Howard County Council passes small donor finance system to begin in 2022 election cycle

County Council passes small donor finance system to begin in 2022 election cycle

In a 4-1 vote on Monday, the Howard County Council passed a bill to create a public finance system for candidates who turn down large donations.

Council Chairman Jon Weinstein and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa sponsored the bill.

Andy Barth, a spokesman for the county, said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman plans to veto the bill, which will then go back to the County Council for another vote. However, a second 4-1 council vote will override Kittleman's veto.

If approved, the new system will be in effect beginning with the 2022 election cycle.

Discussions on the bill began earlier this year after county voters approved the development of a public finance system that would draw campaign donations through government appropriations. Kittleman and District 5 Councilman Greg Fox, both Republicans, previously said they're against the system, arguing that campaign funds should be given only through voluntary contributions.

As Montgomery County prepares to implement a similar system beginning in 2018, Fox said the costs outweigh the benefits.

"It still has significant taxpayer dollars in it," Fox said. "We're seeing right now what's happening in Montgomery County with the $11 million price tag that's been put on there. Even if you say we'll be half of that, that's still $5 million or whatever the number ends up being at the end of the day. I hate to see the taxpayer dollars be utilized this way."

Council members Calvin Ball, Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty agreed that the bill answered the voters who expressed their support in referendum last year.

"The people have spoken and I think this is the right thing to do," Ball said.

"I'm very proud for Howard County to be one of the communities leading the way and I'm so grateful to all the advocates who supported this," added Terrasa.

Weinstein said he was happy with the final bill, following a few amendments to clarify the funding process and decrease funds available to county executive and council candidates. Howard County's system is modeled after that in Montgomery County, which was passed unanimously through their Council's legislation in 2014.

"We're looking forward to stepping out and adding our names to the list of jurisdictions that are taking campaign finance reform seriously," Weinstein said. "One of the amendments looks to enable a mechanism to collect funds from other means if people want to make contributions like they do for the state election fund. I think it's a strong bill."

Before the vote on Tuesday, Diane Wilson, the county's chief of staff, said Kittleman did not want campaign finances coming from the taxpayers.

"Spending taxpayer money on political campaigns will limit what we can do to support important county priorities including education, public safety, infrastructure improvements among other key areas," Wilson said.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ran successfully using the state's public funding program. Kittleman voted in support of citizen-funded elections as state senator.

Under Howard County's plan, candidates for county executive must demonstrate grassroots support by collecting at least $40,000 from 500 donations to get matching funds. Council candidates must collect at least $10,000 from at least 125 donations.

Candidates for county executive can unlock $700,000 in funds, while candidates for the council can unlock up to $85,000 in funding.

According to Maryland PIRG, the system will cost under $3 million over four years if two candidates for county executive and 15 candidates for county council receive the maximum amount of public funding allowed under the system. The nonprofit organization has remained a strong advocate of publicly funded campaigns in efforts to curb the involvement of corporations, unions and PACs in political campaigns.

Following the County Council meeting, the Zoning Board began discussing Chapelgate Presbyterian Church's request for more flexible zoning on their land. The church, which is located on a triangular-shaped plot between Marriottsville Road, Route 40 and Interstate 70, requested this change in order to build a new sanctuary, 134 town houses, a small commercial plot and a pathway system linking different parts of the property.

The request received backlash from residents of Albeth Heights, who claim the change would not only increase traffic and safety issues, but also cause environmental damage to a stream on the church's property. The Albeth community consists of about 14 to 15 houses nearby Chapelgate's 61-acre property.

In their request, Chapelgate asked for a Community Enhancement Floating zone that allows for more density and zoning flexibility on an eligible property in exchange for enhanced amenities for the surrounding community. The new district was created during the 2013 comprehensive zoning process.

Stu Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said the congregation's request does not fulfill the necessary requirements for the CEF designation.

"A typical staff report is supposed to have the Design Advisory Panel recommendations. That was not included," said Kohn, who has served an advisory role to the residents since the zoning request was made three years ago. "It's supposed to have comments and concerns of the citizens and neighborhoods. That was not included. It's unbelievable the things they have not met."

The Zoning Board will continue discussions with both parties at its next meeting on Monday, June 26.

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