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‘Still just getting started:’ Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski reflects on first half of his term

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is speaking at the graduate school commencement at UMBC on May 22.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is speaking at the graduate school commencement at UMBC on May 22. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/ Baltimore Sun)

When Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. took office two years ago, his first year was characterized by an unprecedented $81 million budget shortfall that his administration remediated with the county’s first tax increase in decades.

His second year has been marked by a global public health crisis.

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But despite the challenges, the Dundalk Democrat, in an interview with Baltimore Sun Media, touted what he views as his accomplishments halfway through his term, starting with: County voters on a ballot referendum this year approved public campaign financing, Olszewski’s first major legislative initiative.

Under the leadership of the county’s first sustainability officer, appointed by Olszewski, methane produced by Eastern Sanitary Landfill in White Marsh is now being converted into electricity — enough to power 1,600 homes in the first phase of what has been called the first renewable energy venture in Baltimore County’s history.

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In July, he announced a new 10-year glass recycling program for residents after The Baltimore Sun reported the county had not recycled glass materials since 2013.

Michael Beichler, bureau chief of solid waste management for the Baltimore County Dept. of Public Works, stands in front of the Eastern Sanitary Landfill's Renewable Energy Plant. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020
Michael Beichler, bureau chief of solid waste management for the Baltimore County Dept. of Public Works, stands in front of the Eastern Sanitary Landfill's Renewable Energy Plant. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

And under the auspices of the Office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives, created by the former state delegate who pledged a commitment to transparency and accountability on the campaign trail, the county has rolled out a number of open-data tools through BCSTAT, a management program that is using and publishing data collected by county agencies to drive decisions. The data includes crime statistics from 2017 to 2020, instances when a county police officer uses force and, most recently, dollar amounts paid to specific vendors in fiscal 2020 and for which services and projects they were paid.

He also established the county’s first Office of the Inspector General, an independent government ethics watchdog office.

“I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished in the government space,” Olszewski said. “That would be a lot, I think, even if we weren’t facing the pandemic.”

Olszewski said his administration reflects the county’s diversity more than in prior administrations, too: More than 40% of his leadership team is made up of people of color, and women make up half the leadership in his senior staff and cabinet.

Reflecting on his first two years overall, Olszewski said, “We’re still just getting started.”

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt is sworn in by Julie Ensor the Clerk of the Court for Baltimore County at Patriot Plaza in Towson. She is the first woman to hold this position in Baltimore County. John Olszewski the Baltimore County Executive took part in the ceremony.
Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt is sworn in by Julie Ensor the Clerk of the Court for Baltimore County at Patriot Plaza in Towson. She is the first woman to hold this position in Baltimore County. John Olszewski the Baltimore County Executive took part in the ceremony. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Among his accomplishments, he says, are education funding and investment in new public transportation efforts like the three-year Towson Circulator pilot project for a free and localized bus system.

The former teacher included millions in capital funding for school construction, although remaining Schools for our Future construction projects will have to wait until state provides its share of funding from the Built to Learn Act. He funded Baltimore County Public Schools at almost $36 million above fiscal 2020′s funding levels and $20 million more than the required maintenance of effort.

But Olszewski also has had to contend with the county’s deadliest year on record — 49 homicides, although crime has decreased overall, dropping more than 3% in his first two years and nearly 11% between 2017 and 2019 — and a police force that last year killed eight people, the most civilian deaths by police in the state, during a year of nationwide protests against police brutality.

Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a press conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp in November.
Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a press conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp in November. (Phil Davis)

Thirty people have been killed in the county as of Nov. 30, police said, a decrease of 27% compared to this time last year.

He’s sought to address those issues by funding two new police squads to focus full time on “targeted law enforcement” priorities and with police reform measures enacted through executive order, like updating the department’s use of force policy — although the county NAACP chapter and the Blue Guardians, an association of Black police officers within Baltimore County Police, criticized the order as hasty and said they were not brought into the discussion to shape it.

The following interview has been edited for clarity, brevity and to add context.

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Baltimore Sun Media: I know the county has been following the state’s reopening guidance [on the pandemic] so as to not be confusing. Does the county have certain benchmarks when it comes to deciding whether or not to revert to more restrictive measures?

Johnny Olszewski: First and foremost, the biggest impact is on public health, but we also know it confuses residents if we have a patchwork approach by our local jurisdictions and it can put businesses at a disadvantage. We’ve consistently said if the numbers get to a point where action is demanded and the state doesn’t act, we will. We track a lot of things, positivity and case rate per 100,000 residents [the positivity rate was at 7.5% on Dec. 3] hospitalizations, intensive care unit capacity, ventilator usage. I talk to our hospital presidents weekly and confer with fellow county executives.

How do you expect the pandemic will further squeeze the county budget? How do you expect to mitigate the pandemic’s toll on the county’s budget moving forward?

It’s difficult to fully predict the full impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on state and local governments, including Baltimore County. But anticipating significant economic disruption from the pandemic, we took action early on to cut over $125 million from this year’s budget and strengthened our reserve fund balance. These steps, coupled with stronger than expected revenue collections and federal CARES Act funding, have allowed Baltimore County to make the investments necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic without having to consider other measures, such as dipping into the county’s Rainy Day fund.

You were the first county exec to raise taxes in decades in 2019. That didn’t happen this fiscal year — is that a possibility next year, something your administration is considering?

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In partnership with the County Council, we closed an inherited structural deficit of more than $80 million in our first year, while also maintaining our coveted triple-A bond rating and making historic investments in education. Our solution was comprehensive, bipartisan and created in partnership with the public. While significant economic uncertainty remains ahead, Baltimore County is on much stronger fiscal footing than when I first took office two years ago thanks to our actions.

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How has your administration prioritized where to send federal coronavirus relief funding? Even without more guaranteed federal aid, staff in your administration have said there are certain relief programs the county would still need to continue. What are those programs?

Baltimore County has prioritized CARES funding to support the county’s front-line public health response, including COVID testing, contact tracing and PPE. We’ve also committed millions in business and economic supports to small businesses, restaurants and artists [the county has put $5.4 million of the federal aid toward economic relief grants through Oct. 31, according to the county] and we’ve strengthened the safety net for families, providing more than 8.5 million meals in collaboration with Baltimore County Public Schools [at a cost of $4.7 million] and by distributing millions for rental assistance and making child care subsidies available to low-income families [totaling $1.58 million]. We remain committed to doing all that we can to support the health and safety of our families and a recovery from the economic impacts of this pandemic.

Nursing students place green cards on cars indicating who needs to be tested for Covid-19 as people wait to get into the cow palace at the State Fairgrounds.
Nursing students place green cards on cars indicating who needs to be tested for Covid-19 as people wait to get into the cow palace at the State Fairgrounds. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

How has the pandemic changed your approach to the job?

This experience has been transformative for me as a leader, as a person, and it’s challenged our entire team to be even better. It has reinforced for me our shared humanity and the need for us all to look after one another. Right now, we remain focused on beating this deadly virus, keeping our people safe, and keeping our economy going. The priorities outlined in our transition report and in our strategic plan will continue to guide our efforts in the years ahead.

To settle complaints of housing discrimination, the county in 2016 initiated a voluntary consent agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build 1,000 new affordable housing units by 2027. The county has a nonbinding benchmark to add 570 new affordable housing units by the end of this calendar year, and is 67 units behind. Last year, county planners told the Sun that there were 520 units either under construction or being planned. What happened to slow down the affordable development momentum?

Projects get accelerated and slowed down occasionally. There were also recent zoning decisions that may jeopardize projects we had planned to support, but by and large, we are making progress. We are committed to honoring the provisions of the voluntary consent agreement [and] delivered a major win when we ended housing discrimination based on source of income [through the Baltimore County HOME Act].We are having regular meetings with housing advocates to ensure we are meeting the goals and requirements of the VCA — I think that was not necessarily happening before.

Which affordable housing project was impacted by rezoning legislation?

A proposed project near St. Mark’s on the Hill Episcopal Church in Pikesville. It was included in the planned units that [in 2019] had been counted toward the voluntary consent agreement.

Specifically, with the Red Maple Place project, the community surrounding that proposed affordable housing building in East Towson is adamantly against this. From your perspective is there any avenue for compromise here?

I’ve met with housing advocates and have also met with community leaders. I understand that they have concerns, and I don’t take that lightly. We are trying to fulfill our moral and legal obligation to expand access to affordable housing, and the project in question is one that was identified as an area of opportunity in the voluntary consent agreement. I’ve tried to facilitate a meeting between community and [affordable housing advocates] to see if there is room for compromise, but anything we do has to be viewed in the light of our obligations under the voluntary consent agreement. Every family deserves a safe place to call home, and we’re committed to that. We didn’t negotiate and we didn’t set the terms [of the agreement] that we’re nonetheless required to support.

Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson.
Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

You were quick to announce police reforms in June on the heels of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Then the County Council passed a bill in October that prohibits police from using chokeholds and imposes new oversight requirements on the police department, but which many police reform advocates said was watered down and just symbolic. Where do you still see areas for improvement in Baltimore County policing practices and policies?

When we announced reform measures this summer, we’ve always said there will be next steps. I don’t think it’s insignificant that we were the first jurisdiction in the region to ban chokeholds, to have a duty to intervene among police officers when inappropriate actions are taken, and to prohibit the county from hiring an officer who was fired or had to resign [from a different police department] because of a use of force issue. I don’t think it’s insignificant to now require and implement training on de-escalation and implicit bias, training that is already underway in Baltimore County. Council members came together to start the process of addressing hundreds of years of inequity that can’t be undone with any one bill.

A priority of mine this session is ensuring the state legislature changes Maryland Public Information Act laws surrounding police records; When people ask about the disposition of disciplinary action on pretty significant use of force cases, under current state law, those records are protected. The public has a right to know in those instances what action was taken.

Do you foresee future police reform legislation being enacted in the county that includes provisions stripped out of the original reform bill, like adding civilians to the police misconduct review panel?

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Under the state’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, there is a prohibition about counties circumventing their memorandum of understanding agreements with local labor organizations. According to state law, adding civilians to [disciplinary hearing boards] must be negotiated through our MOU with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4, the bargaining unit for county police. That’s why they couldn’t mandate it in local law

At the state level there are many police reform ideas being floated, I wanted to ask you about two of them: do you have a position on repealing the Officer’s Bill of Rights, or on having independent authorities investigate and prosecute cases of alleged police misconduct rather than state’s attorneys?

We’ll be looking at all of the legislation that’s put forward.

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