions immediately arose that the underground sewers in the area were not up to the job of disposing waste from the massive new development. These concerns were based on well-documented problems with wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls sewershed that not only serves Towson, but also Timonium, Lutherville, Brooklandville and Pikesville.

Sewage from this wide geographic area flows into Baltimore below Lake Roland and is piped through the city to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk.

In 2005, the county entered a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) intended to eliminate overflows that have bedeviled the county’s sewersheds for decades. The city agreed to a similar decree with the EPA and MDE in 2002.

The county is now constructing a roughly two-mile-long “relief” sewer along Towson Run to manage the increase of sewage from construction of the 1.2 million-square-foot Towson Row, expansions at Towson University and other projects.

But it is the sewer that the county is not building that raises troublesome questions about the county’s commitment to environmentally sound development.

Manhole 6883

As described by The Brew, there are three sewer mains with a combined total of 96 inches of pipe diameter that feed into a single 42-inch-diameter pipe north of Lake Roland, a body of water created by damming the Jones Falls and owned by the city.

Built in the early 1950s, this “interceptor” pipe runs under the lake and connects with a city sewer line just north of Mount Washington.

In 2012, the county’s engineering consultant, Rummel, Klepper & Kahl (RK&K), recommended construction of a “relief” sewer to supplement the capacity of the existing Lake Roland interceptor. The recommendation was made precisely to avoid the type of spill that took place on or about August 9.

In fact, RK&K predicted that manhole 6883 would become subject to sustained overflows during major storms unless the capacity of the Lake Roland interceptor was expanded.

The county did not follow its consultant’s recommendation, and RK&K’s prediction of trouble now appears to be reality.

In their haste to make Towson the next Silver Spring, county officials have simply shifted the likelihood for what are euphemistically called “SSOs” (sanitary sewer overflows) from downtown Towson to Lake Roland – and downstream into Baltimore City.

“Two Sets of Books”

It came as little surprise that the recent spill at Lake Roland was discovered not by the county, but by a member of Green Towson Alliance (GTA).

What scant information the public has about the adequacy of the public wastewater facilities in the Towson area is due to the persistence of the GTA and a group of environmentalists led by Tom McCord of Ruxton.

And what those citizens uncovered heightens suspicions about the county.

They found that the Baltimore County Department of Public Works used out-of-date land use and population data for purposes of preparing a report on deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure and corrective actions required by the consent decree.

Underreporting increases in population density and development had the effect of overstating the adequacy of the sewerage infrastructure to manage future needs.

The environmentalists also came across information indicating that DPW used higher and more current projections to justify construction of the Towson Run Relief Sewer – McCord described it as using “two sets of books.”

Only through considerable effort did they obtain the 2012 report from RK&K recommending the relief sewer under Lake Roland to handle major storms and predicting potential overflows at manhole 6883.

Not to the Rescue: MDE

Armed with this information, McCord and his group went to the MDE. As a party to the consent decree, the state agency is supposed to ensure that the county complies with the decree.

It also has regulatory responsibility for the triennial review of the county’s Water Supply and Sewerage Plan required by law. The primary purpose of triennial reviews is to verify that cities and counties have plans in place to manage projected increases in sewage.

McCord and members of GTA met with MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles and his staff in May 2018. Grumbles asked his staff at the meeting if he could delay approval of the county’s 2017 triennial review until he had a subsequent meeting with McCord and his group that also included DPW.

Grumbles was told by his staff that he could do so. It appeared that someone finally was going to take the concerns of activists seriously.

But it was not to be.

The subsequent meeting took place in August 2018. The citizen participants were informed that the county’s 2017 triennial review had been approved before the meeting.

A golden opportunity for accountability was thereby squandered by MDE – and the questions raised by the activists left unanswered.

Fundraising Pals

The spill is evidence of a problem that the county would rather ignore.

If it came as little surprise that the Lake Roland sewage spill was found by someone other than the county, it came as even less of a surprise that DPW initially denied the existence of it.

The last thing the agency apparently wants to do is to acknowledge any evidence that the system of sewer pipes that serves Towson is inadequate.

There are no attractive options available to Olszewski if downstream sewerage is inadequate. Obviously, the young executive would rather spend money on schools than on sewers.

A stopgap measure, such as suspending the issuance of building permits in Towson until wastewater facilities are adequate, would come with a political price to Olszewski.

The development community contributed heavily to Olszewski’s defeat of Republican Al Redmer in last November’s general election.

In one instance, the law firm long representing Greenberg Gibbons, co-developer of Towson Row, staged a “who’s-who” of builders and attorneys chipping in their offerings at a Olszewski fundraiser.

The gathering was co-chaired by Michael Paul Smith, son of former county executive James T. “Jim” Smith Jr.; David Gildea, Michael Smith’s law partner; Lawrence Macks, CEO of Chesapeake Realty Partners; and Kenneth Ullman, former county executive for Howard County.

Sustainability Test

Olszewski now has a chance to show his independence, having named State Delegate Stephen W. Lafferty as his chief sustainability officer.

Lafferty’s rather grandiose charge is to focus on “climate change, green energy and development,” according to a press report.

It’s the latter task – development – that should engage this ex-legislator handed a $105,000-a-year, newly-created job in county government.

Lafferty’s first task should be determining whether public wastewater facilities are capable of serving current and future county development – and, equally important, whether such development makes sense in light of environmental limitations.

This information must be gathered with the active input of groups like the Green Towson Alliance and shared publicly.

How well Olszewski and his lieutenants perform on this question should tell us a lot about how sustainable his image as a reformer will be.

[Published as guest commentary by Baltimore Brew on August 30, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

A conflict of interest in Baltimore County

Regulating land use and development is one of the most important functions of Baltimore County government. The County Council makes decisions directly affecting the fortunes of land developers, builders and contractors. Anirban Basu is the chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, which on its website touts his consulting work on behalf of “prominent developers” and lists him as the chief economist to Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction industry trade association.

Is it any wonder county residents urged the council to not renew its longstanding contract with Sage to provide it with economic forecasts? A better question is why council members, who regulate developers, didn’t themselves recognize the conflict of interest in relying on advice from an industry ally.

Mr. Basu raised eyebrows by appearing in Facebook videos this spring opposing various revenue-increasing measures under consideration by the council, including the imposition of impact fees on new construction. Impact fees defray the costs of expanding public facilities to accommodate increased demands placed on the facilities by new construction. They are not, however, popular with the builders and developers who pay them.

In May, Sage issued a report commissioned by the Maryland Building Industry Association concluding that impact fees would slow migration into the county and accelerate the loss of tax base. Sage issued a similar report in 2005.

The administration of the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz used a study done by Sage in 2017 to justify the controversial $43 million in financial assistance awarded to the developers of Towson Row, a five-acre mixed-use development. Sage’s theme seems to be that giving tax credits to builders and developers is good; making them pay impact fees is bad.

It is a message that rankled ordinary taxpayers subject next year to a 13% increase in the county income tax intended to help close an $81 million budget gap. Adding insult to injury, that shortfall can be attributed to the cumulative effect of the absence of impact fees over time.

So, it is easy to understand why citizens were upset that the council wanted to renew its contract with Sage. Although the council stated that it would solicit competing proposals before selecting its economic consultant, it did not rule out selecting Sage.

But why would the council even consider doing so? In my opinion, the answer is that most members of the Baltimore County Council have never fully accepted the responsibilities attendant to belonging to a regulatory body, including maintaining an arms-length relationship with the persons whom they regulate.

The problem starts with council members heavily dependent on political campaign contributions from developers, builders and their lawyers. This has been an historical source of concern by citizens, particularly because members of the Baltimore County Council wield unusually strong power over zoning and development decisions.

The quadrennial comprehensive zoning process that begins next month is an example of that power. Every zoning change made during comprehensive zoning, including changes applying only to a single lot, must be approved by a separate vote of the council.

Moreover, each lot owner that requests a change in zoning during comprehensive zoning has the right to have the request voted upon by the council. A change in zoning to a piece of property can result in an enormous financial windfall to a developer with a contract to purchase the property contingent on the zoning change. In the 2016 comprehensive zoning the council made 516 separate zoning decisions, almost all involving financial winners and losers.

The extraordinary role of the Baltimore County Council in land use and development is not limited to zoning. A developer seeking approval of a “planned unit development (PUD),” which affords more flexibility than permitted by the underlying zoning and potentially involves more profit, first must get the blessing of the county council.

The contract with Sage stoked fears that the council is still too closely aligned with the special interests it is charged with regulating. And that citizens’ interests will continue to come in a distant second.

It does not impugn the integrity of Sage or Mr. Basu to suggest that the council should award the contract to a consultant less closely associated than Sage with the development and construction industries. It might even restore a measure of public confidence in the council.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on July 29, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

The Impact Fee Study That Never Was, Part II

Call this the sequel to my post captioned “The Impact Fee Study That Never Was.” That post described how the Baltimore County Council made a serious mistake during the enactment of Bill No. 16-19 by creating a discrepancy between the bill as enacted and the legal prerequisites for enacting the bill described in the official explanations of both the bill and its state enabling act.

The Fiscal and Policy Note prepared by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services and the Fiscal Note prepared by the Baltimore County auditor stated that the council had to conduct an impact fee study before imposing an impact fee. Nevertheless, Bill No. 16-19 was passed without an impact fee study being done.

The council made things unnecessarily complicated because of its apparent ignorance of a change in the law.

This post deals with related issues, the first of which is what appears to be the motivation for both Bill No. 16-19 and its state enabling act, Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland. In my first post, I quoted Councilman David Marks’ statement of his understanding of the inherent difference between development impact fees and development excise taxes:

“Impact fees are different than excise taxes in that revenue must be spent in a localized manner — in other words, money collected from a development must be used for schools, roads, and infrastructure near the affected community. Money from an excise tax can be spent anywhere.”

He went on to explain the reason for his decision to eschew the county’s longstanding authority to adopt a development excise tax in favor of his bill enacting a development impact “fee” as follows:

“Mr. Olszewski has shown himself to be a thoughtful and collaborative leader, but there is a historical mistrust in Baltimore County, and not just between communities and developers as Mr. Plymyer asserts. There is real fear that a partisan county executive will use his or her power to reward loyal communities or punish adversaries. That is exactly why my legislation requiring localized spending of impact fee revenue is better.” [Emphasis added.]

I explained in my first post how Mr. Marks appeared to fail to understand how a 2018 decision by the Court of Appeals, Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County, had changed the law regarding impact fees. As a consequence of that change in the law, if all that Mr. Marks wanted to do was restrict the use of school impact funds to the school district from which they were collected, he could have done that by a simple amendment to the development excise tax bill introduced at the request of the county executive, Bill No. 23-19.

Going the route of an amendment to Bill No. 23-19 would have eliminated the need for the General Assembly to enact Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland and for the council to enact Bill No. 16-19. More importantly, it would have avoided the legal mess caused by the apparent confusion over the need for an impact fee study. 

There is a better way to deal with the council’s fear of the county executive.

If the motivation for Bill No. 16-19 was indeed fear of the power of the county executive over the Board of Education budget, then isn’t it better to address the power imbalance directly, rather than to make a hash of a major piece of legislation? Here is what I am talking about:

The Baltimore County Council is the only county council in Maryland that lacks the power to restore any denial or reduction made by a county executive in the budget submitted by the local board of education. (The Baltimore City Council also lacks the power to do so.) Under § 5-102(c) of the Education Article of the State Code, the power to restore any denial or reduction made by the county executive in the budget submitted by the BOE will be given to the council if approved by the voters of the county as a charter amendment.

Council members, why don’t you pass a resolution putting that measure on the ballot in 2020? Let the voters decide. If the voters approve the charter amendment, then the council rather than the county executive would have the final say on which capital projects proposed by the BOE get funded. If the voters reject the amendment, then the voters have told you that they trust the county executive over you, and you just live with that fact and stop passing screwed-up bills like Bill No. 16-19.

There is another interpretative issue arising from the absence of an impact fee study.

In my first post I explained how the failure by the council to do an impact fee study despite both the Fiscal and Policy Note prepared by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services and the Fiscal Note prepared by the county auditor stating that one was required created a legal ambiguity. There is an additional issue arising from that ambiguity that I did not mention.

One of the shortcomings of “traditional” (pre-Dabbs) school impact fees is that they can be used only for schools directly affected by the new residential development, and then only for adding or expanding school capacity – they cannot be used for remedying existing deficiencies, such as remodeling or maintenance. This means that the impact fee revenues can sit unused for years if collected in a school district in which no capital projects to add or expand student capacity are needed, even if the overall impact of new residential development in the county has created the need for adding or expanding capacity elsewhere.

One of the issues to be sorted out by the county in light of the ambiguity created by Bill No. 16-19 is whether it was the council’s intent, despite Dabbs, to limit expenditure of the fees to projects that add or expand school capacity. Again, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was. That includes the council’s preamble to the bill, in which it states that:

“Development impact fees have been imposed in other jurisdictions in Maryland that pay for additional or expanded . . . public school and public safety facilities, and debt service on bonds issued for additional or expanded infrastructure and facilities.” [Emphasis added.]

Is the County going to argue that, despite the language in the preamble, it can use impact fee revenues for routine maintenance and remodeling? That is another area of confusion that could and should have been avoided.

CONCLUSION

There’s no good explanation for what the council did. If the Fiscal and Policy Note prepared by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services and the Fiscal Note prepared by the county auditor were correct, and the council intended to impose an impact fee bound by the rational nexus standard, then an impact fee study should have been done before passing Bill No. 16-19.

If, on the other hand, the Department of Legislative Services and the county auditor simply were unaware of the Dabbs case and made a mistake about the requirement for an impact fee story, the council should not have passed Bill No. 16-19 before asking the auditor to issue a revised note eliminating her statement that an impact fee study was required. It would be an unacceptable level of sloppiness for the council to knowingly pass a bill that was inconsistent with the legal prerequisites as stated in the legislative record.

Of course, if the county auditor (and county council) were unaware of the Dabbs decision, that raises another question. The Dabbs decision was issued on April 10, 2018. The county auditor issued her report on Bill No. 16-19 on May 23, 2019. By then, one would assume that the county attorney, or someone, was aware of Dabbs and would have brought it to her attention. And if not, why not?

This situation has all the earmarks of “haste makes waste” and the failure to apply sufficient time and expertise to a major piece of legislation. And that is never a good excuse.

The Impact Fee Study That Never Was

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks introduced Baltimore County Council Bill 16-19, which imposed a development excise tax on new non-residential construction and a development impact fee on new residential construction. The purpose of both is to help defray the costs of expanding public facilities to accommodate the demands of new construction.

I wrote an opinion piece criticizing the bill. Mr. Marks responded with his own commentary, describing mine as “predictably negative.”

Mr. Marks said something striking in his commentary that led me to conclude that perhaps I had not been negative enough. In response to my criticism, Mr. Marks touted his 1997 master’s thesis on impact fees and explained the reason that he wanted an impact fee rather than an excise tax applied to new residential construction as follows:

“Impact fees are different than excise taxes in that revenue must be spent in a localized manner — in other words, money collected from a development must be used for schools, roads, and infrastructure near the affected community. Money from an excise tax can be spent anywhere.”

Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County (2018)

Actually, development impact fees are not inherently different from development excise taxes. What was true in 1997 when Mr. Marks wrote his thesis no longer is true in 2019.

A 2018 case decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals, Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County, held that impact fees need not satisfy the so-called “rational nexus” (also referred to as the “rough proportionality”) test to be constitutionally sound. Therefore, under the constitution, impact fees generally applicable to specified types of new construction are indistinguishable from development excise taxes in that they “can be spent anywhere,” to paraphrase Mr. Marks.

Although the rational nexus requirement is not constitutionally mandated, the General Assembly is free to impose it on a jurisdiction as part of an enabling act. Under the rational nexus model, there be a reasonable relationship between the public facilities on which the fees are spent and the new construction on which the fees are imposed. There must also be a reasonable relationship between the amount of the fees and the fiscal impact of the new construction on public facilities.

Notwithstanding Dabbs, it appears from his commentary that Mr. Marks intended the impact fee adopted by Bill 16-19 to be based on the “traditional” (pre-Dabbs) model. In other words, subject to rational nexus requirements. Among those requirements is a formal impact fee study that must be done before the fee scheduled can be established.

An impact fee study is a substantial undertaking that follows what is now a widely accepted methodology.  Here is a link to a recent impact fee study done by Frederick County:                                    https://www.frederickcountymd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/302741/0213—2017-Impact-Fee-Study?bidId

What happened to the impact fee study?

The requirement for an impact fee study was described in the Fiscal Note to Bill 16-19 prepared by Baltimore County Auditor Lauren Smelkinson as follows:

“[T]here must be a reasonable connection, or nexus, between the amount of the impact fee imposed and the actual cost of providing facilities to the properties assessed. The projects and services funded by impact fees typically include public school construction, libraries, community colleges, transportation, public safety, parks and recreation, and water/sewer utilities. . . In order to justify the imposition of a development impact fee, a jurisdiction must conduct a study that measures the effects that new development will have on public facilities.” [Emphasis added.]

The county auditor did not make up that description from whole cloth. She took it directly from the legislative history of the enabling act for Bill 16-19, which was Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland, enacted into law as HB 449. It is worth noting that Baltimore County has had the authority to enact a development excise tax since 1953. The explicit authority to impose an “impact fee,” however, is new.

The Fiscal and Policy Note prepared for HB 449 by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services contains the same language as the Fiscal Note for Bill 16-19:

“In order to justify the imposition of an impact fee, a jurisdiction must conduct a study that measures the effects that new development will have on public facilities.”

And therein lies the rub: Despite the description of the requirement by both the Department of Legislative Services and the county auditor, no impact fee study was done by the county council before the impact fee schedule in Bill 16-19 was adopted.

Now what?

The consequences of the council’s failure to do an impact fee study are uncertain. One consequence could be a legal challenge to the fee schedule based on the absence of an impact fee study justifying the fees.

The requirement for an impact fee study is not expressly stated in Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland. Then again, the requirement was not included in impact fee enabling acts before Dabbs. It was implied under the constitution.

Is the requirement for an impact fee study implied in Chapter 657 and in Bill 16-19? The most authoritative accounts of the legislative intent of the General Assembly and Baltimore County Council seem to think so. Also, in the preamble to Bill 16-19 the council itself states that the purpose of impact fees is “to provide funds for various public facilities proportionate to development.” That’s rational nexus, impact fee study language.

Thus, an argument can be made that the Department of Legislative Services and county auditor were correct, and that the General Assembly and County Council wanted the constraints of the rational nexus test to apply to the fee. That argument is made more persuasive because the county already had the authority to adopt a “no constraints” development excise tax.

There was no point in passing Chapter 657 unless the General Assembly intended to create an option for defraying the costs associated with new construction in Baltimore County that differs from the development excise tax option. The rules of statutory construction militate against interpretations that would make a statute redundant.

A competing explanation is that neither the Department of Legislative Services, the County Auditor nor Mr. Marks were aware of Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County when they wrote what they wrote. In other words, the legislative intent as described by the Department of Legislative Services and repeated by the county auditor may simply have been a mistake based on outdated law.

If it was a mistake, it should have been recognized and corrected before Bill 16-19 was passed by the county council. It is never a good idea to have the implementation of a bill directly contradict the requirements of the bill as described by the professionals paid by the legislative body to prepare such descriptions; indeed, it is difficult to overstate how unacceptable such discrepancies are in competently done legislation, given that they are invitations to litigation. 

For all its other shortcomings, Bill 16-19 was an extremely sloppy piece of work. Sorry, Mr. Marks, but the bill deserved my “predictable negativity.” And then some.

An open letter to Jack Young: Open up police brutality settlements to scrutiny

To the Honorable Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Mayor of the City of Baltimore:

I have a proposal that could help you and the city. Your statement last week that you are considering a run for mayor in the 2020 election was met with considerable skepticism. It appears that there are doubts about your leadership abilities that you need to overcome.

Some people scoffed at your claim that you are being encouraged to run because of your performance in office thus far, citing your lackluster handling of the disastrous ransomware attack as well as the water outage calamities at Poe Homes and now on Howard Street.

Given these crises, your declaration last week that “my team and I have weathered the storm and we’ve moved the city forward” rings a bit hollow.

Here is action that you can easily take to move the city forward and kick-start your mayoral campaign:

Instruct your city solicitor not to appeal the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit holding that the non-disparagement clauses insisted upon by the city when settling claims of police brutality and other misconduct are unconstitutional.

Buying Silence

Last Thursday, a three-judge panel of the appellate court reversed a lower court ruling and held that the clauses (commonly referred to as “gag orders”) violated the First Amendment.

The majority opinion offered a slashing indictment of the city’s policy of buying the silence of victims of police wrongdoing.

In a tone-deaf response, City Solicitor Andre Davis stated that he intended to appeal the ruling to the full court.

If you end the use of non-disparagement clauses, you will do what your predecessor lacked the wisdom and courage to do.

Former Mayor Catherine Pugh and her administration continued to defend the clauses despite strenuous opposition from a coalition that included 20 media organizations, the ACLU and numerous grassroots groups.

These non-disparagement clauses are a disservice to the public, motivated by the city’s desire to protect the reputation of its police officers. Make a statement acknowledging the obvious: The reputation of the Baltimore Police Department already is in tatters.

If city officials had spent half the time and effort on reforming the department that they spent on trying to hide police misconduct from the public, the department would probably not be in the shape that it is in today.

Action, not Talk

Calling for an end to the non-disparagement clauses will not endear you to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the union representing rank-and-file police officers.

In the past, you have been reluctant to antagonize the FOP. As president of the City Council for nine years, you could have introduced an ordinance banning the non-disparagement clauses. But you didn’t.

You are hardly alone, however, in your reticence to take on the FOP. If you listen to what members of the Maryland General Assembly from Baltimore say, you might believe that they are committed to combating the pervasive mistrust of the police department by making the actions of its officers more transparent and subject to public scrutiny.

But if you watch what they do, you realize that the nothing could be further from the truth. The prime example is the absence of any progress by the General Assembly on allowing reasonable public inspection of police disciplinary records – a failure for which the Baltimore delegation bears a large part of the blame.

Here is an opportunity to set yourself apart from the big-talk, little-action crowd.

City voters are aching for an infusion of fresh ideas and bold leadership. They want their elected officials to get beyond business-as-usual and fix things. Here’s your chance, Mr. Young, to grab the bull by the horns and take a step toward actually solving a problem.

Don’t blow it.

[Published as guest commentary by the Baltimore Brew on July 15, 2019, but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

CBF and Critical Areas Commission used the Little Island fight to change Maryland law

Let’s make one thing clear about the painfully long history of the house built without permits by Daryl Wagner on Little Dobbins Island in the Magothy River.

The primary reason that it has taken so long to resolve this matter was the refusal by the Maryland Critical Area Commission to recognize and apply settled Maryland law. The commission used the infamous white house with a faux lighthouse as the poster child for its campaign to change state critical area law.

When Wagner built the house in 2002 it was the law in Anne Arundel County (and elsewhere in Maryland) that the owner of a house or other structure built without permits had the right to seek retroactive approval of the house or structure, subject to specified sanctions.

Wagner was no hero for his unlawful actions, but you don’t have to be a hero to enjoy rights under the law.

The Critical Area Commission, supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, engaged in a protracted legal battle to try to deny Wagner his right to seek retroactive approval of the house. In my opinion, they did so for reasons that had nothing to do with the effect of the house on the environment.

If concern for the Magothy River had been the primary goal, they would have encouraged prompt removal of the 3,325 square feet of impervious surface and the 3-to-1 replacement of unlawfully disturbed vegetated buffer required as conditions of the retroactive approval. That environmental remediation still has not occurred, stalled by litigation that began 15 years ago.

I believe that the commission and foundation pursued the litigation to exploit the public’s outrage and create a cause célèbre to promote changes to Maryland critical area law by the General Assembly. It is a motivation that they didn’t deny, and they achieved their goal.

In 2008, the General Assembly enacted comprehensive amendments to the law, greatly expanding the power of the Critical Area Commission. In 2014, Jon Mueller, Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president for litigation, told The Capital that those amendments might not have happened if the private non-profit organization hadn’t fought approval of Wagner’s house.

He probably was right.

Even its success with the General Assembly in 2008 wasn’t enough for the Critical Area Commission, however. It attempted to use the 2008 changes to divest Wagner of his right to seek retroactive approval of a critical area variance.

It was another piece of litigation destined for futility, because the General Assembly had expressly provided that the changes applied only to critical area violations occurring on or after July 1, 2008.

As recounted in a 2014 story in The Capital, the Critical Area Commission and Chesapeake Bay Foundation lost every legal battle. That didn’t seem to matter, as long as they kept the controversial house in the public eye.

It is possible that they thought that they eventually could wear Wagner down by exhausting his financial capacity to fight back, forcing him to tear down the house. If they thought that, it appears that they were wrong.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a private non-profit organization, but the Critical Area Commission is a state regulatory agency. They are held to different standards.

The 2008 changes to critical area law strengthened protections of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Did the commission’s strategy of using Wagner’s house as the poster child for its campaign to amend critical area laws justify the pursuit of litigation that it knew or should have known would not succeed?

How you answer that question depends on how you view the proper role of regulatory agencies, and the extent to which you believe that ends may be used to justify means.

As for my view, I believe that regulatory agencies should confine litigation to enforcement of the law and find other ways to achieve legislative goals.

[Published as an op ed by the Annapolis Capital Gazette on July 6, 2018 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

A Civil War plaque that honors both sides should stay where it is

 

Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at reunion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

For a legislator known as a consensus-builder and expected to try to mend deep rifts in Maryland politics, proposing to remove a plaque memorializing Marylanders who fought in the Civil War — from both sides — was a curious first step for Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the newly elected speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

As a Northerner transplanted to Maryland, I agree with her that the preamble inscribed on a plaque the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission placed on a wall of the Maryland State House in 1964 is troublesome.

The preamble notes that the commission “did not attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong.” Well, the commission did not have to decide who was right and who was wrong. History had already done so. Any equivocation on the subject was misguided.

I disagree, however, with Jones’s position that it is improper to “memorialize” Marylanders who fought for the Confederacy. It is wrong to legitimize their cause. But remembrance of the thousands of who fought for the South serves a purpose — forgiveness and reconciliation — that is as important today as ever.

Jones is the first woman and the first African American to serve as speaker. The speaker serves as an ex officio member of the State House Trust, which oversees changes to the State Capitol. In her first action as a member of the trust, Jones proposed removing the 1964 plaque. That would be a mistake.

The plaque states that it is intended as “evidence for [Maryland’s] remembrance of her nearly 63,000 native sons who served in the Union forces and the more than 22,000 in those of the Confederacy in the War Between the States,” observing that they “tried to do their duty as they saw it.” By 1964, the last veteran of the Civil War had died, and the language of the plaque correctly reflected the fact that the time for judging individuals by the side they chose had long since passed.

A photograph of my great-great-grandfather Alexander Frantz hangs in my living room. He was from the Harrisburg, Pa., area and served with the 46th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Like many Marylanders who fought for the South, he was a poor, uneducated farmer. He undoubtedly spent little time studying the issues before deciding to enlist in the Union Army. Had he grown up 40 miles to the south, he may have decided differently. Does that matter anymore?

I am sure Jones has taken the short journey up the road from her home in Baltimore County to the Gettysburg National Military Park. I’d urge her, however, to take a special trip to visit the State of Maryland monument, dedicated in 1994.

The monument is a bronze statue on a granite base depicting two wounded Marylanders, one Union and one Confederate, helping each other on the battlefield. The inscription reads: “Brothers again, Marylanders all.”

It is the same sentiment that the State House plaque attempts to convey, perhaps less artfully than if written today. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and Jones’s position that it is inappropriate to memorialize men who fought and died for the Confederacy threatens to make the racial and political divisions in Maryland even worse.

An iconic photograph from the 50th reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 shows Union and Confederate veterans of the battle shaking hands across the stone wall at the Angle, the area targeted by Pickett’s Charge and the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

The men on one side of the wall had not forgotten that the men on the other side once tried to kill them. But they understood at a level few of us can appreciate that the path to healing is through forgiveness and reconciliation, not through bitterness and condemnation.

The Civil War was fought over the institution of slavery. The wounds of slavery, including its legacy of systemic racism, have not healed. They will not heal until we abandon our obsession with revisiting the past in search of people to blame for problems that can be solved only in the present. And revisiting the past is what Jones’s proposal feels like.

We should let Confederate veterans rest in peace and let their descendants remember them with dignity. That can be done without glorifying their cause and will allow us to learn from the past without unnecessarily refighting old battles and reopening old wounds.

[Published as an op ed by the Washington Post on June 21, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Do Builders and Developers Still Control Baltimore County?

Builders, developers and their lawyers dominated Baltimore County politics and government during the administrations of former county executives Jim Smith and Kevin Kamenetz. Although the focal point of their influence may have shifted from the county executive’s office to County Council chambers with the election of current County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., they still wield enormous power in county affairs.

The most recent manifestation of that power came in the form of the watered-down impact fee bill passed by the Council. Once again ordinary taxpayers came out on the losing end in a contest with builders and developers in Baltimore County. This latest setback could have significant political repercussions because of the way that taxpayers got whipsawed by the County Council.

Taxpayers will see the county income tax rate go from 2.83 percent to 3.3 percent to help eliminate an $81 million budget deficit. The rate increase is expected to yield an additional $33 million in revenue each year.

To ensure that the entire burden of erasing the deficit did not fall upon ordinary taxpayers and that builders and developers paid their fair share, Olszewski proposed Bill No. 23-19. The bill would have produced revenue estimated at $7.7 million per year through an excise tax on new construction.

As it turns out, however, only ordinary taxpayers will be required to uphold their end of the bargain. The council rejected Bill No. 23-19 and passed an alternative bill introduced by Councilmember David Marks, Bill No. 16-19, that was amended practically to death at the urging of builders and developers. Business as usual in Baltimore County.

Political skullduggery vs. ordinary ineptitude

Sometimes in Baltimore County it is difficult to distinguish between political skullduggery and ordinary legislative and legal ineptitude. Bill No. 16-19, as amended and passed by the county council, appears to be a combination of both.

Initial county estimates were that it would generate about $5.7 million per year. The county will not see a full year of revenue from the bill until 2023 because of last-minute amendments to the bill delaying its implementation.

Also, county revenue estimates did not include the effect of numerous credits and exemptions added by those last-minute amendments. The amount of developable land excluded from the scope of the development impact surcharge imposed by the bill alone is so great that the revenue could be far less than $5.7 million per year.

One of the oddest things about Bill No. 16-19 is that it imposes an excise tax and a development impact fee on new construction, depending on the type of construction. The excise tax, called the “development impact surcharge,” is imposed on industrial and commercial construction, including multi-family dwellings. The development impact fee applies to new residential construction, including single-family homes.

Why did the council reject the county executive’s straightforward proposal to impose a development excise tax on both types of construction, residential and non-residential? Certainly at least part of the reason was politics, but there may also have been some confusion at work.

Development impact fees vs. development excise taxes

Senate Bill 451 was sponsored by Sen. Chris West of Baltimore County and enacted into law by the General Assembly this year as Chapter 658 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland. The bill authorizes Baltimore County to adopt a development impact fee.

It is not entirely clear why Mr. West, a Republican, chose to introduce a bill to authorize an impact fee when the county already has the authority to impose a charge on new construction as an excise tax under § 11-1-102(a) of the County Code, a provision enacted by the General Assembly as a public local law for the county in 1953. In 1994, the Maryland Court of Appeals held in a case called Waters Landing v. Montgomery County held that Montgomery County could use similar authority to impose an excise tax on development.

An impact fee is not the same as a development excise tax. Adding to possible confusion is a tendency to refer to the two generically as “impact fees.”

While both are intended to defray the costs of expanding public facilities to accommodate the effect (“impact”) of new construction on those facilities, there are important differences. For the reader interested in a more detailed description of the differences, one is included in the Fiscal and Policy Note prepared for SB 451.

Crafting a charge on new construction as an impact fee rather than as an excise tax has significant legal consequences. A fee system carries substantial administrative burdens and creates opportunities for litigation that simply add costs. Moreover, nothing can be done by imposing the charge as a fee that cannot be done by using a tax.

In fact, there is a technical legal term to describe the decision to use a fee structure when taxing authority is available: That term is foolish. Having said that, if I were a builder or developer, I would prefer a fee because the calculation of a fee is much more vulnerable to challenge in the courts.

The rich get richer

The County Council made a number of dubious decisions in the course of enacting Bill No. 16-19. The one that I am most curious about is suspending the imposition of both the excise tax and the impact fee until Jan. 1, 2021 for development on “land used as a country club for which a concept plan has been submitted and which is located inside the urban-rural demarcation line.” Can I assume that Council members had a particular country club in mind?

The Council also decided to greatly expand the exemptions from the fee and tax. Construction in Enterprise Zones was exempt under the bill proposed by the county executive, but Bill No. 16-19 also exempts construction in Commercial Revitalization Districts and Maryland Opportunity Zones. It is worth noting the developers get property tax credits for construction in revitalization districts and federal tax deductions for construction in opportunity zones.

That means that persons who develop property in those areas will get two tax breaks instead of one. They will get property tax credits or federal tax deductions and receive exemptions from development impact fees and excise taxes.

No evidence was presented that the absence of such exemptions would discourage development in revitalization districts and opportunity zones. That’s another object lesson in how the rich get richer, especially in Baltimore County.

Flawed process leads to flawed result

The amendments that substantially rewrote Bill No. 16-19 were negotiated in a backroom and introduced in the form of a single package to be voted on up or down by the county council. Council rules allowed the Council to vote on the amendments before giving the public a chance to read them, and the amendments and the final bill were passed on the same night that the amendments were made public. So much for openness and transparency.

Council members called the amended bill a “compromise.” A spokesperson for the Maryland Building Industry Association, which long has opposed impact fees, said that “the bill as passed is definitely more balanced and more fair.”

The hastily written amendments are full of loopholes and ambiguities. In my opinion, the amended bill was more of a hatchet job than a compromise. And I don’t believe that the bill was either balanced or fair – at least to ordinary taxpayers.

[Published as guest commentary by Maryland Matters on June 20, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Union attacks on Baltimore police commissioner damage department

The “open” letter recently sent to members of Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) by FOP president Mike Mancuso criticizing Baltimore police commissioner Michael Harrison was a bad idea. The last thing that Baltimore needs right now is the FOP leader picking a public fight with the police commissioner.

The letter castigated Mr. Harrison for the absence of a crime-reduction plan and for failing to recognize the gravity of the disturbance at the Inner Harbor over the Memorial Day weekend. It denounced him for the news conference announcing criminal charges against Sgt. Ethan Newberg.

But it is one sentence that tells us what the letter was really about. Addressing his membership, Mr. Mancuso stated that “to this day [Mr. Harrison] has said very little about what he plans to do for you.”

Give Baltimore Police Commissioner Harrison time to develop a crime plan
The FOP represents officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in the ranks of lieutenant and below. The FOP has made positive contributions; some of the recommendations it made in 2016 for reform of the BPD were excellent. But too often it has fomented animosity between rank-and-file officers and police management, trying to intimidate commissioners by exploiting the “us vs. them” mentality that helped destroy the department.

The letter was not about a crime plan or a news conference. It was about power and the attitude of FOP leaders that public officials are either with them or against them. In their worldview, if the police commissioner doesn’t support the FOP unconditionally, he is against them.

You can date the end of the honeymoon between the FOP and Mr. Harrison to March 15, 2019, when Mr. Harrison went to Annapolis to dissuade the city delegation to the General Assembly from supporting House Bill 1251. According to Mr. Mancuso, Mr. Harrison’s testimony turned the tide against the bill, which never made it out of committee.

H.B. 1251 was introduced at the request of the FOP. The FOP was stung by what it saw as strong-arm tactics in November 2018 when members of the City Council threatened to pare down the scope of collective bargaining if the union refused to sign a new collective bargaining agreement containing changes to shift schedules. The threat worked, and the FOP approved the agreement.

As it happens, H.B. 1251 was a terrible bill. It would have superseded the authority of the City Council and allowed the union to take all disputed terms and conditions of employment to binding arbitration, removing considerable authority over departmental policies from the commissioner at the worst possible time.

The immediate object of Mr. Mancuso’s wrath after defeat of the bill was city solicitor Andre Davis, to whom he sent another “open” letter. Among other things Mr. Mancuso accused Mr. Davis of “blessing” Mr. Harrison’s testimony against the bill. If Mr. Mancuso’s letter about Mr. Harrison was petulant, his letter to Mr. Davis was vituperative.

The letter to Mr. Davis was written when Mr. Davis’ boss, former mayor Catherine Pugh, had one foot out the door because of the “Healthy Holly” scandal. Smelling blood, Mr. Mancuso seized the opportunity to go after the city solicitor. He is now signaling that he is willing to do the same to punish the police commissioner for defying the union.

Mr. Mancuso knows that this is a vulnerable time for Mr. Harrison, who is under increasing pressure to produce results. It was inevitable, given the carnage wrought by an unrelenting epidemic of violent crime, that city residents and officials would grow impatient with the time required to stand up an effective, law-abiding police force.

It also is a vulnerable time for the city, however, given that Mr. Harrison is the last best hope to save the BPD. Mr. Mancuso has a responsibility not to make his job even harder by whipping up personal animosity by his members toward the commissioner.

City and state leaders must make it clear that there will be consequences if Mr. Mancuso fails to live up to that responsibility. Those consequences include following through on the threat to impose reasonable limits on the scope of collective bargaining between the city and the police union which, by the way, would be an excellent idea.

Mr. Mancuso and other FOP leaders can advance the legitimate interests of their members without publicly criticizing the commissioner when they don’t get their way.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on June 18, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Public corruption in Maryland: It’s no accident

Healthy Holly wasn’t an aberration. Corruption is baked into Maryland’s political system because its leaders refuse to correct glaring deficiencies. Here are six of them.

Catherine Pugh is the latest in a long line of state and local elected officials in Maryland to leave office in disgrace.

And, undoubtedly, the former mayor of Baltimore will not be the last because we live in a state that seems perfectly content with a high rate of public corruption.

Disabuse yourself of the notion that this embarrassing legacy is an accident of history. The recurring corruption is the direct consequence of a combination of weak laws and insufficient resources committed to detecting, punishing and, most importantly, deterring corruption.

Nearly 20 years ago, U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz referred to a “culture of corruption that has been tolerated by lobbyists, legislators and the citizens of Maryland.”
The judge’s words are as true today as they were then.

Simply put, if the governor and members of the General Assembly were unhappy with the extent of the corruption, they would do something about it.

A high incidence of corruption is baked into the system of governance in Maryland because state leaders have refused to adopt tried-and-true measures to reduce it.

Here are six glaring deficiencies:

1 – Loophole-Ridden Ethics Laws

Had there not been a loophole specifically crafted for legislators, the “Healthy Holly” scandal may never have come to pass, at least not while Ms. Pugh was a state senator.

State ethics rules generally prohibit an official from participating in a matter involving a corporation in which the official is an officer or director. Sounds like a simple common-sense rule, right? Well, the rule does not apply to members of the General Assembly.

A senator or delegate is not categorically prohibited from voting on issues affecting a corporation for which the legislator is an unpaid member of the board of directors or trustees.

Pugh had been a member of the board of trustees of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) when she was elected to the state senate in 2006 and assigned to the Finance Committee. UMMS placed its first book order five years later in 2011.

Do you believe that UMMS would have lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars for books that didn’t align with its medical mission if Pugh had been barred by law from voting on matters affecting UMMS in the General Assembly?

It was Ms. Pugh’s membership on the board and her long-term cozy relationship with UMMS management that emboldened her to propose the book deal, and it was her influence as a state senator that sealed the deal. Alter any of that context, and the “Healthy Holly” debacle probably never happens.

2 – Understaffed State Prosecutor

The General Assembly established the Office of the State Prosecutor in 1976, a year after federal prosecutors indicted Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel.

(Mandel was convicted of 18 mail fraud and racketeering charges in 1977 and sent to federal prison before his sentence was commuted by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.)

In setting up the new office, the General Assembly was careful to do just enough to make it appear that it cared about political corruption without making it too much of a “nuisance.”

Most significantly, the state prosecutor was not given the same powers as a state’s attorney to issue subpoenas for records until 2008 or to compel witnesses to testify in exchange for “derivative use” immunity until 2014.

Three years ago, the office lost its computer forensics laboratory to budget cuts.

The current budget for the state prosecutor allows for 13 lawyers, investigators and support staff. That’s not enough resources to cover Baltimore County, let alone the entire state.

As a consequence, the office can investigate and prosecute only a limited number of cases and, by necessity, it goes after low-hanging fruit.

3 – No Statewide IG

Perversely, the absence of an Inspector General is tailor-made to the small size of the Office of State Prosecutor. Fraud and other misconduct go undetected in state agencies because there is no “watchdog” agency looking for it. Corruption that isn’t detected can’t be prosecuted.

A few state agencies have their own inspector generals empowered to investigate fraud, waste and abuse. But some agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Information Technology, do not. These two agencies alone are responsible for awarding and administering hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts for goods and services each year.

Government procurement is particularly susceptible to abuse. A federal bribery case is scheduled to go trial next year against Isabel FitzGerald, ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley’s secretary of Information Technology.

She is accused of steering $32 million of contracts to an Indiana company while working at another state agency, splitting the profits with a “close personal friend” through an elaborate ruse of shell companies.

Increase the level of scrutiny, and the allegations against Ms. FitzGerald may prove to be the tip of the iceberg with state contracts.

The recent flurry of activity by Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore’s new Inspector General, illustrates how an adequately staffed independent watchdog, empowered to subpoena witnesses and documents, can begin to change the landscape.

This year, at the request of Gov. Larry Hogan, the General Assembly established an inspector general responsible for investigating fraud, waste and abuse in local school districts.

What about other state agencies and the state government itself? Tired of its own legacy of corruption, Pennsylvania created a statewide Office of Inspector General in 2017. If our less affluent neighbor to the north can take a step in the right direction, so can we.

4 – Susceptible SAOs

Another area of vulnerability in Maryland are the 24 independent state’s attorney offices (SAOs) and the same number of sheriff’s offices.

Each of these offices is run by an elected official subject to almost no oversight under the Maryland Constitution. The mix of considerable power, large budgets, political campaign donations and “no one minding the store” is a recipe for trouble.

5 – Toothless MPIA

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” As we learned with Healthy Holly, access to public records by the media and members of the public is an indispensable tool in the fight against corruption.

One can debate whether or not the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) should be amended to allow inspection of additional categories of information. But what’s beyond debate is that the law must be modified to deal with increasing governmental resistance to complying with the law.

Currently, the only recourse for someone whose request for information is denied is to sue.

Lawsuits are an expensive proposition. Government officials are well aware that alternative news sites and even traditional newspapers do not have the resources to routinely contest denials. The suit brought against Baltimore City Schools by the Sinclair Broadcast Group (Fox 45) is a case in point.

Sinclair reported that it spent a whopping $150,000 in legal fees to gain access to school records.

In March, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge held that the school system’s denial of access was so egregious that Sinclair was entitled to a reimbursement of its legal fees in the amount of $122,000. Such an award is rare – and government agencies count on that.

The recent failure by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to recommend changes to the role of the MPIA ombudsman has been a major disappointment.

Until the ombudsman can go beyond mediation and is empowered to sue an agency to compel compliance, the effectiveness of that office is limited.

6 – Limited Contract Data

The MPIA is not the only mechanism for promoting transparency.

The General Assembly has required five county school districts to publish payment data for contracts in searchable databases. The five districts are Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s.

Why not the other 19 school districts, including Baltimore City Schools? And why not the state government as a whole?

How Things Could Change

Maryland’s ruling class has grown accustomed to the media, watchdog agencies and citizens not looking too closely over their shoulders.

They like it that way. The antipathy of state and local leaders toward transparency and accountability is, if not part of the culture of corruption, its antecedent.

Only pressure from the electorate will change that.

Nothing defers wrongdoing more than a realistic fear by potential wrongdoers that they will be caught and punished.

The hidden costs of Maryland’s one-hand-washes-the-other political culture are incalculable, sapping both our financial resources and confidence in government.

The tragedy is that, right now, there appears to be so little interest in changing that culture.

[Published as guest commentary by the Baltimore Brew on June 7, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]