Funding criticized in battle over land


As the pitches for and against Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's neighborhood renewal plan evolve, both sides are turning to multimedia displays to make their case.

But at a debate last night, state Del. James F. Ports Jr., a leader of the opposition to the plan, questioned whether taxpayer money should be used on lobbying materials for an election issue.

County staffers have spent hours briefing Ruppersberger and gathering information as they work to persuade voters to approve the renewal plan - often referred to as Senate Bill 509 -- in a Nov. 7 referendum. They've also produced overhead transparencies and printed brief brochures - single folded pages -- to distribute at meetings.

Ports questioned the propriety of that effort last night, saying public money should not be used "to fight the very people" who pay taxes.

"Even if it is technically legal to use county funds to print these brochures, it seems to me and the people I represent to be ethically wrong," said Ports, a Republican from Perry Hall.

County officials say their lawyers have determined that public resources can be used to promote the issue.

"The county charter obligates me as county executive to inform citizens about laws and policies," Ruppersberger said. "This is a law, and this is a policy."

County spokeswoman Elise Armacost added later, "If we wanted to, we could put Vote for Question 3' on every piece of mall that came out of county government and be within our rights."

Ports and Ruppersberger faced each other at Loch Raven High School for the third of six scheduled debates on the renewal law, which Ruppersberger persuaded the General Assembly to approve this year. Critics upset about the law's expanded condemnation authority gathered enough signatures to trigger the referendum.

Opponents have formed a campaign committee, Citizens for Property Rights, and are raising money through change and dollar bills stuffed into contribution jars. "What the Board of Elections told me is if you want to ask people to vote, you have to form a campaign committee,'" Ports said.

But neither Ruppersberger nor others supporting expanded renewal powers have done so. The executive has said he will not use any of his $1.4 million-plus campaign fund to fight the issue. The county has spent about $1,000 printing brochures, Armacost said. No estimate of staff time was available last night.

With the debate taking place near Towson, Ruppersberger's recent decision to expand the main jail in the county seat came under attack. Ports said Ruppersberger displayed the same insensitivity by not including community groups in either his condemnation or corrections plans.

Ruppersberger defended his record on community involvement. "In the past few months we have attended over 50 community and business meetings to inform people," he said, adding that he notified Towson residents within a week after deciding to expand the jail.

About 100 people attended the debate, many of them ardent Senate Bill 509 opponents who have sat through all three debates. With both Ports and Ruppersberger giving now familiar half-hour speeches, followed by 15 minutes each of rebuttal, both officials appeared slightly fatigued.

Toward the end of the evening, Ports proposed a format change, challenging Ruppersberger to take questions from the audience. "Once more, the rules have been set that you cannot be part of the process and that is wrong," Ports said.

The executive declined, but offered to stay after the formal presentations to address concerns.

Ruppersberger proposed the renewal measure in January, arguing that several older areas of the county had missed the benefits of a vibrant economy and needed extraordinary help.

He proposed ambitious projects in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown, to be accomplished in part through expanded eminent domain authority.

Senate Bill 509 lists about 310 addresses the county may be interested in acquiring. Ruppersberger says he simply wants to use a redevelopment tool already on the books in other urban jurisdictions in Maryland; he calls the law limited because no other county or city specifies which properties could be purchased through eminent domain.

Many owners of those properties say they were never told of the county's plans until the bill was already heading toward approval in the General Assembly. Ruppersberger has since acknowledged the misstep, and says he should have contacted the owners sooner.

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