Baltimore County Council questions Olszewski on public financing of campaigns

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. faced questions Tuesday from the County Council on his proposal to open the door to the public financing of local campaigns.

Olszewski appeared before the council to testify on a package of legislation he said would increase public trust in county government and reduce the influence of special interests. Among the bills is a measure to put a charter amendment on the 2020 ballot to create a “citizens’ election fund” for County Council and county executive candidates starting in 2026.

“This is not meant to be a giveaway” to candidates, Olszewski told the council. “Because this is a charter amendment, we are empowering voters to decide on the proposal in 2020.”

The county executive also has proposed strengthening ethics rules and creating an independent Office of Ethics and Accountability to investigate claims of fraud. But the public financing idea sparked the most debate Tuesday.

Administration officials estimate it would cost $4.3 million per election cycle. During the meeting, Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, repeatedly questioned whether the program would be worth the cost to taxpayers, saying he sees many needs in his community, from roads to recreational centers.

“You think that the public funding [of elections] is more important than all these other things?” Jones asked Olszewski at one point.

Olszewski, also a Democrat, said throughout the meeting that it would be up to voters to decide. He also said he made it clear during his campaign last year that public financing was one of his priorities.

The seven-member council is set to vote on the bills Monday. If the public financing legislation passes and county voters approve the charter amendment in 2020, details still would have to be worked out.

Generally, local public financing programs encourage small donations and provide candidates who participate with matching funds. Under the county legislation, candidates would be able to choose whether to accept public financing.

A growing number of local governments in the Baltimore area are turning to public campaign financing. Montgomery County used it for the first time last year, and Howard and Prince George’s counties have plans to do so in future campaigns. Baltimore City voters approved a ballot measure last year that opened the door to public financing, but the city hasn’t set up a program yet.

Several county residents testified in favor of each of the bills Tuesday. Catonsville resident Sheila Ruth, who unsuccessfully challenged Councilman Tom Quirk in last year’s Democratic primary, pointed to research from the the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law showing that public financing increases the diversity of donors and candidates.

Ruth expressed frustration after the meeting with some of the council members’ reactions. She said public financing is a way “to get more people involved, make elections fairer.”

“I get the sense that some of them are not seeing the benefit,” said Ruth, co-chair of the Baltimore-area chapter of Our Revolution, part of a network of local groups inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Two Republicans on the council, David Marks of Perry Hall and Wade Kach of Cockeysville, questioned why the county should wait until 2026 to use the program if voters approve it. Both say they plan to vote in favor of public financing.

“I didn’t want this to appear to be an effort to try to bypass 2022,” when council members are up for re-election, Kach said.

Olszewski said the longer timeline gives the county time to set aside funding for the program and plan the details of the system.

In addition to Jones, Councilman Todd Crandell of Dundalk told The Baltimore Sun Tuesday that he will likely vote against the bill. Crandell said he doesn’t like that the legislation doesn’t spell out exactly how the program would work.

In addition, “I have a philosophical problem with taxpayer financing of political campaigns,” Crandell said. “I don’t think that’s the taxpayer’s responsibility.”

Democrats Cathy Bevins of Middle River and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville said they are still undecided. Quirk, of Oella, said he is likely to vote in favor of the legislation.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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