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Cathy Bevins and the paltry value of Baltimore County’s residency requirements | COMMENTARY

County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins speaks at an event in Bowleys Quarters in 2018. The 62-year-old recently moved out and then back into District 6 based on an apparent misunderstanding of her office's residency requirement. File. (Cody Boteler/Baltimore Sun Media).
County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins speaks at an event in Bowleys Quarters in 2018. The 62-year-old recently moved out and then back into District 6 based on an apparent misunderstanding of her office's residency requirement. File. (Cody Boteler/Baltimore Sun Media). (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County may be a large subdivision — it’s Maryland’s third largest county by land — but the distance from Middle River to Perry Hall is quite small, about eight miles by car. Still, that’s enough to put County Council member Cathy Bevins in hot water. The Democrat represents Middle River, District 6, but recently moved to Perry Hall, District 5, believing it was OK to live outside her district. After a complaint was made and the mistake realized, Ms. Bevins rented an apartment in Middle River to maintain her District 6 residency.

To paraphrase the famous World War I song: How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm in Middle River after they’ve seen the lights of Perry Hall?

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Here’s where it must get especially frustrating for the three-term councilwoman: She made the purchase and the move only after consulting the Baltimore County Council’s legislative attorney. He advised her that the county charter required council members to live in their district for at least two years before running for election. Turns out the charter also says that an incumbent’s choice to move his or her residency outside the district represented causes the office to be “vacated.” Oops. It should also be noted that she did not attempt to hide her move, and once she discovered her error, she moved right back into the district. As residency transgressions go, this was about as minor as can be imagined.

Yet you can bet they’ll be a lot more said about this. Republicans have already submitted a complaint with the county’s inspector general. It seems likely there will be an investigation. And while the charter language is the charter language, is this really the end of the world? If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that physical presence at whatever job you hold is often immaterial. You have a phone, a laptop and your vaccination, and you’re good to go. Who hires a lawyer because they’re in the same neighborhood, or a surgeon or a contractor? Proximity is good, but you also want the best person in the job.

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That the residency requirement is divorced from 21st century realities appears immaterial, however. And nevermind that members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, nor members of the state legislature. Ms. Bevins didn’t suddenly stop understanding the needs of her district because she bought a house a few miles away. And, frankly, returning to an apartment in Middle River looks to be 100% about appearances. She’s gained just as little from moving back as she lost from moving out.

The greater danger here is that this brouhaha will be considered on par with other more serious ethics concerns facing Baltimore County. Just this week, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. appointed an ethics commission to review government accountability, including how best to supervise the county’s inspector general. This is a good thing and based on the seven appointees’ experience (generally apolitical with a healthy dose of ethics advocacy). There is every reason to believe their advice will preserve the IG’s much-needed independence and integrity. Given the county’s history with public corruption, this is essential. Far better to weed out elected officials taking payoffs from developers and contractors (Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson to name two) than fret about addresses of just about anyone associated with county government.

Finally, one would point out that if anyone living in Middle River remains incensed that their council member would dare consider living in Perry Hall for a matter of weeks, they have the means to do something meaningful about it. Ms. Bevins says she intends to run for reelection next year. No one has filed to run against her (as of Monday evening anyway) but that should change soon enough as no fewer than five Republicans sought her job in 2018. That gives voters the ultimate authority to make a statement about her home address and how it affects them — if any are inclined to do so — by way of the ballot box.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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