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Lobbyists will have too much influence on changes to county charter, some say

Kach

Wade Kach

Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach is raising concerns over the inclusion of lobbyists on a new commission tasked with reviewing the county’s charter.

In an email to constituents marked “urgent,” Kach said he initially co-sponsored the legislation creating the commission, but that he was immediately withdrawing his support and sponsorship because “the issues that the commission will confront are so important and so sensitive, it is vital to make sure that members of the commission are unencumbered by conflicts of interest.  With this in mind, it is deeply disappointing to note that several proposed members of the commission are lobbyists with issues presently before the council.”

Kach specifically took issue with

  • John B. Gontrum, an attorney with Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, nominated by Councilwoman Vicki Almond
  • Michael Paul Smith, attorney with Smith, Gildea & Schmidt, nominated by Councilwoman Cathy Bevins
  • Edward Gilliss, attorney with Royston Mueller, McLean & Reid
  • David H. Karceski, attorney with Venable

Both Gilliss and Karceski were nominated by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Smith is the son of former county executive Jim Smith.

A spokeswoman for Kach said all four attorneys have lobbied his office in the past. Kach represents District 3, which includes Timonium and Cockeysville.

“Having lobbyists on this commission does a disservice to the people of Baltimore County. It is a stunning indictment of a system which for too long has catered to special interests at the expense of the public,” said Ryan Fried, senior policy advisor to Kach. “Now more than ever, we need openness and transparency in the way Baltimore County conducts its business.”

David Karceski

Karceski’s firm represents Caves Valley Partners, which is pursuing a controversial Royal Farms at Bosley Avenue and York Road. He is also the lawyer representing Mark Renbaum, the developer behind a much-protested Starbucks drive-through on York Road where Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh and Anneslie converge.

“We believe there are significant ethics issues to be addressed in the charter.  Developers and their agents who make contributions to political campaigns have an undue level of influence on zoning, development decisions and legislation,” the Green Towson Alliance said in a statement.  “We are troubled to learn that lobbyists and developer attorneys are being appointed to the charter review commission. We want our county executive and council members to take this opportunity to appoint community leaders to the charter review commission; members who will recommend changes to the county charter that would rebalance the structure of Baltimore County government to better serve the mutually supportive objectives of economic success, community welfare and environmental protection.”

Don Mohler, chief of staff to Kamenetz, said that “attorneys familiar with the charter and the code provide valuable insight for the commission. But ultimately, the commission only makes recommendations to the council. The council and the voters will make the final decisions about charter revision.”

Kevin Kamenetz

Council members will vote on the slate on Feb. 21. Kach’s office said it’s an “all or nothing” vote; the slate must be voted up or down as a whole. Once seated, the commission must hold at least one public meeting, and any recommendations the commission makes can’t be approved unless at least five of the seven members of the council accept them, and then they must be approved by voters in a referendum.

In November 2016, voters approved a referendum requiring that the county’s charter be reviewed every 10 years. The last time the charter was reviewed was 1989.

Gontrum “has been listed as a ‘Best Lawyers in America’ since 2010, and is past president of the Baltimore County Bar Association. In addition to his strong legal background John is rooted in community, serving on the board of directors of Neighborspace and MedStar Health. He is the resident of the Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce and the past president of the Eastern Baltimore Area/ Dundalk Chamber of Commerce. John was the chairman of the Essex- Middle River Steering Committee and served on the Executive Committee of the Essex Community Conservation Committee,” Almond said in an email. “John will bring a voice of experience, knowledge, balance and transparency as my appointment to the Baltimore County Charter Review Commission.”

Tiffany Cianci, Kach’s spokeswoman, said residents in his district have said overwhelmingly that they do not want lobbyists on the charter review commission. She said the office heard from 11 people who were fine with the lobbyists (and whom, she said, were interested parties) and more than 400 who were opposed.

“The polling has been unequivocal,” she said.

Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson and who sponsored the legislation creating the charter review, said he will likely vote in favor of the slate.

“I always thought the commission should ideally include people with some detachment from the current county government. I chose not to appoint a lobbyist, but that is because my preference was to appoint someone with an outside perspective. Some of my colleagues felt it was important to have members who were more involved with county government. It is simply a difference of opinion,” Marks said.

Antonio Campbell

“My appointee, Tony Campbell, is a political science professor at Towson University. He was active in the effort to expand the County Council to nine members, which would give Towson its own district.  I have made no secret that I support enlarging the Council.  I think many Towson voters agree with me on this. He is a Republican and African American.   I do think the commission should have some diversity. He actually ran against County Executive Kamenetz, but lost in the primary, so he is about as ‘outsider’ as you can get,” Marks said.

The government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland also said the makeup of the commission is troubling.

“The appointment of lobbyists to this commission certainly raises red flags. The commission does have the scope and authority to recommend changes to the charter that could potentially include issues such as ethics reforms or procedural changes to how development decisions are considered,”Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said in an email. “Having individuals with a vested interest in the outcome those decisions serve on the commission has the potential to change the discussion and the outcome, creating the potential for conflicts of interest.”

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