The Baltimore County Council approved legislation Monday requiring coaches and other recreation volunteers who work with children to undergo background checks, a move officials said is meant to protect children from sexual predators.
The county is the only jurisdiction in the Baltimore region that does not run background checks on volunteers for government-sponsored recreational activities. Council members passed the measure unanimously, giving county officials until July 2015 to work out details of a policy on the checks.
"There are so many unfortunate incidents that happen with young children that we don't find out about until 10 or 20 years later," said Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who was lead sponsor of the legislation. "I just thought we could be a voice for them and protect them."
The county has about 30,000 recreation volunteers, though not all work with children. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had initially sought a delay on the bill, saying the county should take time to study its fiscal and logistical implications. But Bevins said the administration eventually worked with council members on the issue, and she was "very grateful" for its support.
County officials will be charged with developing a policy that will include naming what types of criminal convictions would make someone ineligible to serve as a volunteer. The program could cost nearly $1.2 million in its first year, according to the county auditor's office.
The bill does not address how the background checks will be funded, but some recreation councils in the county already perform them and pay for them through program fees. The county's Board of Recreation and Parks, a citizens panel, has pushed for the requirement as a countywide policy.
Also Monday, the council approved a Kamenetz administration measure that will force hookah lounges in the county to close by midnight nightly — later than the county executive had initially proposed, but earlier than many of the lounges close now.
Kamenetz had wanted to require such lounges — where patrons smoke flavored tobacco through a water pipe — to close at 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends.
The county has nine hookah lounges. Kamenetz said the bill is meant to increase safety and cut down on resident complaints in neighborhoods where the lounges are located. Police say problems at some of the establishments have included underage drinking, assaults and drug activity. Owners of hookah lounges that have never had brushes with the law said the county was unfairly targeting them.
Councilman Todd Huff, who sponsored the amendment changing the closing time to midnight, said the council wanted to protect public safety without hurting those lounge owners who run their businesses responsibly.
"We're trying to be fair to the business community as a whole," said Huff, a Lutherville Republican.
Maurice "King" Sawalhi, who owns Tobacco Center & Cafe in Parkville, said the amended bill was better than the original proposal but will still hurt his business on the weekends. He said he closes at midnight most weeknights and at 2 a.m. weekends. He testified at a council work session last week, saying police have never been called to his business.
"A lot of people like to stay out till 2 a.m. on the weekends," he said Monday.
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