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Baltimore County, Anne Arundel and Howard: ballot questions | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., left, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Baltimore County Council Tom Quirk join a tour of Lansdowne High School last December, discussing its ongoing infrastructure issues and plans for replacement. Baltimore County voters will get a chance to approve borrowing to help cover the costs of that school construction project on this year's general election ballot.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., left, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Baltimore County Council Tom Quirk join a tour of Lansdowne High School last December, discussing its ongoing infrastructure issues and plans for replacement. Baltimore County voters will get a chance to approve borrowing to help cover the costs of that school construction project on this year's general election ballot. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County

One of the greatest threats facing local government is the corrupting influence of deep-pocketed special interests. That’s true whether those individuals and companies are buying a stack of “Healthy Holly” children’s books as happened in Baltimore City or simply seeking to win approval for a lucrative residential development in the county. And, unfortunately, the high cost of running a political campaign has long provided an easy path to influence.

That’s why Baltimore County’s Question A might be among the most important decisions county voters face this November. The charter amendment would authorize the county to establish a Citizens' Election Fund System for anyone who runs for a seat on the Baltimore County Council or to be county executive beginning in 2026. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. sponsored the measure, which won bipartisan support in the council. It follows similar programs offering public financing of political campaigns already underway in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties as well as in Baltimore City. County residents ought to vote “for” it.

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Some of the basic parameters of the program are clear. It will be voluntary. Candidates will have to qualify to participate by gaining support from some minimum number of small donors. And once candidates agree to participate, the money will be dispensed as a match. Every donation (and they’ll likely be limited to $250 or less) from a resident of the county will be matched by the public fund (with the smaller the donation, the higher the percentage match up to 100%). The county executive will be obligated to come up with funding for the program in the budget and it can be delayed if some financial emergency should arise. An independent commission will be created to iron out details and make recommendations to the County Council.

Even politicians who claim not to be swayed by major donors must admit that the appearance of impropriety remains an issue. Mr. Olszewski raised and spent $2.4 million in the last campaign cycle. That presents a lot of opportunities for special interests whether they be developers, unions, contractors or political parties. How much better to be beholden to the voters instead? Opponents tend to gripe about the cost to taxpayers, but it’s money well spent on good government and can even help challengers unseat incumbents. In Montgomery County, the Maryland subdivision that adopted public financing first, the impact in 2018 was clear: Those who participated in the program received an average donation of $86 while those who did not received an average donation of $1,145. See the difference?

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Meanwhile, county voters will face a slew of additional choices, Questions B-J, all of which authorize borrowing for construction. These are routine bond bills that allow the county to move forward with such important capital projects as building or renovating schools (including $62.8 million for construction of a new Lansdowne High School), park renovations, improvements to Eastern Landfill, stormwater upgrades and road resurfacing. In all, this amounts to about $395 million in borrowing which will be repaid chiefly through property and income taxes. We urge county voters to endorse all eight bond bills, as they represent a prudent level of borrowing still well within the county’s means even with the pandemic (and nearly $100 million less than what was approved by voters in 2018).

Anne Arundel County

In Anne Arundel County, voters may be surprised to learn that they have a say on a host of what might best be described as niggling administrative matters in county government. How many days may someone serving as “acting” chief administrative officer retain that position before he or she is either approved by the County Council or dismissed? How long should a newly hired county police officer be considered on probation? A total of seven proposed amendments to the county charter, Questions A-G, are left to county for a final up-or-down decision.

The good news is that all received bipartisan approval by the Anne Arundel County Council, five of the seven unanimously. Only two, Questions D and G, are considered the least bit controversial. Question D gives the County Council the authority to raise the minimum value of purchases and contracts that require competitive bidding from the current $25,000 to no more than $100,000. Question G would amend the county charter to create a permanent Anne Arundel County Human Relations Commission.

Question G should be easily approved, particularly given the nationwide chorus of protests over racial discrimination, and the fact that the commission already exists and has proven valuable in ensuring equal treatment of all county residents. The charter amendment simply prevents a future administration from junking this worthwhile enterprise.

Question D might give some voters pause, however. It received the most opposition on the council (still passing by a 5-2 vote). But giving the council authority to raise the minimum is hardly unique. Montgomery County already imposes a full $100,000 ceiling on no-bid contracts, the philosophy being that minor contracts, particularly for routine purchases, do not benefit from competitive bidding, which itself can be a costly enterprise. In theory, there may even be a cost savings from focusing county employees on major contracts where well-written and executive RFP’s (request for proposal’s) can potentially save large sums of money rather than minor ones where prices for items like software are often standardized.

The shorthand? Vote “for” all ballot questions in Anne Arundel County.

Howard County

In Howard County, there are just three ballot questions, all amendments to the county charter, for voters to confront. Question A would shift the dates for changing the district borders for the Howard County Council. This is mere bookkeeping. The old dates were based on a September primary in Maryland, and the new dates account for the state’s June primary. The process remains the same with the council appointing members of a redistricting commission that would make recommendations that would become law — unless the council intervenes. We recommend voting “for” the charter amendment.

Question B shortens the term of service on citizen boards from five years to three. The thinking here is that the shorter terms will allow the county to cycle more people through these advisory boards and thus include greater citizen participation in government. This is a worthy goal. We recommend a vote “for” this charter amendment.

Finally, Question C, easily the most significant charter amendment offered to voters this year, would update the anti-discrimination language within the charter to make clear that the county prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, color, national origin, immigration status, age, occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family status, or personal appearance. It leaves intact the county’s ban on making employment decisions based on an applicant’s political or religious opinions or associations or race. County residents should vote “for” this amendment unreservedly.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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