Olszewski’s campaign promise may make a difficult job impossible.

There are financial challenges ahead for Baltimore County Executive-elect Johnny Olszewski, Jr. He has made surmounting those challenges all the more difficult by his campaign promise not to increase taxes. First, let’s take a look at the situation that he inherits.

The Kamenetz-Homan “legacy”

The announcement that Baltimore County Administrative Officer Fred Homan will retire on December 3rd at the request of Mr. Olszewski was met with a widespread sigh of relief – if not glee – by many county residents. Mr. Homan became the face of an administration that cared little about openness, transparency and accountability and at times was openly hostile toward community groups that dared to disagree with its policies or positions.

I have no desire to dwell in the past, especially not Mr. Homan’s. I believe, however, that there is one aspect of Mr. Homan’s legacy that needs to be discussed because it bears upon the future of the county. That aspect is the myth that Mr. Homan was a good steward of the county’s finances. In my opinion, the myth promotes a misleading view of the county’s financial health and the daunting problems that Mr. Homan will leave behind.

In a letter sent to all county employees, outgoing County Executive Don Mohler, appointed after the death of former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, wrote:

“Through good times and bad, Fred has been the chief architect of a fiscal policy that has allowed us to invest in education, public safety and our aging infrastructure, while maintaining the county’s triple A bond rating.”

I am not saying that Mr. Homan was dishonest or that he lacked considerable skills in managing a complex county budget but, in my opinion, there is more to stewardship of a county’s finances than that. There is the need for vision and for a fiscal policy sustainable well into the future.

I believe that the county has fallen far short in that area. If he was the “chief architect” of the county’s fiscal policy over the past 12 years or so as described by Mr. Mohler, then Mr. Homan must accept his share of the responsibility for the problems facing the county.

I have written about those problems a number of times in the past. In summary, Mr. Olszewski will take office facing crumbling infrastructure and revenue streams inadequate to repair or replace roads, schools, storm water management facilities, and government buildings. The quality of life for county citizens is at stake, as Mr. Homan himself admitted last week.

Mr. Homan was a master at robbing Peter to pay Paul to avoid tax increases, and too often Peter was the mundane things that the county needs to run properly. The county is short of personnel in key regulatory areas, the county’s IT infrastructure dates to the last century, and that is just the beginning.

Earlier this year it dawned on the county’s Spending Affordability Committee that the day of financial reckoning was close at hand because the county is running up against the limits on how much money it can borrow. Councilman Tom Quirk, a member of the committee, wrote in its report:

“The county’s financial outlook presents immense challenges that the next administration and council will be forced to address.”

Mr. Quirk groused that the Kamenetz administration refused to provide a long-term plan to pay for all the county’s school construction projects and for health care for retirees, among other things. In fact, the desperate need for a long-term financial plan for the county, especially a capital improvement plan, was one issue on which Mr. Olszewski and his Republican opponent, Al Redmer, Jr., agreed.

A word on the county’s AAA bond rating touted by county officials. It is important because it reduces the cost of borrowing money. But it is, in effect, a relatively short-term measure of the county’s creditworthiness, not a judgment on the county’s long-term financial well-being – the fact that the absence of a long-term county financial plan has not affected the rating is an indication of that.

Ironically, an important factor supporting the high rating is the legal availability of additional revenue if needed to pay the county’s debts. Unlike some other counties, Baltimore County has no legal cap on its property tax rate and also has room to increase the local income tax surcharge.

Appearing at his last meeting of the County Council as County Administrative Officer, Mr. Homan spoke briefly to warn council members about the financial difficulties ahead.

“What you face now going forward is going to make a very significant difference in not only the fiscal situation of the county, but the lives of citizens of the county,” Homan said. “I wish you the best.”

Yeah, good luck to us. And thanks a lot.

The challenge ahead

The “immense challenge” referred to by Mr. Quirk can be summed up as follows: Many unmet needs and looming expenses with a revenue stream inadequate to pay for them. Mr. Homan is by no means responsible for the principal limitation on that revenue stream: An aversion to tax increases in Baltimore County that approaches religious fervor. Additional revenue may be legally available, but political availability is another story.

The past refusal to consider increases in the county property tax rate or local income tax surcharge, coupled with the absence of development impact fees, accelerated the decline in the financial health of the county. New development was necessary to provide the property tax revenue to meet the needs of existing development because the property taxes collected from existing development were insufficient to do so.

As I have previously described, the failure by the county to impose development impact fees or excise taxes decades ago, when all other major metropolitan counties in the state were doing so, was a catastrophic mistake. Because of the absence of development impact fees imposed on new development, revenue from existing development had to be used to expand public facilities to accommodate the new development, dramatically reducing the overall financial benefit of the new development to the county.

That meant that the new development needed to proceed at a pace and intensity far greater than many citizens wanted just to keep the Ponzi scheme afloat. It made Baltimore County a developer’s paradise, but it helped create the fiscal mess that the county is in today as the pace of new development necessarily slows down.

In my opinion, the situation suited the outgoing administration. The fast pace and intensity of development kept the developer friends of Mr. Kamenetz happy and they in turn kept his political war chest filled to the brim. And it seems to me that is exactly the situation that most citizens of Baltimore County want changed.

The incoming county executive, Johnny Olszewski, Jr., has pledged not to increase county taxes. So how he is he going to meet the “immense challenges” described by Mr. Quirk and emphasized by Mr. Homan? Thanks in part to Mr. Homan, there is not a lot of fat left to cut in the county budget; some agencies already have been cut into the bone. And if there is not enough money now, when the economy is humming away, what happens when the inevitable downturn occurs?

So what else can Mr. Olszewski do to assure the county’s future financial health if he is unwilling to consider ways of increasing county revenues through fees or taxes? Nothing, except cut back on existing programs and activities. And that will be an exceedingly unpopular task for an ambitious politician.

The case for an independent police force at Johns Hopkins.

The Johns Hopkins University wants to create its own police force in Baltimore. The legislation to create this force already has the backing of several Baltimore lawmakers. Universities like Morgan State University and Coppin State University also have their own police forces.

By:  David A. Plymyer

Johns Hopkins officials recently announced plans to hold a series of community forums through the end of the year in an effort to renew its push to establish an independent police department to protect the university and medical campuses and surrounding areas of Baltimore. A prior attempt this year failed to gain legislator approval because of resistance from the community and the Baltimore City Council.

If common sense had anything to do with this, community and council members would embrace the proposal. If they need convincing, I suggest that they take the two-hour drive up I-95 to Philadelphia to study the impact of the University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD).

Both Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania are private institutions with facilities located in challenging urban neighborhoods. The UPPD, founded in 1973, has about 120 sworn officers, including 13 detectives; it is a fully-accredited law enforcement agency committed to community-oriented policing. The university’s vice president for public safety is the department’s superintendent, and she is a civilian. The footprint of the University of Pennsylvania is considerably larger than Hopkins’ and the “Penn patrol zone” policed by the UPPD is roughly 4 square miles.

For 12 consecutive years, Security Magazine has ranked the UPPD the best program in the nation in the “Education (University)” category. Ask Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, members of the Philadelphia city council and Penn’s neighbors if Philadelphia would be better off without the UPPD.

Johns Hopkins University wants its own police department. What would that mean for Baltimore?

There is no reason that Johns Hopkins could not emulate the success of the University of Pennsylvania in standing up a police department that is an asset to the city. No reason, that is, other than the peculiar world of Baltimore politics in which common sense often is in short supply.

I don’t blame community members for their general suspicion of police officers, given their experiences with the Baltimore Police Department and the city’s well-documented history of structural racism. Many members of the community embrace an ideology in which the city’s criminals are seen primarily as victims of the poverty and family disintegration resulting from structural racism. These citizens view arrests and prosecution as treating the symptoms rather than the disease and are skeptical of any law enforcement solutions to Baltimore’s crime problem.

I understand. But keep in mind that the effects of structural racism are going to take a long time to fix. Letting the city bleed to death in the meantime helps no one. Sometimes you have to manage the symptoms before you can cure the disease. Effective law enforcement is needed right now to make sure that the city survives until the longer-term goals of racial and economic equity can be achieved.

Moreover, the principal goal of a campus police department is not to arrest people, but to deter crime. Ask ordinary residents of Baltimore neighborhoods now under siege if they’d welcome a larger police presence.

Members of the City Council claimed that they were left out of the loop in crafting the initial proposal for a Hopkins police department. It is fine to want to be in the loop. It is not fine if the council tries to hold the proposal hostage until concessions of political value to members of the council are extracted — something that the council is prone to do.

If the proposal is revived and the council helps defeat it, the council would accomplish two things.

First, it would weaken the ability of the city’s largest private employer to protect the safety of its students, staff, patients and neighbors. The destinies of Hopkins and Baltimore are intertwined. With about 45,000 employees, Hopkins is a bulwark against inner-city poverty becoming even worse.

Second, it would feed the narrative that the council is a poor steward of the city’s resources. Hopkins wants to assume the financial burden of policing its campuses and nearby areas of the city. Staring a gift horse in the mouth is the last image that the council wants to convey to a governor and General Assembly already wary of committing more money to the cash-strapped city.

I hope that Johns Hopkins goes back to the legislature next year to seek approval of its proposal to establish its own police department. If so, I hope that the Baltimore City Council is kept in the loop, restrains its worst political impulses and does what it can to make the proposal succeed. It’s a chance to help both the university and the city.

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 November 19, 2018 but not posted to my blog until January 31, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to put all posts in the order in which they were written.]

UMD Board of Regents fell short in its duties.

Guest Commentary -November 13, 2018

A suggestion to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan: When you appoint people to positions of great responsibility in the future, pay more attention to their qualifications and expertise than to their personal and political loyalties. Appointments have consequences.

Seldom is there a consensus on an issue such as there is on the attempt by the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland to pressure the president of the University of Maryland at College Park, Wallace Loh, to retain now-fired head football coach D.J. Durkin. That consensus is that the board’s action was ham-handed and indefensible and has long-term negative consequences for the state’s flagship university.

Sometimes governing bodies make bad decisions, and there is nothing more to it. In this case, however, I believe there is more to it. The Board of Regents fell so far short of fulfilling its role as the guardian of the institutional mission and values that it raises questions about the qualifications of the individual regents. And those questions directly implicate Gov. Hogan.

Dr. Loh has presided over the continuing ascent of the university into the top tier of public research universities. Mr. Durkin, according to the report of the independent commission appointed to investigate the football program, oversaw an environment in which insults and humiliation were primary motivational tools. The commission found that the strength and conditioning coach hired by Mr. Durkin verbally and physically abused players.

The commission found no direct link between the culture of the football program and the tragic death of Terrapin player Jordan McNair. Mr. McNair died because of the negligence of the training staff assigned to care for the football players, according to a separate inquiry. That finding, however, was hardly an endorsement of Mr. Durkin’s stewardship of the football program.

Not only did the board overstep its bounds by trying to block Dr. Loh from firing Mr. Durkin, it apparently did so in the interests of winning more football games. According to a story in The Baltimore Sun, board members succumbed to the blandishments of Mr. Durkin, who told them that his team was on the verge of being able to beat teams like Ohio State and Penn State.

The university’s strategic plan states that, although “athletics play a serious role in the life of the university” by encouraging student growth, athletics lie “outside the academic enterprise” of the institution. The board made the unforgivable mistake of choosing the promise of success on the gridiron over the integrity of the university’s “academic enterprise.”

In my opinion, the most likely explanation for the error is that there were too many regents with no appreciation for a first-class university and how it should be run. Too many regents who should never been appointed to the board in the first place.

Thirteen of the 17 regents on the board when it voted to retain Mr. Durkin over the objections of Dr. Loh, and to show Dr. Loh the door, were appointed by Gov. Hogan. If there is a problem with the backgrounds and predilections of the individual regents, Gov. Hogan owns it.

Questions have risen about the quality of Gov. Hogan’s political appointments in the past. A nominee for the state school board withdrew after questions arose about the nominee’s personal finances and legal record. The state Senate refused to confirm Wendi Peters as secretary of the Department of Planning, with lawmakers citing her lack of relevant experience. The Senate also declined to confirm the nomination of Dennis Schrader to be secretary of the Department of Health.

In a letter earlier this year to The Sun, Del. Clarence Lam echoed complaints that I have heard from many quarters of state government. Del. Lam accused Gov. Hogan of introducing political partisanship into the hiring of new state employees and in the promotions of current state employees for non-political at-will positions in grade 18 or higher. Those traditionally non-political positions provide the expertise and institutional knowledge essential to state agencies.

Del. Lam obtained notes from a senior staff meeting at the state health department at which a new hiring process was described. The process placed “greater emphasis on using the Governor’s Appointments Office.”

According to the notes, hiring for technical positions such as laboratory scientists or doctors would proceed as before. The appointments office, however, would have “first crack” at filling positions such as legislative liaisons, communications officers and executive associates. The department would run a “parallel process” with the appointments office for positions including program managers.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight recently opened an investigation into Del. Lam’s allegations. Del. Adrienne A. Jones, House chairwoman of the joint committee, expressed concerns that applicants were being vetted for political affiliations rather than for merit. Those concerns are reminiscent of those raised during the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. – when Gov. Hogan was Mr. Ehrlich’s appointments secretary.

The impact of leadership focused more on politics than on an organization’s mission generally is not immediate. The effect is slow and corrosive, like the effect of corrosion on a bridge.

Everything looks fine from the outside until there is a catastrophic failure — a failure like the ill-fated decision by the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.

— DAVID A. PLYMYER

The writer 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 November 13, 2018 but not posted to my blog until January 31, 2019.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Police overtime spending violates Baltimore’s charter.

The City Council shouldn’t sanction a practice that’s “tantamount to cooking the books,” says a veteran government lawyer.

At its next meeting on November 19, the City Council will take a final vote on whether to approve a “supplementary appropriation” of $21 million to the Baltimore Police Department.

Monday’s preliminary vote in favor of the appropriation was a disappointing exercise by a Council that had once showed promise as a reform-minded body.

The supplementary appropriation in question covers the costs of police overtime during FY (fiscal year) 2018 that were in excess of the costs for police overtime appropriated in the city’s budget for FY18, which ended on June 30.

The money used to fund the appropriation would come from transfer and recordation tax revenues in FY18 that exceeded the estimates of such revenues used in the preparation of the budget.

Those “excess” revenues otherwise would be available for other purposes (inside or outside the police department) in the current year, FY19, which began on July 1.

Here is the problem: What was done last year is done. The money for police overtime has already been spent. There is nothing the Council can now do to change this fact – except try to hide it from public view.

The use of supplementary appropriations to cloak over-expenditures stretches the law to the breaking point even when the appropriations are approved during the same fiscal year in which the over-expenditures happened.

For the city to reach back in time to try to “fix” an over-expenditure that took place in a prior fiscal year stretches the law past the breaking point.

CALLING OUT THIS PRACTICE COULD BRING REAL ACCOUNTABILITY TO CITY GOVERNMENT.

In other words, final approval on November 19 of $21 million in police overtime will not correct the violation of the city charter that took place when the BPD overspent its money for overtime during FY18.

In my opinion, the whole exercise is tantamount to cooking the books. It gives the impression that the city did not spend more than it was authorized to spend – when, in fact, that’s exactly what it did.

How it Should Work

When a legislative body appropriates money, it is approving the expenditure of a specific sum of money for a specific purpose.

It reflects the principle that the legislature has the power of the purse and sets limits on expenditures by the government for any given purpose.

No official or agency may make a purchase or create a financial obligation on the part of the government unless there is an appropriation sufficient to pay for the purchase or meet the obligation.

The appropriation must precede the expenditure. That is a proposition generally understood by managers at every level of government.

Spending money before there is a sufficient appropriation may be justified in actual emergencies, such as hurricanes or blizzards.

The recurring over-expenditure by Baltimore Police of its overtime budget is not such an emergency.

MIA: Transparency

One reason why this happens is that Baltimore’s “city charter,” or constitution, lacks teeth in the area of appropriation control.

In neighboring jurisdictions, there is tighter oversight. The Howard County Charter, for example, provides that no local agency can “expend, or contract to expend, any money or incur any liability, or enter into any contract. . . in excess of the amounts appropriated or allotted” in the budget for that fiscal year.

The charter goes on to say that “if any officer, agent or employee of the County shall knowingly violate this provision, he or she shall be personally liable and such action shall be cause, after public hearing, for his or her removal from office by the Executive or by majority vote of the Council.”

The charters of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties contain substantially the same language.

If Baltimore’s charter contained a similar provision, perhaps the police department would be more cautious about approving overtime for which no money has been appropriated.

Similarly, if the city’s outside auditor gave an adverse finding in Baltimore’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) that is required for federal grant funding, perhaps Mayor Catherine Pugh would take notice.

Taking a Stand

These, of course, are conjectures. What now stands solidly before Baltimore’s legislative body is Bill 18-0265, the supplementary appropriation for police overtime.

If the Council votes down the bill on final reader on November 19, the Pugh administration will be forced to acknowledge that it spent more money than was appropriated last year.

That’s a major violation of Baltimore’s charter. Calling out this practice could bring real accountability to city government.
__________________________
David A. Plymyer retired as County Attorney for Anne Arundel County in 2014 after 31 years in the county office of law. He previously served five years as an assistant state’s attorney.

[Published as guest commentary by The Baltimore Brew on November 2, 2018 but not posted to my blog until January 31, 2019.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to put all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Dear City Council: Stop making up excuses and fix the disastrous police contract.

BY DAVID A. PLYMYER 1:26 PM   OCT 17, 2018

Council members have chosen the interests of city labor unions over the safety and financial well-being of the city, a retired government lawyer argues. [OP-ED]

For the last two years, members of the Baltimore City Council have been grousing about the high cost of the shift schedule adopted by the Police Department, while maintaining that they lack the power to do anything about it.

Finally, a member of the Council acknowledged last week that they can do something about it.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s admission in a Twitter exchange (see below) proves that it is not an absence of legal authority, but rather a lack of political will that prevents Baltimore’s elected officials from solving this enormous drag on the city’s resources.

Costly Failure

In 2015, the standard shift schedule (normal work week) of the BPD was changed from five eight-hour days (5×8) to four 10-hour days on duty followed by three days off (4×10).

Former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts claimed the change would put more officers on the streets at the most needed times, cut overtime spending and give officers more time off.

He was wrong.

The change boomeranged into a costly failure mainly because the BPD has been unable to recruit and retain enough officers to fill assignments under the 4×10 schedule.

The Rawlings-Blake administration then compounded the error by agreeing to hardwire the 4×10 schedule into the collective bargaining agreement between the city and Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents officers in the rank of lieutenant and below.

Most critically, the contract took away the ability of the police commissioner to adjust the schedules of officers to accommodate changing demands on the department.

The 4×10 schedule has meant millions of dollars in overtime, adding to the excessive overtime that has characterized the department in recent years. To date, the FOP has not agreed to an alternative schedule.

While quick to blame Batts and the FOP for the problem, Council members have refused to accept responsibility for fixing it.

But there has been some progress in that regard. Councilman Dorsey’s admission (couched in rather obscure syntax) that the City Council can enact legislation removing shift schedules from the scope of collective bargaining is an important step toward clarity on this matter.

The legislation referred to by Dorsey would have the effect of giving the Police Commissioner authority to schedule shifts in the manner that best suits the need of the department. The Councilman apparently has been told by city lawyers, however, that such legislation could not apply to only one union.

As Dorsey tweeted, “State law does not permit the City to limit the collective bargaining rights of the Police Department unless it is done by limiting all collective bargaining rights of all unions.”

He then said he was reluctant to introduce such legislation because he supports the rights of city unions “to represent their workers’ conditions.” He then added this:

“As much as I think FOP has been allowed to run amok, it’s not the fault of all workers. It’s a manifestation of weak political will and the FOP acting like a protection racket.”

Making a Choice

The admission by the vice chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee sheds light on the real reason why the city has not extricated itself from the costly shift schedule:

Namely, a refusal by the Council to do anything that upsets the labor unions that represent city employees – or at least labor unions other than the FOP.

Governance involves choices. Dorsey and like-minded members of the Council have chosen the interests of city labor unions over the safety and financial well-being of the city.

Dorsey’s admission was a long time coming. What follows is the backstory about the lengths to which politicians will go to disavow responsibility for a politically unpleasant task.

Getting to the Truth

My first discussion on the 4×10 shift issue was with Brandon M. Scott, currently the chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

His voice has been the loudest about the body’s “lack of control” over the BPD and the purported need for Gov. Larry Hogan to return control of the department to the city.

After an exchange with Scott on Twitter in April 2017, I had a telephone conversation with him. I said that, if it wished, the Council could remove the subject of shift schedules from the scope of collective bargaining. Scott did not agree with me, and our discussions ended.

In June 2017, Council President Jack Young wrote a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun excoriating the FOP for refusing to agree to go back to the 5×8 shift schedule.

Young went so far as to imply that the FOP’s refusal to concede on the issue was partially responsible for the city’s spike in violent crime.

While I am no big fan of the FOP, Young had no right to tell the FOP what its bargaining position should be, especially when the 4×10 schedule was the city’s idea, not the FOP’s.

I sent a letter dated June 29, 2017 to Young and other members of the Council describing their legal options – options that I suspect their own lawyers had already explained to them. Here are the relevant parts of that letter:

 The City Council has the power under §55 of the City Charter to limit the scope of collective bargaining by placing certain subjects off limits as exclusive management rights. Excluding management decisions regarding the structure and scheduling of shifts from the scope of collective bargaining is consistent with the state law that governs binding arbitration used to resolve impasses in bargaining with the BPD.

State law limits binding arbitration to matters of ‘direct compensation’ and §16-8A(b)(3) of the Code of Public Local Laws of Baltimore City explicitly provides that issues regarding deployment and scheduling are not “direct compensation” issues. “Direct compensation” is defined to mean “wages, salaries, longevity, shift differential [pay], bonuses if applicable, and leave with monetary value.”

Nothing came of that letter. The next member of the Council to lash out at the FOP was Dorsey.

In April 2018, he denounced the union for its continuing refusal to agree to abandon the 4×10 shift schedule, while also describing the BPD as “really just occupying mercenaries.” He dismissed my arguments that he and his colleagues could intervene by tweeting that “City Council is in no way part of collective bargaining.”

This time I responded with an op-ed in the Sunmaking public the explanation of the law that I had provided to the Council a year earlier.

Whether that did the trick, I don’t know, but six months later Dorsey is now admitting that City Council has the authority to place limits on the scope of collective bargaining.

Needed Now: Political Courage

Baltimore’s labor and police commissioners never should have bargained away the commissioner’s authority to adjust shift schedules to accommodate the changing needs of the city. Nor should they have hard-wired a specific shift schedule into a labor contract.

But done is done, and the subject of shift schedules is now a subject of collective bargaining, at least until the City Council legislates otherwise.

There is nothing unusual about a legislative body having to clean up a mess created by the executive branch in the course of interpreting and administering a law. The City Council is, after all, the primary policymaker for Baltimore.

If the Council doesn’t want the city to have to negotiate with the FOP over shift schedules, then the Council should do something about it by passing an ordinance.

(Of course, Mayor Catherine Pugh could take it on herself to propose such an ordinance, but she has so far shown no more appetite to take on city employee unions than have members of the Council.)

The fact that the ordinance would have to apply to other city agencies and unions is not an obstacle.

Making it an exclusive management right to decide on appropriate shift schedules is a common and fair allocation of power between management and labor.

Namely, that management decides on the shift schedule that best meets the needs of the organization, and then it negotiates with unions on how to compensate employees for working that shift schedule.

It is especially important for the head of a public safety agency to be able to adjust shift schedules. If a shift schedule must be changed during the term of a labor contract, a “re-opener” clause in the contract can allow the negotiation of the accompanying changes in compensation.

This is not “union busting,” as Councilman Dorsey implies. This is the city regaining a reasonable measure of control over governmental operations.

The problems caused by the 4×10 shift schedule should (but likely will not) get resolved any time soon.

But, at least, we can be spared from the spectacle of elected officials proclaiming their “helplessness” in resolving ballooning police overtime and the poor deployment of officers in this time of public angst about crime.
_________________________
David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in its office of law. His work included advising county management on the content and negotiation of contracts with public safety unions.

[Published as an op-ed by the Baltimore Brew on October 17, 2018 but not posted to my blog until November 17, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

‘Pandering to racial prejudice’ in Baltimore County executive race.

David A. Plymyer

The settlement agreement with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) signed by Baltimore County in 2016 requires the next county executive to introduce legislation next year prohibiting landlords in the county from discriminating against prospective tenants who use federal “Housing Choice” (Section 8) vouchers to help pay the rent.

Al Redmer Jr., the Republican candidate for Baltimore County executive, states that, if elected, he will not introduce the legislation. Mr. Redmer claims that he will defy the agreement because of his opposition to forcing landlords to “go through the additional burdens and bureaucracy of doing business with the federal government.”

But I believe that his real motivation is to assure white voters that he will try to keep more people of color from moving from the Baltimore City to the county. And there is absolutely no chance that voters will miss that message: Fear of poor black families moving to the county has been a pervasive theme in Baltimore County for decades.

HUD and the other plaintiffs sued the county in 2011. They alleged that county policies resulted in the clustering of low-income and minority residents in poor and segregated neighborhoods, an example of the phenomenon known as structural racism.

The county’s incentive to settle the case greatly increased after a 2015 Supreme Court decision holding that under the federal Fair Housing Act plaintiffs need not prove that racial discrimination was intentional, only that it was a result of policies that had a “disparate impact” on racial minorities.

The widespread refusal of landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers has had a disparate impact on black residents by keeping low-income black families out of certain communities in Baltimore County. It is similar in effect to the “redlining” by banks and other institutions from which the city still has not recovered.

If Mr. Redmer doesn’t understand the long-term impact of structural racism, he should read “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by former Baltimore Sun reporter and editorial writer Antero Pietila. From it, he would learn how large pockets of poverty in Baltimore produced gangs, crime and family dysfunction that in turn overburdened schools, police and other government services. In his zeal to prevent the city from spilling over into the county, Mr. Redmer could end up recreating the problems of the city in the county.

And, as we learned in the city, once crime takes hold, it doesn’t limit itself to the poorest neighborhoods. What would Mr. Redmer do then, build walls between communities?

Mr. Redmer appears willing to sacrifice the interests of elderly and disabled county residents of all colors to his desire to please white voters. According to the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, 62 percent of the recipients of Section 8 vouchers in the county are senior citizens or people with disabilities. And if a landlord sets a policy of refusing Section 8 vouchers, it must be categorical and applied to all tenants or it will run directly afoul of anti-discrimination laws. Bluntly stated: To refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers from low-income black families, a landlord must also refuse to accept them from the elderly and disabled.

The irony is that Mr. Redmer’s friend, fellow Republican and most avid supporter, Gov. Larry Hogan, has gone out of his way to distance himself from the racial divisiveness of the Republican president, Donald Trump. Mr. Redmer has taken the opposite tack, emulating the president by exploiting the fears and prejudices of white voters.

Pandering to racial prejudices is the last thing that Baltimore County needs from a candidate for county executive. Baltimore County has made some progress toward building more affordable housing, integrating neighborhoods and eliminating its history of structural racism. The consequences of reversing course now would be tragic.

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 October 12, 2018 but not posted to my blog until January 31, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to put all posts the order in which they were written.]

Gov. Hogan, where are state regulatory agencies when the citizens of Baltimore County need them?

According to the polls, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is very popular in Baltimore County. Surely, that popularity is not based on the recent failures by two state agencies under his control to fulfill their regulatory responsibilities over actions taken by the Baltimore County government. The performances of the state agencies in these matters have been disgraceful.

I will begin with “Treegate.” By now, the facts of that travesty are well known to the citizens of Baltimore County. What appears to be the final chapter in the matter, written by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is as disappointing as the rest of the story.

The second matter is less well-known, but of much greater long-term consequence. It involves the adequacy of public wastewater facilities in the “Jones Falls Sewershed.” Wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls Sewershed serve development in parts of Towson, Lutherville, Timonium and Pikesville, collecting sewage that flows through the City of Baltimore to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Serious questions have arisen as to whether the Baltimore County Department of Public Works (DPW) has been forthcoming about the adequacy of those facilities to manage the planned development in that area of the county without continuing or even increasing the sewage overflows that have occurred for decades in the city and county. To date, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has been unhelpful in getting answers to those questions.

DNR’s sham investigation into “Treegate”

On November 14, 2017, I filed a complaint with DNR requesting that it exercise its authority under the state’s Forest Conservation Act (FCA) to investigate whether actions taken by Baltimore County during “Treegate” violated state or county forest conservation law. Treegate took place on April 1, 2017.

On that date, acting on orders from Baltimore County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, a county contractor removed 30 trees, including six specimen trees, from the future site of the Towson Station development. Mr. Homan stated that the trees were cut down to facilitate the sale of the property from the county to a private developer who had a contract with the county to buy the property. The removal of the trees defied a resolution passed by the County Council conditioning development of the site on the retention of the trees and relieved the private developer from what undoubtedly would have been a futile attempt to justify the removal of the trees under the FCA.

After a seven-month “investigation,” DNR Secretary Mark Belton informed me that his agency was persuaded by the county’s argument that removal of the trees was justified because it was done as part of a county “capital improvement project.” Describing the removal of trees from a site to prepare it for sale to a third party as a capital project is utter and complete nonsense, and DNR knows it.

Under limited circumstances, the county may remove trees from the site of a capital improvement project (aka a capital project) without submitting a full Forest Conservation Plan. A capital project is defined by the Baltimore County Charter as “any physical public betterment or improvement and the acquisition of property of a permanent nature for public use.” [Emphasis added.]

The capital project exception is intended to allow the removal of trees from county property if necessary to do so to construct some type of county building or other permanent improvement on the property. The removal of trees to prepare it for sale, and especially for private use, is not a capital project.

The facts are not in dispute: The county cut down the trees to help the contract purchaser evade restrictions on the removal of trees that would have applied when the purchaser developed the property for private use. That is not a county “capital project” under anyone’s definition.

Also, the county did not pay for the removal of trees using money from its capital budget. It used money from its operating budget appropriated for routine park maintenance, such as lawn mowing. Using money appropriated for routine maintenance to prepare a site for private development by cutting down trees was of doubtful legality in and of itself.

Moreover, even if trees must be removed as part of a county capital project, county forest conservation law requires the agency in charge of the capital project to submit a “project plan” describing the proposed tree removal to the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability for approval. No project plan was submitted or approved for “Treegate.”

Secretary Belton informed me of DNR’s decision by letter dated June 19, 2018. Last month, Larry Fogelson obtained a copy of DNR’s investigation through a Public Information Act request. The sum total of the investigation was a single two-page letter from an Assistant County Attorney explaining that the purpose of the alleged capital project was to make the property “more attractive” to a private developer.

A seven-month “investigation” and that is the best that DNR could do? DNR’s actions in this matter were shameful.

Thirty trees may not seem like a lot of trees. Degradation of the environment generally occurs incrementally, however, through the accumulation of many “minor” violations. Competent regulators are aware of that and strive to enforce regulations uniformly and consistently. That certainly was not done in the case of Treegate.

MDE’s “oops”

Baltimore County’s dubious management of public wastewater facilities within what is known as the “Jones Falls Sewershed” is a much more complicated story. The story is still evolving because it has been extraordinarily difficult to get the relevant information out of the Baltimore County DPW.

What we do know is attributable to the persistence of a group of ordinary citizens led by Tom McCord. The information obtained by these citizens ultimately piqued the interest of MDE, which in turn called upon Baltimore County officials to answer some important questions.

The issues are too complex to describe in detail here, but there is a common thread throughout all of the questions: The apparent unreasonableness and inconsistency of the data used by DPW to project future demands on key sewerage infrastructure within the Jones Falls Sewershed, including the Lake Roland, Jones Falls and Towson Run interceptor sewers.

Mr. McCord and his group discovered that DPW used out-of-date population and land use data for purposes of preparing a report on the deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure within the sewershed. The sewershed tracks the Jones Falls and the wastewater facilities in the sewershed collect sewage that is sent through the city to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Public wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls Sewershed serve development in parts of Towson, Lutherville, Timonium and Pikesville.

The report in question was required under the 2005 consent decree between the county and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and MDE. The consent decree is intended to eliminate the sewage overflows that have polluted the Jones Falls for decades. The city agreed to a similar decree with the EPA in 2002.

Understating increases in sewage projected from increases in development and population density has the effect, in turn, of overstating the adequacy of downstream infrastructure to manage future sewage flows. A report that identifies deficiencies in and presents a plan for repair, replacement, or rehabilitation of that infrastructure is a mandatory component of the consent decree.

The information available to date also indicates that DPW may have used differing projections of future sewage flows – one for the consent decree report and the other to justify the construction of the Towson Run Relief Sewer. Mr. McCord and his group have raised legitimate questions as to whether DPW, which understated future sewage flows for purpose of the consent decree, used more current projections to justify construction of the Towson Run Relief Sewer. If so, was the inconsistency inadvertent or deliberate?

The Towson Run Relief Sewer was necessary to handle increased sewage from Towson Row and other planned development in Towson, including new construction at Towson University. DPW was under pressure to move forward with the Towson Run Relief Sewer. The relief sewer was an integral part of the “It’s Towson’s Time” vision of former county executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Mr. Kamenetz wanted to make Towson “a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring.”  Such high-density development posed a challenge for DPW, already contending with failing wastewater infrastructure in the Jones Falls Sewershed.

MDE has a legal interest in enforcing the county’s compliance with the consent decree with EPA because it is a party to the decree. MDE also has regulatory responsibility for approving the triennial review of the county’s Water Supply and Sewerage Plan; the triennial review is MDE’s opportunity to ensure the adequacy of the county’s plan to manage its sewage system.

Mr. McCord and others, including members of Green Towson Alliance, met with MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles and members of his staff on May 25, 2018. Secretary 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 Mr. McCord and his group that also included DPW.

Secretary Grumbles was told that he could do so. The clear implication was that Secretary Grumbles wanted to use the follow-up meeting to satisfy himself and members of Mr. McCord’s group about the accuracy of the information that DPW had provided before approving the 2017 triennial review.

The subsequent meeting took place on August 23, 2017. Mr. McCord and his group learned at the meeting that MDE had already approved the county’s 2017 triennial review. They later were informed that Secretary Grumbles also was unaware until the meeting that his agency had approved the county’s triennial review. In other words, an “oops” by MDE.

The first 45-day extension of the time within which MDE had to act on the county’s triennial review under state law expired on August 13th. The follow-up meeting initially was scheduled for August 8th but was postponed until August 23rd at DPW’s request.

Did MDE get played by DPW? Was there a miscommunication within MDE? Or, perhaps someone in MDE did not want to go to the trouble of a second, “supplemental” 45-day extension. In any event, MDE’s immediate leverage over DPW was lost and the questions raised about the information provided by DPW remain unanswered almost two months later.

There is what looks like a pattern here, and it is the old regulatory slow-walk: Drag out an investigation or inquiry as long as possible before producing an unsatisfactory result in the hopes of outlasting the interest or energy of concerned citizens.

What’s next?

The moral of the above story is this: The citizens of Baltimore County are on their own when it comes to dealing with county agencies. Don’t expect the cavalry to arrive in the form of state regulatory agencies, even when the state agencies have clear regulatory responsibility for actions taken by county agencies.

Treegate may be in the past, but the problems with the adequacy of public wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls Sewershed are not. The stakes for county finances, land development and the environment are extremely high.

Sewerage infrastructure is, like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. For example, the Towson Run Relief Sewer may prevent overflows in Towson only to send sewage downstream to overflow elsewhere in the county or city; Lake Roland is a likely destination. The massive new development in Towson should not proceed until the entire system is adequate. At this point, it seems clear that citizens jaded by their experiences with the county are not going to be satisfied unless that determination of adequacy is made by a creditable independent expert.

Among the first orders of business for the next county executive should be an open and transparent review of the adequacy of public wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls Sewershed. He can do that by ordering his planners and public works officials to make all relevant documents available to the public, and then scheduling one or more public hearings at which his planners and public works officials testify and answer questions in a comprehensive, forthcoming manner. What a refreshing change that would be in Baltimore County.

– 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 October 9, 2018 but not posted to my blog until November 9, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Baltimore County police and prosecutors need to respond to rape cover-up allegations.

CRIME & JUSTICE BY DAVID A. PLYMYER 9:01 AM  OCT 5, 2018

Unlike UMBC, the county is reacting with stony silence to claims in a lawsuit by sexual assault victims that are too serious to ignore OP-ED

 There are shocking allegations in the federal class-action lawsuit filed last month by two former students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

They include charges that the women were discouraged from – and, in one case, threatened with arrest for – going to the police and pursuing criminal complaints against men who sexually assaulted them.

The former students, Anna Borkowski and Katelyn Frank, describe in detail a pattern of failing to properly investigate and prosecute complaints of sexual assault – a pattern that extends both to UMBC and to Baltimore County police and prosecutors.

But the contrast in the defendants’ reactions after the story broke is striking.

UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski III met with students, accepted responsibility for the school’s inadequate response to the problem of sexual assaults and promised an outside investigation and reform.

“No comment,” meanwhile, was the response by Baltimore County Chief of Police Terrence B. Sheridan and State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.

Yes, the events described in the lawsuit and recounted below remain mere allegations until proved.

But please don’t give me the line that you can’t discuss the matter while it is litigation. You can, despite what some county lawyer may be telling you. (I know – I am one.)

The truth will come out in the lawsuit, but it is important that county residents hear the answer now, not a year or more from now.

History of Problems

One reason these officials should speak up about the most troubling claims in the lawsuit: Baltimore County’s poor track record on this issue gives citizens reason to believe them.

A scathing 2016 story in BuzzFeed documented an astoundingly high number of rape complaints classified as “unfounded” by county police.  That story led to a review by a panel consisting of a retired circuit court judge and the director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Its recommendations were implemented, Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler recently said, responding to the class action suit. But the disturbing events that Borkowski described in the complaint took place on and after October 20, 2017 – well after these reforms were supposedly put in place.

The chronology, despite Mohler’s assurances, suggests Baltimore County still does not take accusations of sexual assault seriously.

Borkowski’s Allegations

Borkowski claims that she and an unnamed classmate were raped in the classmate’s Towson apartment on October 20, 2017 by three UMBC students, all members of the school’s baseball team.

The two women were encouraged by the men to drink from a bottle of vodka. She said the men pretended to drink but did not.

Borkowski believes that a drug had been added to the vodka. She says she became incapacitated, blacked out, and had only fragmentary memories of being gang-raped by the three men and of watching the men rape her classmate while her classmate was at various times unconscious or semi-conscious and asking them to stop.

Borkowski awoke later on the day of the incident and reported to police that she had been raped. She was taken to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

A sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE) confirmed that she had suffered “vaginal tearing,” an injury “consistent with sexual assault.” The Baltimore County Police Department was responsible for investigating the alleged rape. It did what can only be described as a cursory investigation.

Lame Response

According to the complaint, the apartment was never visited by police, much less searched.

Evidence including blood-stained bed clothing and the vodka bottle was never collected and analyzed, despite the fact that the men allegedly admitted to police that they poured the remaining contents of the bottle over the apartment balcony.

No analysis of the sexual assault evidence kit collected at the hospital was done, according to the complaint. And then there’s this:

The complaint says the three men accused by Borkowski were interviewed together by detectives at a Chick-fil-A.

The men allegedly admitted to having sex with the two severely intoxicated women. They described it as consensual and told the detectives that they did not understand what the issue was, the lawsuit says. The case was closed by the police and no charges were filed.

I don’t expect Sheridan to publicly defend the entirety of what appears to be a shoddy investigation. There is one question that he can answer, however, that could tell us all that we need to know about the seriousness with which his department took Borkowski’s accusations: 

  • Chief Sheridan, did your detectives interview the suspects together at Chick-fil-A? If so, explain to the public how interviewing gang-rape suspects in a group at a fast-food restaurant is consistent with sound investigatory practices.

I can tell you, as a prosecutor, it is not.

 Dismissing the Charges

Even more disturbing are the events described in the lawsuit that occurred after the state decided not to proceed with criminal charges against the three alleged attackers.

Borkowski decided to pursue the matter on her own by applying to court commissioner John Robey for a statement of charges.

Instead of making his own determination of probable cause, Robey contacted a detective and a prosecutor involved in the case. Instructed by them, Robey refused to issue charges, according to the complaint.

Undeterred, Borkowski tried again before a different commissioner, Colleen Ellingson.

Ellingson made her own determination of probable cause and charged the three men with crimes including first degree rape.

When he found out about the statements of charges, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger ordered police not to serve the summonses on the defendants, the lawsuit says. Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever had the charges dismissed.

County police then opened an investigation into Borkowski.

Threatening the Accuser

Dever obtained a grand jury subpoena seeking the affidavit that Borkowski submitted to Robey describing the alleged rape.

Shellenberger and Dever allegedly then told detectives “to tell Ms. Borkowski that she has to stop bringing these additional charges or they will file criminal abuse of process charges against her.”

In my opinion, this was a hollow threat. For one thing, there is no crime of “abuse of process.”

The grand jury subpoena suggests that police and prosecutors were searching for inconsistencies in the affidavits submitted by Borkowski to the two different court commissioners. In other words, they were investigating Borkowski for perjury.

The hollowness of his threat didn’t stop Shellenberger from allegedly sending three police officers to Borkowski’s home in Baltimore to deliver it.

Police and prosecutors expended more time and effort trying to get Borkowski to back off than they did investigating her complaint.

Again, I don’t expect Shellenberger to be willing to go into detail about the actions of his office. But there is one question that he can answer that could tell us all that we need to know about his attitude toward alleged victims of sexual assault: 

  • State’s Attorney Shellenberger, did you send two detectives accompanied by a uniformed officer to Ms. Borkowski’s home to warn her against bringing any more charges against her alleged attackers? If so, on what legal basis did you do that, and what did you tell the officers to say to her?

If the assistant attorney general representing you in the lawsuit advises you to not to answer this question, politely refuse the advice.

Explain to him that it is more important to assure citizens that their state’s attorney does not believe in harassing the alleged victims of sexual assault. Assuming, of course, that it is true.

One-in-Five

I don’t mean to suggest in this analysis that UMBC students should rest assured the school will change its ways.  UMBC has its own history of mishandling of sexual assault reports, ineffective sexual assault prevention education and inadequate support for survivors, as UMBC doctoral student Aliya Webermann recently pointed out.

Webermann recounted her own frustration as an activist on the issue and cited a 2016 campus survey in which one in five students reported experiencing sexual assault.

Emotions ran high at a campus “listening session” held at UMBC after two women sued the school saying it mishandled their reported sexual assault and others.

Still, there is some cause for hope about progress in addressing sexual assault on the school’s campus.

Off campus, there is little reason amid the silence and absence of accountability to be optimistic that anything will change soon.
___________________________
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 October 5, 2018 but not posted to my blog until November 5, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Which is worse, a pathological liar like President Trump, or a calculating liar like Judge Kavanaugh?

President Donald Trump is a pathological liar. He lies compulsively with little or no regard for his credibility; many of his falsehoods are readily debunked. He lies about petty things as often as he lies about things of major importance. His lying is rooted in a deep-seated personality disorder. At the end of the day, you can’t believe a word that he says without verification.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, on the other hand, is a calculating liar. Or at least he was during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

Judge Kavanaugh lied about the extent of his drinking during his prep school and college years. The evidence is now overwhelming that he frequently drank to excess, probably experienced blackouts, and was an obnoxious and belligerent drunk through at least his first two years in college.

Judge Kavanaugh lied about his drinking history for a reason. Admitting to the senators that he often drank to the point where his memory and judgment were impaired would have made his denial of the allegations by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford far less plausible, jeopardizing the confirmation of his nomination to the Supreme Court. He made a calculation that his best chance to be confirmed was to deny the extent of his drinking and hope not to be caught in the lie, or at least not be caught until after the committee and the full Senate voted to confirm him.

As a lawyer and judge, Judge Kavanaugh knew that people, including judges and juries, are much more likely to believe that a person did something “out of character” if they believe that the person was drunk. And people are much more likely to believe that someone was drunk at a given time and place once they learn that the person was a habitual heavy drinker.

Judge Kavanaugh’s scheme depended for its success on the process moving quickly; he certainly realized that denying his history of heavy drinking under oath on national television would bring witnesses out of the woodwork to contradict his testimony. The delay of the vote on his confirmation by the full Senate and the supplemental investigation by the FBI, which he clearly did not anticipate, threw a monkey wrench into his scheme.

Now, regardless of what senators believed happened between him and Dr. Ford 35 years ago, they are faced with the knowledge that Judge Kavanaugh lied under oath last week. It looks like that by lying about his drinking Judge Kavanaugh took a calculated risk and lost. Although nothing is for sure in these turbulent times, it is hard to believe that the Senate will vote to confirm him knowing that he lied through his teeth while testifying before the Judiciary Committee.

So, we had a compulsive liar nominate a calculating liar to be a justice on the United States Supreme Court.  As to my question, which is worse, a compulsive liar or a calculating liar, I really don’t know the answer.  It seems to me, however, with a compulsive liar as president we don’t need to place calculating liars on the Supreme Court.  It can’t be a good idea to make the federal government top heavy with liars.

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.