When the Baltimore County Council voted this year to reform the pension system for its members, councilmen Kevin Kamenetz and Joseph Bartenfelder took opposing stands on a matter of high public interest — a rare moment in local legislation.
Kamenetz introduced a bill capping council pensions to 60 percent of full salary and applying the cap only to future council members. Bartenfelder's bill made broader reforms, applying the same cap of 60 percent to current as well as future members, and revising terms of age and length of service. The county auditor estimated Bartenfelder's bill would save $1.3 million, more than three times the savings in the Kamenetz bill.
The council ultimately tabled Bartenfelder's measure and adopted Kamenetz's proposal by a vote of 6-1, with Bartenfelder dissenting after several changes he proposed were rejected.
It was one of about 70 occasions in more than 2,500 votes on bills and resolutions in which the two top contenders for the Democratic nomination for county executive have cast opposing votes since they joined the council Dec. 5, 1994. They have maintained a cordial relationship on a council that tends to resolve differences on bills during public discussions. Later, in legislative meetings, the council usually moves quickly through the agenda, and the vast majority of votes on bills are unanimous.
The rare differences provide some clues about the candidates' respective approaches to governing.
Kamenetz is generally more inclined to support government regulation, but both men have acted largely on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. If the pension bill vote in January cast Bartenfelder as the fiscal conservative, Kamenetz played that role in several votes on the county police union contract in 2008. If Kamenetz's vote last September against regulating commercial advertising fliers suggested a laissez-faire attitude toward business, so did Bartenfelder's vote weeks later against placing restrictions on minors using tanning salons.
The primary election will be held Sept. 14, and Bartenfelder and Kamenetz are facing off against former county employee Ronald E. Harvey. The lone Republican in the race is investment executive and former state delegate Kenneth C. Holt.
The council pension vote in January drew more attention than most, and political commentators at the time speculated about its potential impact on the county executive race.
Kamenetz and Bartenfelder both offered bills in response to a public outcry about the pension due Councilman Vincent Gardina of Perry Hall, who is leaving office this year after serving a record five, four-year terms. He'll retire from the part-time job with a pension equal to his full annual councilman's salary of $54,000.
Bartenfelder said recently that he did not think it was fair to apply reforms only to future members.
"I felt we should do pension reform that affected all of us on the council," said Bartenfelder, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Kamenetz said, "I drafted what I thought was an appropriate response. Any member can put in amendments as they see fit."
In May 2008, the two men were on opposite sides during a debate on compensation for another group of county employees. As part of approving the 2009 budget, the council took up parts of the new police contract that had been settled in binding arbitration, a process that requires both the county and the union to abide by the decision of an independent third party.
The binding arbitration award was broken up for council votes into 14 separate bills. Bartenfelder voted for 13 of 14, Kamenetz for six.
In view of Bartenfelder's support for organized labor and binding arbitration, his votes were not surprising. At the time, Kamenetz conveyed his misgivings about binding arbitration for public safety employee unions, which had been approved by a county referendum in 2002.
In his budget message delivered as council chairman that spring, Kamenetz called the police contract the "most troubling" aspect of that year's budget. He said binding arbitration requires the council to "treat one group of employees differently than another," and "potentially circumvents the budget controls" in the county charter.
In an interview, Kamenetz said he was aware at the time of the potential political risk of his votes and his statements. Indeed, this primary season he lost the contest for labor support to Bartenfelder, who won the backing of county police and firefighters, the AFL-CIO and, most recently, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67. Kamenetz has been endorsed by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Laborers International Union of North America.
In fall 2009, the two councilmen took different views on two questions of government regulation within weeks.
Last September, the council passed a bill barring businesses from distributing advertising fliers unless the material clearly showed a phone number residents could call to ask that the fliers not be left at their doors or in their mailboxes. Kamenetz voted against it; Bartenfelder supported it.
Kamenetz said, "I was mindful of the concerns" of some residents who had complained about the fliers, but "I didn't want to impact small business in difficult economic times."
Bartenfelder said, "I voted for it because of the litter problem created by fliers that become trash."
Weeks later, the two men had different positions on another matter of government intervention, as the council rejected a bill restricting young people's use of tanning salons. The measure introduced by Gardina would have required those under 18 to have a doctor's prescription to use tanning machines.
The bill failed 5-2, with Bartenfelder opposed and Kamenetz in favor.
"It was a no-brainer for me," said Kamenetz. "The protection of children against skin cancer overrides any other concern that was put forward," he said, adding that tanning salons "brought in all these witnesses to discuss the positive health impacts of tanning. … Joe may have been persuaded by that, but I wasn't."
Bartenfelder said he opposed the bill because "we were getting into a decision process there that should involve parents, not politicians. … As a political body, we were injecting ourselves into people's personal decisions."
Bartenfelder voted in the minority against several bills over the years that created more government regulation. He opposed measures to license roller rinks and "amusement halls," a bill to regulate political signs and legislation providing penalties for owners of animals that had been declared "dangerous" after showing aggressive behavior or attacking a person or a pet. Kamenetz supported all these measures.
But when the council adopted a pilot program in 2002 to have rental housing inspected every three years, Kamenetz voted against it and Bartenfelder supported it. In 2007, when the program was extended to the whole county, Kamenetz supported it and Bartenfelder did not. The measure requires owners of six or fewer rented apartments or homes to be licensed, and to hire contractors to perform inspections.
Bartenfelder said he thought it made sense to try the program as an experiment, and he wasn't opposed to expanding the effort. But when it came time for the vote in 2007, he said "what I saw was an increase in the number of homeless people" in the county, and he feared that the new program could put more landlords out of business, leaving more people in low-rent housing without a place to live.
As a candidate for county executive, Bartenfelder has emphasized that his tenure on the council and his time in the House gives him 28 years as a legislator — experience that he says will be valuable in maintaining county services through tight budget years to come.
Kamenetz emphasizes the work he's done shaping policy through legislation, negotiating the county's cable television contracts and minding the budget.
The question for voters, he said, is "who is more qualified to be CEO of our $2.5 billion corporation with 8,500 general government and 10,000 education employees?"
The bills introduced by Kevin Kamenetz and Joseph Bartenfelder about County Council pensions were incorrectly described in earlier versions of this article. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.