The Baltimore County Council voted last night to ask the voters to remove a prohibition in the county charter on council members' working for the state - a restriction that was overlooked twice in the last decade.
Also last night, the council approved a deal with a developer to transform the razed site of a crime-ridden apartment complex in Essex into a village of mixed-income housing. Under the agreement, the county will give $4.1 million in subsidies and the 18 acres that had been the site of the Kingsley Park apartments to a development team.
The proposed charter amendment had drawn spirited criticism from community activists, who argued that working for the state while representing the county represented at least a potential conflict of interest. Some called for Councilman Vincent J. Gardina to return money he received for his work with the Maryland Environmental Service.
Councilman John Olszewski Sr., who along with Gardina sponsored the bill, said last night that the prohibition unfairly restricts who could run for office.
The proposal passed by a 5-2 vote, with Councilmen Kevin Kamenetz and T. Bryan McIntire voting against it.
With the change, low-level state employees such as mechanics and clerks would not have to quit their jobs to run for the council, said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. "I just think it's a fairness issue."
Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, pointed out that the voters will have the final say on the charter amendment, adding that last night's bill "makes no change to any law at this point."
County voters would be asked to approve the charter change in next year's election. The council amended the original charter legislation to delay its effective date until 2010, after the current council members' terms expire. Appointed state jobs would still be off-limits to council members.
Kamenetz said after the meeting that the proposed charter amendment would violate the intent of the framers of the county charter, who, he said, wanted council members who work in the private sector. He had previously warned of situations in which a council member would face a decision in a state job that could be bad for the county.
"I think it's a bad law," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat.
Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Wicomico counties also prohibit council members from holding state jobs, according to the Baltimore County Council's legal counsel.
Baltimore County officials said they did not know of the prohibition until recently.
At least two people have served on the council while working for the state. Wayne M. Skinner, deputy director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, was a state employee throughout his tenure as a Republican County Council member from 1998 to 2002. Gardina, who has served on the council since 1990, worked for the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency, for five months in 2003. He later sued Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, claiming he was fired from the job because he is a Democrat. In early 2005, the administration paid him $100,000 to settle the suit.
During the public comments session after last night's vote, Alan Zukerberg, a Pikesville community organizer, called on Gardina to return the settlement so that citizens "don't have to suffer as a result of a charter violation."
He also called for an investigation that would look into why no officials previously raised questions about Gardina's employment with the state.
Gardina did not speak on the issue during the meeting. In an interview last week, he declined to comment on suggestions that he return the settlement.
The unanimous vote on the Kingsley Park agreement will allow the partnership of Enterprise Homes and Mark Building to redevelop the site, near Old Eastern Avenue and Back River Neck Road. In addition to the land, the county will give the partnership $4.1 million to help meet federal guidelines that required most of the land be used for affordable housing.
Construction could begin in December on 200 homes for seniors and families.