The prominent land-use lawyer poised to take over as Baltimore County's land development chief has decades of experience in local government, but some question how he will distance himself from former clients and colleagues doing business with his agency.
Arnold E. Jablon's nomination to the new Department of Permits, Inspections and Approvals was submitted to the County Council for consideration last week by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who has already moved to address concerns over potential conflicts of interest.
Donald I. Mohler III, county spokesman and Kamenetz's chief of staff, said Kamenetz and Jablon agreed that Jablon, who has worked at the Venable law firm in Towson since 2003, will not take part in decisions involving clients whom Jablon represented in cases that are now active.
Mohler said that would include any cases that are still being decided at any level, whether at the county's Board of Appeals or the Circuit Court. The restriction on Jablon's participation would not include cases being handled by other lawyers at Venable, and has not been put in writing.
Mohler could not specify how the agreement would be enforced, except to say that "a little common sense goes a long way. ... Over the years [Jablon's] integrity has been beyond reproach."
A review of all 25 cases pending before the Board of Appeals shows that Jablon is representing clients in seven, all but one of which involve land use. Baltimore County Circuit Court records also show Jablon as the lawyer in at least four cases that were once before the Board of Appeals and could conceivably be sent back. Jablon will not oversee the board, but petitioners who are successful in their appeals could potentially return to his department for the permits they need to pursue their projects.
In one case, for example, Jablon is representing Verizon and a landowner in the Sparks-Glencoe area in their bid to construct a cell phone tower. In another case, he's representing the people and organizations opposing an Owings Mills man's bid for permission to allow a service garage for a tow truck operation.
Jablon, 67, who has served as head of the former department of planning and zoning, as zoning commissioner, county attorney and head of the Department of Permits and Development Management, declined to comment for this story. He will appear before the County Council on Tuesday along with 16 other appointees. Council members, who have expressed strong support for Jablon, have until mid-January to decide on the nominations.
The agreement with Kamenetz was little comfort to some community activists who argue that a land-use lawyer heading an agency governing development is disturbing on its face.
"It was a problem when [Jablon] left the position as head of the Department of Permits and Development Management and went to Venable," said Donna Spicer of Loch Raven, one of the county's unofficial authorities on zoning code and development procedures. "To have him coming back is even a greater problem. He has been representing clients" who have land-use projects in the county.
Jablon is to be paid $180,000 in his new job as both chief of permits, inspections and approvals and county deputy administrative officer for agency accountability. The previous head of permits and development management was paid $151,000.
The Department of Permits, Inspections and Approvals — formerly Permits and Development Management — enforces county building codes, issues permits and directs construction projects for approval of other agencies, such as the zoning commissioner and the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.
Alan P. Zukerberg, a lawyer and longtime activist in Pikesville, said the nomination affirms his view that government officials and developers are too close and that these relationships put communities at a disadvantage in challenging construction proposals.
"Mr. Kamenetz is putting the stronger fox back into the chicken coop," said Zukerberg. "This is a major payback to the developer community which so ably and strongly, financially supported his candidacy."
He said the agreement between Kamenetz and Jablon is hardly reassuring. He wondered how it would be enforced, and why it wasn't negotiated by lawyers outside the administration.
"That's not satisfactory to me because his underlings will be involved," said Zukerberg. "You have to be concerned about the appearance of impropriety."
The county ethics code specifically bars officials from dealing with matters in which they have a financial stake, and it sets standards for officials leaving government to join a private business, as Jablon did in 2003. However, the code does not address the circumstance of a person joining government from a private concern. "Public confidence and trust is eroded when the conduct of county business is subject to improper influence or when there is the appearance of improper influence," the code reads.
Some on the seven-member County Council said they were prepared to ask Jablon how potential conflicts would be handled, but all six members reached for this story expressed confidence in Jablon's ability and integrity.
"It will be up to the council to ask these questions of Mr. Jablon on Tuesday about his relationship with the law firm and the lawyers," said Vicki Almond of Reisterstown, the new council member in District 2. "I think there will be times when he'll have to recuse himself," she said, adding that she thought Jablon would bring strong management and deep knowledge to the position.
David Marks of Perry Hall, the new representative of District 5, said that "the universe of development attorneys in Towson is very small" and Jablon would not be able to remove himself from every case where he has an acquaintance with the lawyers involved. He said "anyone who's had a personal business relationship" with the person coming before their department for a decision should recuse himself.
"I'm sure it'll be sorted out on a case-by-case basis," said Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, who represents District 4. "It's not a big concern of mine. I have all the trust and faith in Arnold Jablon."