Councilwoman Vicki Almond is touting her experience in local government as she runs to become the next Baltimore County Executive. And she’s pushing back on criticism that developers’ campaign contributions have ever influenced her vote.
In a wide-ranging interview, she also discussed the recent controversy over Baltimore County Public Schools interim superintendent’s undisclosed consulting fees; construction of a new building for Towson High School; the success of the Foundry Row development in her district; and why she voted to let the controversial Royal Farms project in Towson move forward.
The other two Democrats in the primary race for county executive — Sen. Jim Brochin of Cockeysville and and Johnny Olszewski Jr. of Dundalk — both have a background in state politics, while Almond has been on the county council for nearly two terms.
“County [government] is so different. We are so local. We are all about everyday life. And we do legislation that helps with that everyday life, but our main concerns are making sure we have good schools, good public safety, smart growth, and solid communities, roads paved,” Almond said. “When you tell me you don’t have money to pave a road, we’ve got a problem. Because people want their roads paved, and why shouldn’t they? If there’s a pothole, I’m like William Donald Schafer: ‘There’s a pothole. I want someone to come and fix it!'”
Prior to joining the council seven years ago, Almond, 68, spent decades as a volunteer. She was parish administrator at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church for 20 years, and she served for many years, including serving as president, on the PTA and on the ROG (Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council). She also served as chief of staff to state Sen. Bobby Zirkin.
As a teen, she dropped out of high school to help her mother make ends meet, going to night school for her GED while working during the day. She did not attend college but instead, as her spokeswoman said, got “a degree in real life.”
Almond formally announced her run earlier this month at Foundry Row, a new outdoor mall anchored by Wegmans and home to stores like Old Navy and HomeGoods, and restaurants such as Mission BBQ and Bagby Pizza. The site was formerly a former Sweetheart Cup factory.
Almond championed the project by developer Greenberg Gibbons, even as others — such as the developer behind the nearby mixed-use Metro Centre — fought against it. Foundry Row was supported by groups including ROG and the Greater Greenspring Association.
“Foundry Row has made Owings Mills,” Almond said.
One of the entities that was against Foundry Row was the development firm Caves Valley Partners, according to the Jewish Times. Caves Valley gave money to a fund called A Better Baltimore County Slate that supported Almond’s opponent in the 2014 Democratic primary. The fund was created by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former councilmen Vince Gardina and John Olszewski Sr., whose son is now running against Almond and Brochin in the primary.
(Kamenetz supported challengers to both Almond and Brochin in their most recent primaries, although in both cases those challengers were defeated.)
But in the intervening years, Caves Valley has been a supporter of Almond and has donated at least $6,000 to her campaign since January 2014.
Recently Almond drew the ire of many Towson residents when she and other Democrats on the council voted against killing a proposed Royal Farms gas station at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue. Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the area, initially supported the Royal Farms but then decided it was unworkable. He introduced a motion to kill the development, but it was voted down in August along party lines.
The Royal Farms developer is Caves Valley.
Councilman Tom Quirk is now overseeing negotiations between Caves Valley and community members who are opposed to the project. They were supposed to come to a resolution by mid September but are still in talks.
“Quite frankly, again, it’s York Road. [The Royal Farms] was going to make that corner better, I thought. Again, if you don’t want development on a major corridor, where do you want it? But there were also things that were done like the trees were taken down with no notice. I mean it was one catastrophe after another, it just kept, you know, just boiling over,” Almond said in an interview.
“Any time I think there’s a chance for compromise and negotiation I want to let it happen. And I think that is what’s happening. And I think at some point soon you will hear what they’re going to do,” she said.
Brochin, and some in the community, have criticized Almond for being too close to developers and, they say, letting campaign contributions influence her decisions. Brochin, for example, has said Almond is part of the “pay-to-play culture in Towson” and that she voted for the Royal Farms project because “she’s indebted to Caves Valley and everybody knows it.”
Almond said she resents those accusations.
“I have never made a promise that says ‘I’ll do whatever you want to do.’ I haven’t. I won’t. And it offends me when people think that,” she said. “Developers give you money, and the reason they give you money is not to make you do what they want you to do — I’m sure some of them are hopeful — they give you money to have access.”
She pointed out that her opponents have also gotten money from developers and other special interests.
“We all do,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re bought and paid for.”
Another issue the next county executive will have to confront is the fact that Towson High School’s building has been identified as needing to be replaced because it is in disrepair and is overcrowded. The county recently promised planning money for a new building for the school, and BCPS submitted a funding request for the state that said the new Towson building would seat more than 1,800 students. Some in the area are concerned that the school will have too many students for such a small piece of land — the smallest high school site in the county.
“Why do we have to build these schools so big? Can we build schools with more flexibility? Trends change. Some years we need more elementary schools, some years we more middle schools, and some years more high schools. So can’t we be a little more flexible in our thought process when we’re building these schools?” Almond said.
“I think we’ve got to be innovative. It can’t just be this or that,” she said. “We have an 1,800-kid school or we redistrict, what do you want? I don’t think those are the only choices, and I think those are things that we have to look at and say, OK, how big should a high school be?”
In regard to Verletta White, the interim BCPS superintendent who recently acknowledged she failed to disclose income she made as a consultant for a company that helps technology firms get school contracts, Almond said she will reserve judgement.
“I have a great deal of respect for her and I think she’s a good interim superintendent and I would hope that she could stay as superintendent,” Almond said. “I think there needs to be an explanation from her about it.”
As for all the technology that BCPS has recently acquired, Almond said she wants to make sure that along with using devices, students are also learning the basics of reading, writing and speaking. She said she’d also like to see BCPS put more emphasis on vocational training.
“We need to bring back the electricians and the carpenters — those are good, stable jobs with good pay,” she said. “And if you have kids in high school who have no intention of going to college … but yet you give them an apprenticeship and you pull them into the trades and you can save a kid that way.”
In addition to the three Democrats, Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer and state Del. Pat McDonough have both joined the race on the Republican side. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by a 2-to-1 margin.
Almond did not mention the fact in a wide-ranging interview, but if she wins, she would be the first woman to hold the job of Baltimore County Executive.
While Brochin and Olszewski have participated in several debates, Almond so far has declined to do so. Her spokeswoman said for now she is listening to voters and will join in the debates next year.
Almond said she doesn’t want to be County Executive as a stepping stone to higher office.
“I’m in it to make Baltimore County better and to make the citizens of Baltimore County say, Hey, we live in a great place. And I want more people to come and live here. We haven’t closed the doors. We’re open for business, we’re open for people,” she said. “But you have to have all of it to attract people to come here. You have to have good neighborhoods, solid schools, public safety, and economic development.”
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