No county circles the wagons like Baltimore County

As Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones noted, the $38 million in damages awarded in the civil lawsuit brought by the family of Korryn Gaines, who was killed by county police after a six-hour standoff in 2016, should prompt a review of police department policies. But it likely won’t: Such a review would be inconvenient to the gubernatorial ambitions of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

We are talking about a county executive who declined to make a public statement about the verdict, apparently unwilling to have his name or face associated with the bad news — which involved police killing the 23-year-old mother in her home in front of her 5-year-old son, who was also shot — any more than necessary. Do you think that Mr. Kamenetz is going to countenance anything implying that the Gaines tragedy may have been the result of deficiencies in a police department that he has overseen for the past eight years?

Actions that might reflect negatively upon Mr. Kamenetz simply are not tolerated in the old courthouse in Towson. Actions by the County Council, presumably an independent branch of county government, are no exception.

And therein lies a real problem for the citizens of Baltimore County: The checks and balances on executive power do not work. No county circles the wagons like Baltimore County, and Mr. Kamenetz is the undisputed wagon master.

Every now and then a member of the council shows a spark of independence, but it is quickly extinguished. In November, Councilman Wade Kach described Baltimore County government as “out of control” after the Kamenetz administration used money that was meant for the maintenance of country parks to benefit private developers by removing 30 trees from the site of the proposed Towson Station project in defiance of a council resolution.

“As a former auditor, I can tell you, this ill-advised action cries out for a full audit to get to the bottom of this deplorable behavior by county government,” Mr. Kach said.

The County Council has the power under Section 311 of the county charter to pass a resolution ordering the county auditor to perform an audit of the tree removal. To date, no resolution has been introduced.

In July 2017, Council Chairman Tom Quirk assured me that the council would discuss an audit of the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy “in much more detail over the next few months.” I had obtained the policy, which had been adopted behind closed doors by one of its beneficiaries, through a public information act request after a Sun story disclosed that former police chief Jim Johnson received a “severance package” of $117,000 in addition to his generous county pension.

Once the policy was made public, Mr. Kamenetz rescinded it amid a firestorm of criticism. An audit should have been performed immediately to determine how the policy had been used, or misused, however. There is reason to believe that improper leave benefits were distributed because of it — at a potential cost to the county of tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is no way for taxpayers to know unless an audit is done, and that hasn’t happened. Maybe Mr. Quirk and other members of the council are still discussing it, eight months later.

Will they similarly mull into oblivion Mr. Jones’ recommendation for a review of police policies and practices post-Gaines? When a jury delivers an historic damages award after only about three hours of deliberation in a case that took three weeks to try, it is telling you that something went seriously wrong.

The speed of the verdict makes clear that the jury completely discounted the county’s version of events. If the county knew or should have known of the weakness of its case, did officials make reasonable attempts to settle the case at less than $38 million? That issue alone is worthy of review.

So, can we be confident Mr. Jones will follow through? Not based on past precedent.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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