Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. on Thursday proposed creating a system of public financing of local campaigns, saying it would reduce the influence of special interests on county politics.
Olszewski said he will put forth a charter amendment for the 2020 ballot to establish a “citizens’ election fund” for County Council and county executive candidates, an idea that would require the approval of both the council and county voters.
Candidates could opt to use the fund or continue to rely on private financing. Olszewski did not offer details on where the county would find the money for such a fund.
The plan is one of several measures Olszewski unveiled at a Towson news conference in an effort to increase public trust in county government. He said he will also introduce legislation to create an Office of Ethics and Accountability that would investigate claims of fraud, abuse and illegal acts.
Additionally, he said he wants to strengthen county lobbying laws and post lobbying registrations online for the public to view.
“In Baltimore County, unfortunately accountability and transparency has far too often been just an oversight, as opposed to a priority,” Olszewski said.
The county executive plans to introduce a package of bills in the coming month. The proposed charter amendment would also require voter approval.
Interest in public campaign financing has grown in the region. Montgomery County used public financing for the first time in last year’s local races.
Howard County is set to use a similar system in 2022. The Prince George’s County Council approved a public financing measure last year, to begin in 2026. And in Baltimore, voters last year approved a ballot measure that opened the door to such a program, but details are yet to be worked out.
Damon Effingham, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, which supports public financing, praised the county executive’s announcement.
“Right now there are so many concerns about wealthy interests coming into our elections and having a huge influence, and many Marylanders ... feel kind of voiceless in that process,” he said.
Effingham said it typically takes about four years for a county to establish a public financing system, so if the idea gains support in Baltimore County, it would be some time before it becomes reality.
Olszewski, a Democrat, made transparency a major theme of his campaign last year, and had pledged to create the public financing option if elected. He appeared at the news conference with Effingham and three councilmen — Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, and Democrats Julian Jones of Woodstock and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville.
“I’m grateful that they are here,” Olszewski said. “It proves that these are not partisan measures. These are good government measures.”
The financing system, if approved, would encourage small donations and provide candidates who participate with matching county funds, he said.
The influence of special interests — particularly developers — on politics is a complaint that many Baltimore County residents have raised in past elections. Land-use decisions are often the most controversial issues handled by local officials.
Debate over money in politics dominated the Democratic primary for county executive last year, with Olszewski’s opponents Vicki Almond and Jim Brochin frequently criticizing each other over the issue.
Olszewski’s latest campaign finance report, filed in January, shows multiple contributions from developers and their attorneys following his November win in the general election.
Asked whether contributions he has received influence his decisions, Olszewski said they don’t.
“We make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the public,” he said, “and the fact that we’re moving forward on these reforms I think speaks volumes that we’re going to make the right decisions in the interest of the county and its residents, no matter where a campaign contribution comes from.”
To put a charter amendment on the ballot, the seven-member County Council would need five votes. Several members said Thursday they are open to the idea but want more information.
“I support the concept of it,” said Council Chairman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat. “I’d like to see more details.”
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Republican Councilman David Marks of Perry Hall pointed to Gov. Larry Hogan, who successfully used state public financing in 2014.
“The voters deserve the opportunity to determine whether they want this type of system, which has been used at the state level,” Marks said. “If you want an example of a candidate who can benefit from a matching system, look no further than Larry Hogan.”
Jones said he would like more information on the cost to taxpayers, especially because Olszewski has told residents that county finances are very tight.
“It begs the question, how much money will this cost — and will this be an effective use of taxpayer dollars?” Jones said.
Effingham of Common Cause said Montgomery County set aside about $11 million for its election fund, but ended up using less than half of it in the 2018 election cycle.
Olszewski said the program “is a little different in every jurisdiction,” so the cost of a Baltimore County program would depend on the details.
“Those details will be fleshed out,” he said.