Members of the Baltimore County Council are scheduled to vote on two bills Monday proposed by Councilwoman Vicki Almond that aim to improve government transparency and accountability.
Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, is seeking to prohibit all campaign contributions during the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) — the time during which the county addresses rezoning requests — and have mandatory ethics training for top county officials.
The two bills, which Almond dubbed an “ethics package,” were discussed during a county work session on Tuesday.
Almond, who represents the majority of the county’s Jewish population, told the JT she is optimistic her legislation, if passed, will help rebuild trust between elected officials and the people they represent.
“People need to trust government again and those who are in government,” said Almond, who is considering a run for county executive. “In our current political atmosphere, with our attitudes, it’s really difficult. So, I’m really hoping this ethical package will help people say, ‘Oh, well, this is clear, and I understand this.’”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is contemplating a run for governor, said through spokeswoman Ellen Kobler that he backs both measures.
“It sounds like a positive move forward,” Kobler told the JT via email.
With three co-sponsors — County Council chairman Tom Quirk (D-District 1), David Marks (R-District 5) and Cathy Bevins (D-District 6) — Almond has drummed enough support for both bills to pass.
Development is one of the leading issues in the county, and zoning decisions are considered one of the biggest responsibilities county members hold.
Under one of Almond’s bill, council members would not be allowed to accept campaign contributions or schedule or hold fundraising events during the CZMP process, which is held every four years.
Sen. Jim Brochin (D-District 42), who represents Towson, Cockeysville, Lutherville and Timonium as well as North Baltimore County, told the JT he had “serious doubts” the bill would fulfill its intention. In this year’s General Assembly, Brochin failed to pass a law that would have completely barred developers from making campaign contributions to Baltimore County Council members or the county executive.
Brochin said he expects to formally announce a run for county executive sometime this fall.
“[Almond’s] legislation doesn’t change anything,” Brochin said. “I think it’s nothing more than window dressing. Development needs to be based on the merits of the project, and the only way to do that is to take [developers’] money completely out of it. You can’t tell me that members of community associations and neighborhoods are on the same level as developers. The deck is stacked against the average person when it comes to any [CZMP] project and decision.”
He blasted Almond’s decision to compromise with Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville to rezone a 40.94-acre parcel along Mount Wilson Lane and Iron Horse Lane during last year’s CZMP process. The move will allow Woodholme to build 153 townhomes, though the club has yet to finalize plans for the site.
“Pay-to-play isn’t during the CZMP process,” said Brochin, who added he wouldn’t have supported the project. “Pay-to-play was two weeks after the CZMP process ended, and [Almond] approved [153 townhomes] in the bucolic area around Woodholme Country Club. They had a fundraiser for her, and two of the board directors basically said, ‘Let’s thank Vicki for what she did.’ If that’s not pay-to-play, I don’t know what is.”
Under its original proposal, Woodholme had requested to build 225 townhomes on the plot, reducing the number of units in the approved legislation by 32 percent.
Almond said the notion that she is “on the take and in the pockets of developers” is simply not true.
“That bothers me, because people are attacking my integrity when I’ve given them no reason to do that,” Almond said. “It’s really hurtful and harmful.”
Almond’s second bill would require training in ethics law for county-elected officials, top aides, top county officials and registered lobbyists, among others.
Almond said a training class would be run by the county’s Ethics Commission and take a few hours to complete.
“There will be no ifs, ands or buts about what you’re allowed to do,” Almond said. “I think that’s important so that we don’t make mistakes and we understand the law and are abiding by it.”