Baltimore County Council bills target public meetings, ethics, developer contributions

The Baltimore County Council is considering four measures that members say would make county government more transparent, and could attract more public input.

County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican, is proposing a bill that would require the council to hold more meetings in the evenings, and another that would require additional public hearings on the county's annual budget.

"There needs to be more public input, more openness and involvement," said Kach.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require ethics training for top county officials and would ban all campaign contributions during the county's rezoning process.

Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, lauded the efforts.

"We're glad to see the county taking ethical concerns in the community seriously and looking to address them," said Damon Effingham, the group's legal and policy director.

Kach, of Cockeysville, was elected to the council in 2014 after serving nearly 40 years in the state House of Delegates. He said he thinks some residents believe county officials don't listen to them.

"When I was elected to the council and saw the way things were operated, I said, 'I've got to do everything I can to open this up,'" said Kach. "I do think those efforts are paying off slowly."

One of Kach's bills would put an end to the council practice of discussing bills and taking public testimony during weekday afternoon work sessions. County residents rarely attend those sessions, and often no one from the public testifies on the bills.

Kach wants those work sessions to be held at 6 p.m. or later, like the council's voting sessions on Monday nights in Towson.

He has proposed a requirement that the county executive hold at least two public meetings before introducing the budget.

Currently, only the council holds a public hearing on the budget. This year, no one testified at that hearing.

A spokeswoman for Democratic County Executive Kevin Kamenetz did not say whether he supported the requirement.

"Both the school system and the county government already offer citizens significant opportunities to participate in the budgetary process," spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a statement.

Effingham said Kach's proposals could lead to more public participation in county government. He noted that Montgomery County, for example, has executive-led budget meetings around the county that are well-attended.

The Anne Arundel County Council passed legislation last year that requires the county executive to hold two public meetings before proposing the budget.

Allowing residents to have input before budgets are proposed is helpful, Effingham said.

"One of the reasons that the [Baltimore County] council hearing may have received little engagement in the past could be because, at that point, many priorities of the budget are already basically decided on," Effingham said.

Baltimore County has been criticized for being insufficiently transparent. The county began live-streaming work sessions online only recently. Council meetings are not live-streamed; they are taped by Comcast and aired on the county's cable channel on a delayed basis.

One of Almond's bills would prohibit campaign contributions to council members during the countywide rezoning process that is held every four years.

Rezoning, one of the major powers held by council members in Baltimore County, is an area of intense lobbying and community input. Council members already have an unofficial agreement against accepting campaign donations during the yearlong process. Almond's bill would turn that into a requirement.

Her bill has enough co-sponsors to assure its passage.

"With the zoning issues, we deal so much with the developers and the attorneys. There's a perception that if we take money from somebody that we'll do what they want us to do," said Almond, of Reisterstown. "It's totally not true. This bill helps to say we're not doing anything wrong."

State Sen. Jim Brochin, who tried unsuccessfully to pass a state law that would have completely banned developer campaign contributions in the county, said he is not impressed with the Almond proposal.

The Towson Democrat said the bill wouldn't prevent developers or others from making campaign donations or hosting fundraisers for council members just before or just after the rezoning process. And it wouldn't address campaign donations made when council members make other zoning decisions outside of the comprehensive rezoning process.

"It doesn't change anything and the pay-to-play cycle is perpetuated," Brochin said. "It's a very disingenuous attempt to get at a real, substantial problem in Baltimore County."

Brochin and Almond are both considering a run in the Democratic primary for county executive next year.

Almond's other bill would require annual training in ethics laws for county elected officials, top aides, top county officials, members of certain boards and commissions and registered lobbyists. The course would be provided by the county's Ethics Commission.

Almond said county officials get only cursory training in ethics, or pick up their ethics knowledge on the fly.

"It's extremely important to have everybody on the same page," she said.

All four bills are scheduled to be discussed during a work session June 27, with votes scheduled for July 3.

NOTE: Earlier versions of this story should have noted that Almond's bill related to campaign contributions would prohibit all contributions during the rezoning process. It has been corrected here.

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