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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose plan is it, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scheme unravels.

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

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

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

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

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

A better way.

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

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

Md. needs one inspector general to oversee all agencies

​​​​​​​David A. Plymyer

Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal that the General Assembly create the position of inspector general with jurisdiction over the state’s 24 local school systems does not go nearly far enough. The problems of fraud, waste and abuse in Maryland are not limited to school systems.

What happened with Dallas Dance in the Baltimore County school system could happen in any state agency because of the absence of an effective watchdog. If the governor wants to do something worthwhile about corruption, he should ask the General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 that would establish an independent Office of Inspector General with jurisdiction over all state agencies.

There is no inspector general with statewide jurisdiction in Maryland. Three state agencies, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Health, have inspector general offices. The latter two exist primarily to investigate welfare and Medicaid fraud, respectively.

According to the Association of Inspectors General, 12 states have inspector general offices with statewide jurisdiction. Another state, Florida, requires each state agency to have its own inspector general’s office, coordinated by a chief inspector general for the state.

Our neighbor to the north, Pennsylvania, fed up with corruption in state agencies, recently beefed up the powers of its inspector general. In 2017, its Inspector General’s Office was transformed into a law enforcement agency with the power to issue subpoenas and search warrants.

Governor Hogan’s proposal is a classic political half-measure. It is designed to give the appearance of doing something about a problem without rocking the boat or accomplishing much. It is reminiscent of the creation of the office of the Maryland State Prosecutor in 1976.

Shamed by a wave of federal indictments of state officials (including a governor and a former governor), the General Assembly decided that the state itself needed to do something about the rampant corruption. So, it did as little as possible.

The General Assembly did not give the state prosecutor the same power as a state’s attorney to issue subpoenas for records until 2008, or the same power to compel a witness to testify in court or before a grand jury in exchange for “derivative use immunity” until 2014. The state prosecutor once had a computer forensics laboratory to assist in the collection of evidence from computers and other digital devices, but that was eliminated in 2016 because of budgetary constraints.

The ambivalence of governors and the General Assembly toward the office continues to this day. The state prosecutor is authorized 13 employees. That’s 13 investigators, lawyers and support staff to investigate and prosecute corruption in every agency of state and local government in Maryland. In fairness to the office, it does its best with what it is given.

There is a measure on November’s ballot asking city voters to approve an independent inspector general’s office for the City of Baltimore. The governor’s insurance commissioner, friend and Republican candidate for Baltimore County Executive, Al Redmer Jr., has proposed the same thing for Baltimore County. I know that you won’t want to emulate the city, governor, so perhaps you could follow your friend’s excellent idea.

The structure of Maryland state government makes it especially vulnerable to corruption. There’s a myriad of independent state agencies, such as sheriffs’ and state’s attorney’s offices, that operate with almost no oversight.

Agencies within the executive branch are also susceptible to corruption, particularly in the area of procurement. Last year, a former head of the Department of Information Technology was indicted by a federal grand jury on bribery charges involving state IT contracts while she was with another state agency.

The departments of Transportation and Information Technology alone award contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the purchase of goods and services. Neither the Department of Transportation nor the Department of Information Technology has inspector general offices.

Earlier this year, Sun columnist Dan Rodricks ruefully observed that “Maryland has one of the richest histories of political corruption in the country.” And the headline of a Sun story written after former State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks pled guilty to federal bribery charges in March posed the question: “Is enough being done to stop corruption?”

The answer clearly is No.

Why does one of the richest states in the country also have “one of the richest histories of political corruption?” Because the governor and the sclerotic leadership of the General Assembly have been unwilling to do anything about it.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on September 14, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 27, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Pick on someone else, Baltimore County.

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

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

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

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

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

September 7, 2018

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

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

Dear Chairman Munzert:

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

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

Summary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Conclusion.

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

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

Thank you for considering my comments.

Sincerely,

David A. Plymyer

 

 

Baltimore County schools’ record purge more significant than public realizes

By: David A. Plymyer

I am not easily shocked by events that take place in Baltimore County. My jaw did drop ever so slightly, however, when I read in the Baltimore Post on August 10th that all financial disclosure statements filed by officials of the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) for the years 1997 through 2013 were destroyed.

Although school policy requires the statements to be retained for only four years, there apparently had been no prior purge of the statements for the 21 years prior to initiation of the purge on April 27, 2018. Moreover, the policy does not preclude retention of the statements for longer than four years if there is a reason to do so – which there certainly was in April because of the pendency of the procurement audit to be done in the wake of the Dallas Dance scandal.

After she learned about the purge from the Post story, Baltimore County Board of Education (BOE) member Ann Miller moved that the BOE order a halt to any further destruction of financial disclosure statements. Her motion was passed and on August 24th an email was sent to all employees by Interim Superintendent Verletta White directing that destruction be stopped until further notice.

Why did the BCPS decide to do a massive purge in April? There are two possible explanations. One is bad, the other is worse. And I am not taking the word of BOE Chairman Edward Gilliss that there was “no nefarious purpose” for the destruction, as reported by the Baltimore Sun.

If the purge proved anything, it proved that BCPS should never have been left in charge of auditing its own operations in the aftermath of the Dallas Dance scandal. And, depending on how the purge came about, it could prove to be the end of the aspirations of Verletta White to become the permanent Superintendent of Schools.

Timing of the purge.

The purge was initiated one week after former Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance was sentenced to six months in prison for falsifying financial disclosure statements submitted to the school system. Dance failed to report outside income including money he began receiving in 2012 from SUPES Academy, a company that helped school districts train administrators. That same year Dance pushed through a contract between SUPES and the Baltimore County school system.

The purge started one month after the Sun reported that Robert Barrett, who was an executive officer in community and government relations for the school system official, had pleaded guilty to a felony charge after accepting bribes in 2013 from FBI undercover agents who posed as out-of-state businessmen looking for Barrett’s help in securing business with the school system. Court documents disclosed that the FBI began its investigation after it became aware of allegations that Barrett received a combined $22,500 in checks from two separate local businessmen in 2011 and 2012 for the same purpose.

Most importantly, the purge began while the BCPS was negotiating a $413,000 contract with an accounting firm to audit the procurement practices of the school system from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2017. The audit was intended to address concerns that there were more contracts that Dance and school officials may have steered to educational technology and other companies with which they had outside business interests. The contract was approved by the BOE on May 22, 2018.

Who ordered the purge?

There is an important nuance having to do with school governance that was not addressed in news reports of the purge. Financial disclosure statements are administered by and filed with the Ethics Review Panel. The Ethics Review Panel is an instrumentality of the BOE itself and is not part of the BCPS hierarchy supervised by Interim Superintendent Verletta White.

The Ethics Review Panel has its own attorney for purposes of maintaining its independence from the school officials subject to its regulation. That attorney currently is Andrew Nussbaum of Nusbaum Law, LLC in Columbia.

According to the Sun, the financial disclosure statements were destroyed by the school system’s Office of Law, headed by BCPS General Counsel Margaret-Ann F. Howie. It was Howie who sent a letter to the BOE two weeks ago explaining the purge of the records. The Office of Law falls under the supervision of Interim Superintendent White. According to the organizational charts of the Ethics Review Panel and the Office of Law, the two entities share an administrative assistant, Kristin Crafton.

One of the many questions yet to be answered is why Howie rather than Nussbaum defended the purge. And why was the Office of Law even involved in the decision to destroy financial disclosure statements filed by BCPS officials? Did Nussbaum and the Ethics Review Panel approve the destruction of the financial disclosure forms?

And what about Interim Superintendent White? What did she know about the destruction and when did she know it? If she knew about the destruction and failed to stop it, then I would suggest to the BOE that it not waste its time resubmitting her name to the State Superintendent of Schools for approval as permanent Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.

A simple mistake in judgment, or something else?

The importance of a financial disclosure statement lies in identifying potential conflicts of interests between a school official’s duties with the school system and his or her outside business interests. It is self-evident that, if the audit raises questions on why certain procurement decisions were made, it would be useful to know if the school system officials involved in the decisions had conflicts of interest based on outside employment with the companies to whom contracts were awarded. The best source of that information now is gone for the years prior to 2014.

Although the biggest loss was the destruction of financial disclosure statements from 2012 and 2013, years within the period covered by the audit, the loss of statements from several years prior to that is also problematic. You cannot assume for purposes of an audit or investigation that all financial disclosure statements are filled out accurately.

For example, if I am suspicious about a contract awarded in a particular year, I want to know about any outside employment of an official responsible for selecting the contractor in the years immediately preceding or following the award because of the possibility that there may have been an omission (deliberate or inadvertent) on his or her financial disclosure statement for the year in which the contract was awarded. The situation with the financial disclosure statements of Ryan Imbriale, described below, is a case in point.

In my opinion, common sense dictates that any scheduled or unscheduled purge of the financial disclosure statements should have been postponed until after completion of the procurement audit. Was the purge nothing more than a stupid mistake? Or did someone decide that dealing with the backlash from the purge was preferable to the consequences of having the information on the statements available to the auditors, the media, and the public?

In her letter to the board, BCBS general counsel Howie stated that her office began getting rid of documents because it was running out of space to house them all. She further explained that “the removal of these forms was accomplished within the bounds of the law and without any aim to shield any information from review.” The destruction of documents may have been within the bounds of the law, but it clearly was the wrong thing to do under the circumstances.

A history of problems with the accuracy of financial disclosure statements.

The accuracy of financial disclosure statements has been problematic for the school system. The problem was not limited to the statements submitted by Dance.

• Verletta White is the Interim Superintendent of Schools. She was cited by the Ethics Review Panel in January 2018 for failing to report the income that she received from the Educational and Research Institute (ERDI) over a four-year period beginning in 2013.

ERDI advises educational technology (“ed-tech”) vendors on doing business with school systems. White was the school system’s Chief Academic Officer at the time. The Ethics Review Panel determined that ERDI itself did not do business with the school system, and White was not prosecuted criminally for the violations.

• Ryan Imbriale is the Executive Director of Innovative Learning for the school system and was a central figure in implementing Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). STAT was Dance’s signature program for providing laptop computers to all students at a cost that reached approximately $147.7 million by July 31, 2018.

In 2014, the school system contracted with the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education to do a five-year study of STAT. By December 2017 Hopkins had earned $711,330 under the contract, according to the Baltimore Sun.

An article on Imbriale in the Dundalk Patch posted on October 4, 2012 described the former Patapsco High School principal as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University. On his current LinkedIn page Imbriale describes himself as a member of the adjunct faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

The Baltimore Post reported that Imbriale listed his employment with Johns Hopkins on his financial disclosure statement for 2013 (obtained by the Post before it was destroyed) but did not list it for 2014. On November 14, 2018, after the Sun reported that Dance was under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor, Imbriale filed an amended statement for 2015. On December 4, 2018, he filed an amended statement for 2016. Both amended statements listed his employment with Johns Hopkins.

According to the Post, Imbriale did not file an amended statement for 2014. Did Imbriale take a hiatus from teaching at Johns Hopkins in 2014, the year that the school system awarded a major contract to a unit of the School of Education, and then resume teaching the following year? At least according to the Post’s review of his financial disclosure statements as amended, that would appear to be the case.

The Post was unable to obtain copies of Imbriale’s original statements for 2015 and 2016 to see if he listed his employment with Johns Hopkins on the original statements or if he didn’t report it until he filed the amended statements. The school system explained that the software it used deleted the original statements when an amended statement was filed. According to the Post, Imbriale did not respond to its attempts to get copies of the original statements from him.

There must be an investigation to determine if Imbriale earned income as member of the adjunct faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 2014 and, if so, why he allegedly failed to report it on his 2014 financial disclosure form. The investigation must include a determination, if possible, whether he reported his income from Johns Hopkins University on the initial financial disclosure statements that he filed for 2015 and 2016.

It was a serious error by BCPS officials to delete original statements just because amended statements were filed later, a point that Ethics Review Panel attorney Nussbaum clearly recognized in a statement to the Post. I will explain:

A financial disclosure statement is submitted under oath, and it is a violation of BCPS ethics rules to make a material misrepresentation on the statement. If prosecutors determine that a misrepresentation was done deliberately with the intent to hide an outside source of income (and therefore hide a potential conflict of interest), the official submitting the statement also may be prosecuted for the crime of perjury.

An amended statement filed years after submission of the original statement does not necessarily “fix” a violation caused by a misrepresentation on the original statement. Each situation must be evaluated according to its circumstances. Consequently, the action by the school system in discarding an original statement on the basis that an amended statement was filed was tantamount to destroying evidence of a possible ethics violation or even a crime.

And of course, there are even more questions. The Post was informed that, prior to 2016, financial disclosure statements were submitted on paper. How did a paper statement filed by Imbriale for 2015 get “deleted” by the software?

• John Mayo is the Chief Human Resources Officer for the school system and was formerly an assistant superintendent hired by Dance. In June of this year, the Post reported that it had learned from the Chicago-based reporter who investigated SUPES Academy that Mayo performed work for SUPES as a “master teacher” in 2013. As you recall, Dance went to jail in part because of his undisclosed relationship with SUPES.

According to the Post, Mayo did not list his employment with SUPES on his 2013 financial disclosure statement (also obtained before it was destroyed) or on subsequent statements. The allegation that Mayo earned income from employment with SUPES not reported on his financial disclosure statement also requires an investigation.

The audit.

In the aftermath of the story by the Baltimore Sun in September 2017 that Dance was under investigation by the State Prosecutor for his undisclosed relationship with SUPES, pressure began to build for an audit to make sure that procurement activities by the school system had not been compromised. White initially proposed an audit covering only 2016, the year before she became interim superintendent.

State legislators and a minority of the BOE called for an audit covering a longer period done under the supervision of the state rather than the school system. In a move that I believe was extraordinary ill-advised, the BOE majority pushed back, insisting that the school system control the audit. Former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz supported the BOE majority, and the move to have an audit done by the state failed. The BOE ultimately agreed that the audit done by the accounting firm that it hired would cover the period from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2017.

The resistance by the BOE to a fully independent audit raised suspicions that the BOE, or at least certain school officials, had something to hide. The purge of financial disclosure statements initiated in April of this year only heightens those suspicions.

The damage done.

The stewardship of the taxpayer’s money by the Baltimore County Board of Education and the employees of the Baltimore County Public Schools is a matter of extraordinary importance. There are many of us in the County trying to persuade the notoriously tax-adverse citizens of Baltimore County that they must be willing to pay more in taxes to maintain the quality of public schools in the county. Our job just got a lot harder.

Parents and taxpayers want assurance that all decisions made by school officials are done in the best interests of the students, and not influenced by the personal interests of educators and administrators. That certainly applies to the procurement of goods and services by the school system, especially as it affects the massive investment that the school system has made in educational technology since 2012, an investment that remains controversial.

The information that has trickled out of the BCPS over the past several years has stoked legitimate fears that school officials had their heads turned by honoraria, consulting fees, trips, lavish entertainment, and resume-padding honors and awards bestowed on them by vendors of goods and services and ed-tech trade organizations. The purge of the financial disclosure statements did nothing to allay those fears.

– David A. Plymyer

David A. Plymyer retired as the County Attorney for Anne Arundel County in 2014. He also served five years as an Assistant State’s Attorney for Anne Arundel County. He now writes on matters of law and local government from his home in Catonsville, Maryland. His email address is dplymyer@comcast.net, and his website is at https://davidplymyer.com/.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Post on September 4, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 25, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Plea to Maryland leaders: Fix Baltimore police discipline

David A. Plymyer

This is a plea to the governor and leaders of the Maryland General Assembly: Please take charge of fixing the broken disciplinary system of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). This is a problem that only you can solve. The fix requires changes to state law, and the longer a fix is delayed, the worse the problems within the BPD become.

If we have learned anything over the past three years, since the fatal injury to Freddie Gray in the back of a police van — culminating with the fallout from the Gun Trace Task Force — it is that the current disciplinary system doesn’t work. The flapdoodle between Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis and members of the Civilian Review Board, who are refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding police misconduct allegations, is the latest example of the need to straighten out this mess.

The Community Oversight Task Force, an advisory body mandated by the consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice, recently recommended taking away from the BPD investigatory responsibility for allegations of police misconduct involving civilians. The responsibility would be given to an independent agency staffed by civilians and known as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). COPA would be supervised by another new entity, the Police Accountability Commission.

Under the task force proposal, the existing system governed by the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) would be retained by the BPD to investigate allegations of police misconduct not involving civilians. In other words, the proposal would take a system that already is too complex and make it even more byzantine. The system needs fewer moving parts, not more.

The best chance of success to maintain the discipline of the BPD lies in restoring the power to the Baltimore Police Commissioner and holding the commissioner strictly accountable for the results. Here is what I believe should be done:

• Under the LEOBR, the decision whether an officer has committed a violation for which discipline may be imposed is made by a hearing board, rather than by the commissioner. Hearing boards consist of rotating groups of other officers from within the department. Members of hearing boards are accountable to no one for their decisions. Eliminate the hearing boards. Return decisions on whether officers have committed disciplinary violations to the commissioner.

• I agree with the Community Oversight Task Force that more oversight of police discipline is required. Recast the existing Civilian Review Board from a parallel investigatory agency into a body with true oversight authority, including unfettered real-time access to employees, personnel records and investigatory files. Give it an ombudsman role for complainants and the power to subpoena witnesses if necessary to ascertain the quality of an internal investigation. The roles of the BPD and the reconstituted Civilian Review Board would not overlap. It would be the job of the commissioner to enforce discipline; it would be the job of the review board to monitor how well the commissioner does so.

• Require the Civilian Review Board to prepare an annual report on disciplinary actions that evaluates the performance of the commissioner in enforcing discipline. If the commissioner’s performance is unsatisfactory then the mayor has an obvious remedy: Fire the commissioner. Citizens might be pleasantly surprised how fear of losing his or her job focuses a public official’s attention on a task. But you can’t do that until you give the official the tools to accomplish the task.

• Finally, scrap the confidentiality laws that shield the records of disciplinary actions from public scrutiny. It’s absurd that, given the crisis in confidence in the BPD, we’re still concerned with protecting its officers from what — a bit of embarrassment?

If you’re worried about resistance from police unions to amending the LEOBR, remember this: The LEOBR was enacted by the General Assembly in 1974 to strip former Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau of the unilateral power to purge corrupt officers from the BDP.

Pomerleau’s quest to end the corruption that was rampant in the BPD when he took over in 1966 was unpopular among many officers — and among some politicians. Ask yourself: Do you believe that the constraints on the ability of recent commissioners to get rid of corrupt officers have been a good thing or a bad thing?

Fixing the problems with the disciplinary system of the BPD requires action by the General Assembly and leadership by the governor. Governor Hogan, if you are re-elected in the fall, I have some good news for you: This is one thing that you can do for the city that won’t cost a dime.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on July 31, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 25, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Hey, Al Redmer, you aren’t running against Ben Jealous

Will someone please remind Al Redmer Jr. that his opponent in the race to be the next Baltimore County Executive is not Ben Jealous (“In Baltimore County, Redmer and Olszewski again fight over Ben Jealous,” Aug. 24)? Mr. Redmer is running against Johnny Olszewski Jr., but you wouldn’t know that from the main theme of his campaign so far.

Mr. Redmer, a Republican, has been pressing Mr. Olszewski to “clarify” his support for Mr. Jealous, the Democratic candidate for governor running against Gov. Larry Hogan. The banner headline on Mr. Redmer’s website under “news” reads: “Al Redmer, Jr., calls on opponent to finally clarify support for Ben Jealous.”

At best, Mr. Redmer is trying to trade on the popularity of Mr. Hogan in Baltimore County. At worst, Mr. Redmer is trying to tie Mr. Olszewski to Mr. Jealous and portray Mr. Olszewski as too liberal to run Baltimore County. In Baltimore County, that message has a definite racial dog-whistle quality to it.

Did I mention that the headline on the Redmer website is accompanied by large side-by-side photos of Mr. Olszewski and Mr. Jealous, lest anyone be confused about who they are — or what they look like? The last thing that Baltimore County needs is a smear campaign that diverts attention from the issues confronting the county. Rather than worry about whether Mr. Olszewski supports Mr. Jealous, Mr. Redmer should tell voters how he would avert what the county’s own Spending Affordability Committee has identified as a looming financial crisis.

How will he pay to replace or repair the county’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure including schools and roads? What will he do to fix the county’s development review process, which is broken, and, in some cases, corrupted by special interests?

Local government is the government closest to the people. It is about real-life issues: The quality of schools and other public facilities, responsible land use practices, the enforcement of building and environmental codes and adequate police and fire protection. Consequently, a candidate for local office who bases a campaign on attacking an opponent’s political orientation is admitting that he or she could not win a campaign based on the issues. I believe that the voters of Baltimore County are more than smart enough to figure that out.

David A. Plymyer, Catonsville

[Published as a letter to the editor by The Baltimore Sun on August 28, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 27, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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

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

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

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

The background.

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

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

Why did this nonsense happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were you thinking, Delegate Glenn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s what not to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward.

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

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

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

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

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

The blue code of silence is what’s crippling the BPD.

How Baltimore Police handle the second officer involved in the McGrier beating will tell us where the department is really headed [OP-ED]

Getting rid of Officer Arthur Williams was the easy part for the Baltimore Police Department.  The video of his vicious beating of Dashawn McGrier was the single most convincing evidence of police brutality that I have ever seen. Williams resigned because his termination was a foregone conclusion.

It is what the department does with the unnamed officer seen in the video who was with Williams that will tell us much more about the BPD and where it is headed.

And the remarks on Monday about the unnamed officer by Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle got that process off to a bad start.

Enabling Bad Behavior

The number of active wrongdoers in the department is relatively small. The number of enablers, facilitators and legitimizers is not – and that must change very quickly if the department is going to survive.

By active wrongdoers, I mean the officers who actually do the beating, stealing, and lying on court documents. I acknowledge that what constitutes a “relatively small” number of active wrongdoers in a department with about 2,500 sworn officers is open to debate.

The active wrongdoers are the cancer in the department. The enablers, facilitators and legitimizers, however, are what has allowed the cancer to metastasize to a point where the BPD is on life support.

Enabling, facilitating and legitimizing includes standing around and doing or saying nothing while another officer violates the law. That is the issue raised by the conduct of the unnamed officer.

Absent exigent circumstances, police officers have a duty to take reasonable action to prevent or halt the commission of a crime that takes place in their presence when they are on duty.

THE NUMBER OF ACTIVE WRONGDOERS ON THE FORCE IS RELATIVELY SMALL. THE NUMBER OF ENABLERS, FACILITATORS AND LEGITIMIZERS IS NOT.

The duty is imperative when the crime involves potential bodily harm to a victim. The duty goes to the core of what a police officer is and does, and I’ve never heard an officer question it.

For the legal purists, I am not talking about a duty that gives rise to civil liability. I am talking about a duty of employment, the violation of which can and does get police officers fired.

Excessive Force is a Crime

The unnamed officer shown in the video had a duty to take reasonable measures to stop the attack on McGrier once he realized that the punches being thrown by Williams were an excessive use of force.

Did he satisfy that duty? Based on what I have seen and read so far, it is my opinion that he did not.

In fairness to the unnamed officer, he was not facing Williams and McGrier initially and did not see what immediately preceded the first punch. He had other things to consider, including the presence of bystanders.

THE UNNAMED OFFICER SHOWN IN THE VIDEO HAD A DUTY TO TAKE REASONABLE MEASURES TO STOP THE ATTACK.

Turning his back on the bystanders to restrain Williams would have exposed him and Williams to risk, including from McGrier, who could have used the opportunity to punch Williams or try to seize his weapon. And all of this happened in about 10 seconds, so the unnamed officer had little time to react.

The unnamed officer did make what appeared to be half-hearted efforts to intervene. If the investigation reveals that he told Williams to stop, that would not be enough, in my view.

I believe that he should have grabbed Williams and pulled him off McGrier or grabbed McGrier and pulled him away from Williams, even if his action only prevented the last four or five punches from being landed.

If restraining Williams heightened the risk of harm to both officers, then that is a risk that the unnamed officer should have taken to protect McGrier.

A Disappointing Press Conference

At Monday’s press conference, the interim commissioner acknowledged that the unnamed officer had an obligation to protect McGrier from abuse by Williams.

After pointing out that some of the bystanders had sticks in their hands, Tuggle added, “He [the unnamed officer] had an obligation to keep himself safe. That’s hugely important.”

It also was “hugely important” that the unnamed officer protect McGrier from serious injury. I believe that Tuggle’s emphasis on officer safety was intended to curry favor with the rank-and-file, but it sent exactly the wrong message to the public.

TUGGLE’S EMPHASIS ON OFFICER SAFETY SENT EXACTLY THE WRONG MESSAGE TO THE PUBLIC.

Here is better message, and a standard that I suggest that the BPD adopt: An officer must accept the same level of risk in protecting a citizen from another officer as he or she would accept in protecting another officer from a citizen.

Would the unnamed officer have intervened more aggressively if the roles of Williams and McGrier had been reversed, with McGrier as the puncher and Williams as the punching bag?  What do you think?

Furthermore, I believe that if Williams knew that his partner was going to have to jump in to stop him (and then report him), he would have thought twice before beating up McGrier.

Not everyone will agree with my opinion, including most police officers. But without a paradigm shift in the attitudes of its officers the BPD is never going to regain the trust of citizens convinced that its officers give little priority to their safety or civil rights.

If the department stays on its current course, policing the city will get harder and more dangerous and the collective risk to all officers will increase. There is an element of self-interest in reducing the antipathy toward the department.

An unsettlingly common sentiment in Baltimore is that “all cops are bad.” Think about how the narrative about this incident would have changed had the unnamed officer stopped the attack on McGrier.

It would have been taken as a sign of progress. Instead, there is nothing on the video to indicate that the BPD has made any progress at all.
_______________________
David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 after 31 years in the County Office of Law. His work included defending police officers in civil cases and advising on police disciplinary matters. He also served as a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Office.

[Published as guest commentary by the Baltimore Brew on August 15, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 25, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Opinion: No Way to Select Our Judges.

By David A. Plymyer

Guest Commentary

August 7, 2018

Democracy can be messy, but Maryland’s method of selecting circuit court judges is unnecessarily so. The process also is largely dysfunctional. The controversial, albeit successful, campaign run this year by Judge Mark Crooks of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court is a case in point.

Judges are appointed to the circuit court by the governor from a list of applicants screened by the judicial nominating commission for that judicial circuit. Once a judge is appointed, the judge must stand for election to secure a full 15-year term. Unlike district and appellate court judges, circuit court judges run in contested elections rather than in “retention” elections in which no other candidates appear on the ballot.

Crooks is a Republican and was serving as Gov. Larry Hogan’s deputy legal counsel when the governor appointed him to a newly-created seat on the circuit court in November 2016. Crooks was required by the Maryland Constitution to run for election this year to stay on the bench.

This year’s circuit court race was unusually partisan, perhaps because it coincided with a gubernatorial election. Crooks had the active support of the Republican establishment, including the governor and Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh.

That partisanship first tripped up Crooks in May 2017 when he appeared to endorse Republican county council candidate Nathan Volke.   The flier for a campaign event for Volke stated that Crooks and Register of Wills Lauren Parker “cordially invite you to a happy hour reception supporting Nathan E. Volke.”

Under the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct, circuit court judges running for election may attend fundraisers and other events for candidates for non-judicial offices but may not publicly endorse them. Crooks stated that he was unaware of and had not approved the flier. The judicial code of conduct generally requires a candidate to “act at all times in a manner consistent with the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office.” It is a worthy standard, sometimes honored in the breach.

The Volke flier dust-up was nothing compared to one that occurred in September 2017 when Crooks attended a fundraiser for Roy Moore in Severna Park. The notorious former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was running for the United States Senate at the time. Crooks later claimed that he was unaware of Moore’s background before attending the fundraiser.

Judge Crooks told The Arundel Patriot that “I didn’t do my homework to know what he was all about, even remotely.”  Crooks’ plea of ignorance was not universally accepted.

Moore was removed as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court order instructing him to take down a monument to the Ten Commandants that he had installed in the state judiciary building.  The people of Alabama again elected Moore chief justice in 2013.

He was suspended from his position in 2016 and later resigned after instructing state probate court judges that they could refuse to apply the decision of the United States Supreme Court compelling states to recognize same-sex marriages. Both acts of defiance of federal law were widely reported by the national media.

In a 2005 interview, Moore stated that homosexual conduct should be illegal. He wrote in a 2006 column that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress because of their faith. In other words, by the time he announced his run for the Senate in April 2017 Moore had gained quite a reputation.

Moore’s close ties to the League of the South, which is based in Alabama and generally considered to be a white nationalist organization, touched a raw nerve in Anne Arundel County.  About 30 percent of the people in Anne Arundel County identify themselves as black, Hispanic, Latino or Asian. All 17 judges and magistrates on the circuit court are lily-white.

I tend to agree with the comment made by the editorial board of the Annapolis Capital:  Although the fundraiser that Crooks attended for Moore took place before Moore’s sexual predations became general knowledge, “Moore [had] been a polarizing figure for two decades and anyone who attended should have realized their appearance would be controversial.”

I wrote a guest column for The Capital in which I stated that a sitting judge who attended a fundraiser for a former chief justice of a state supreme court who had been openly contemptuous of the rule of law while in office should not retain his seat. The reaction was swift and predictable.

There never is a shortage of practicing lawyers willing to write letters to the editor in support of a sitting judge before whom they appear, and such was the case for Judge Crooks. Some of the letter writers were sincere; some undoubtedly were not and were completely self-serving. This is another unbecoming aspect of judicial elections. To me, it seems rather like the members of President Trump’s cabinet singing his praises on “Fox & Friends.”

I was accused of being too harsh on Crooks, among other things. I admit that my column was tough on him. Based on what is going on with the Trump administration, however, I have developed zero tolerance not only for the public officials who violate the rule of law but also for other public officials who enable or legitimize them. That goes double for judges.

The tenor of the letters to the editor responding to my guest column and defending Judge Crooks paled in comparison to the emails that I received from Bruce Bereano, the prominent and hard-charging Annapolis lobbyist whom I have known for about 40 years. He informed me that he was helping Crooks with the election and “urged him to go to all political events.”

Bereano stated that Crooks was unaware of Moore’s background and “at worst an innocent and unintended mistake was made.” Bereano also saw fit to tell me what he thought of me: “You should be absolutely ashamed of yourself and I know from talking to people in the community, you have damaged your reputation and people have less respect for you, if any at all.” He added in a second email: “You have lost a lot of friends in the community. You should hear people talking about you as I have.  I am done with you.”

That is what hardball partisan politics looks like. I am not sure that it is what a judicial election should look like.  Bereano was disbarred from the practice of law in Maryland in 2000 following a federal mail fraud conviction. He did nothing wrong by offering his services to Judge Crooks and, to my knowledge, Crooks violated no specific rule by accepting them.  In my opinion, however, a sitting judge should not get help with his campaign from a disbarred lawyer when running for judicial office. By doing so, Crooks created another unfortunate appearance that he would have been better off without. Judge Crooks may have prevailed, but his campaign left a sour taste in the mouths of many Anne Arundel County voters.

•  •

Whether voting in a contested election or a retention election in Maryland, voters must make decisions whether sitting judges should be kept on the bench. If you thought that the judiciary therefore would want to make sure that voters have the information necessary to make informed decisions, you’d be wrong.

In a state in which openness, transparency and accountability in government is given a low priority, the judicial branch is no exception. Unlike many states, Maryland has no formal program for evaluating judicial performance.

In 1998, a select committee of Maryland judges and lawyers recommended that the state adopt a mandatory evaluation program run by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The proposal went nowhere then and is no closer to being implemented now.

The lack of a program for evaluating judicial performance in Maryland is disgraceful.  And, if you are interested in the criminal sentences imposed by circuit court judges, forget about any easy way to find out the sentencing patterns of individual judges. Although the information is collected by the Maryland Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, it is not made available to the public or the media in a searchable database.

Consequently, voters are left to glean information as best they can. Judicial candidate forums are practically useless because candidates are restricted by the code of conduct mentioned above both from discussing their views on matters that could come before them and from making promises about positions on issues that could compromise their impartiality on matters that may come before them.

There must be a better way to select circuit court judges. Everyone has their ideas, and here is mine: Adopt a program of judicial performance evaluation and make the results public. It has proven to be an uphill battle to amend the constitution to eliminate contested elections, so just tweak the constitution to add another two years to the time when a judge appointed by the governor must stand for election.

The change would allow voters to consider a judge’s performance evaluations over the course of three or four years on the bench before deciding for whom to vote. And it would allow sitting judges to run on their records rather than glad-hand voters at fundraisers for disgraced former state supreme court justices.

— David A. Plymyer David A. Plymyer is a former county attorney in Anne Arundel County.  He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net. Twitter: @dplymyer

[Published as guest commentary by Maryland Matters on August 7, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 25, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ∞ ∞ ∞

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

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

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

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

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

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