Brochin proposes ban on developer contributions in Baltimore County

Should developers be banned from making campaign donations in Baltimore County?

A state senator who is considering a run for Baltimore County executive wants to prevent developers from giving campaign donations to county candidates.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Democrat from Towson, plans to introduce legislation in the General Assembly as a way to end what he calls "pay-to-play" developer contributions.

Brochin announced details of his bill during an event in Towson Monday, just two days before candidates are required to file annual campaign finance reports.

Brochin is considering a run for county executive in 2018. His bill, if approved by lawmakers, would go into effect in 2019.

State lawmakers passed a similar bill for Prince George's County in 1992, but no other county has followed with such a broad ban on developer contributions.

Development is a top issue in growing Baltimore County, and members of the County Council hold unusually strong power over zoning and development decisions.

"The deck is stacked against ordinary citizens," Brochin said. "They have no say. It's supposed to be government by the people and for the people, and it's anything but."

The Baltimore County Council's comprehensive rezoning process — which can attract hundreds of requests for zoning changes — happens every four years, which is much more frequently than other counties. And developers who want to build planned-unit developments — which are afforded significant zoning flexibility — need the council's approval.

When it comes to zoning matters, council members have practiced strict councilmanic courtesy, meaning that all seven council members defer to the wishes of other council members regarding development in their districts.

Developers and others who work in the industry are among top campaign donors to candidates from both parties in the county. Attorneys for developers frequently attend the council's meetings and work sessions.

County residents have often complained that they feel developers have more influence in the process than they do. As Brochin announced his bill during the Monday press conference, he was joined by civic activists from Towson and Dundalk. His bill also is supported by Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group.

"Zoning decisions are such a central aspect to what they do, and if you look at their [campaign finance] reports, developers are almost the only ones engaging in funding these local races," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

While making campaign donations doesn't necessarily ensure a developer's request is approved, it does often provide greater access to elected officials, Bevan-Dangel said.

"It certainly gives them influence that everyday citizens don't have," she said. "A bill like this levels the playing field."

Brochin's potential Democratic primary opponents for county executive were less enthusiastic.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat weighing a run, issued a brief statement focusing on the types of donations Brochin has received while serving as a state senator.

"I look forward to Senator Brochin introducing legislation that similarly restricts members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which he serves, from accepting campaign contributions from the legal community," Almond said.

John Olszewski Jr. of Dundalk, a former state delegate also considering a run, said a better option is to set up a publicly funded campaign finance system, which he says would better address the issue of special interests pouring money into campaigns.

"It's interesting that the senator chose to focus on only one, when we know there are many special interests at all levels of government," he said.

Brochin responded that he's supported numerous bills to reform campaign finance during his time in Annapolis.

Some speculate that a half-dozen Republicans may be considering a run for county executive, but no one from either party has officially announced a candidacy.

Brochin's bill would apply to developers and their "agents," including attorneys, engineers, consultants and architects, as well as the immediate family members of developers and their agents.

Anyone who applies for certain development or zoning approvals would not be allowed to make campaign donations while their application is pending, and they'd have to sign a document saying that they hadn't made donations in the prior three years.

If a council member or the county executive accepted contributions from a developer in the prior three years, they would not be allowed to "vote or participate" in the decision on that developer's project.

The bill covers a wide range of applications and approvals including zoning changes, special exception and variance requests, site plan approvals and planned unit developments.

pwood@baltsun.com

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