Baltimore County Council votes along party lines on ethics, work session bills

As Baltimore County Council members took up a series of bills Monday designed to address ethics and transparency in local government, votes fell along party lines.

The council, composed of four Democrats and three Republicans, voted 4-3 to approve legislation introduced by Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown to require ethics training for top county officials, registered lobbyists, and members of county boards including the Revenue Authority, Planning Board and the Liquor Board.

The three Republicans voted against the ethics measure, expressing concerns it would require ethics training for community activists. The Baltimore County Campaign for Liberty, which promotes libertarian principles, had urged its members to write to the council to oppose the bill, saying it would infringe upon First Amendment rights.

Democrats on the council — as well attorneys representing county government — said the bill wouldn't change any rules about who must register as a lobbyist. They also said the legislation wasn't intended to apply to community associations.

On another bill, the four Democrats voted together to reject a proposal to require their work sessions to be held in the evenings. The three Republicans supported it.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville, said it was meant to give residents more opportunity to comment on county legislation. Work sessions — where council members discuss bills and hear from citizens, but don't vote — are held weekday afternoons.

"This is an effort on my part to open up government, to give people an opportunity to come and testify on legislation that's important," Kach said.

Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, said the current schedule gives people the opportunity to appear before the council at different times of the day. While work sessions are held in the afternoons, legislative sessions are held in the evenings.

"I believe that we already have a balance," said Bevins, noting that constituents can also reach representatives by phone and email.

The council also rejected — along party lines — another bill proposed by Kach that would have required the county executive to hold at least two public meetings before introducing the budget. He said that measure, too, was intended to give citizens more input.

In another vote, Democrats voted down a bill sponsored by Republican Councilman David Marks that would have put two electronic speed warning signs in each councilmanic district. Funding would have come from county speed-camera revenue.

"I think tonight there were unfortunately a lot of votes that fell along party lines," Marks said after the meeting. "I hope it's not the beginning of a trend, because this council has largely avoided partisan votes like this."

Members did agree unanimously to approve legislation introduced by Almond to ban campaign contributions during the county's rezoning process, which happens every four years. Council members already refrain from fundraising during rezoning, but the legislation will put the prohibition into law.

Also Monday, Marks introduced a resolution intended to block a plan for a Royal Farms gas station and retail center at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue in Towson. Marks, who represents Towson, had announced the measure last week.

The controversial proposal is part of a plan for Caves Valley Partners to develop a now-vacant county firehouse at the intersection.

Community members who support Marks' resolution filled the council chambers, holding up signs to show their position. The legislation is set to be discussed at a meeting Aug. 1, with a vote scheduled for Aug. 7.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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