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Developers under fire in Annapolis from Baltimore County residents

Flickr-Creative Commons

Baltimore County’s eight-member state senate delegation met today in what’s called the Red Room at the State House. And they heard from county residents who were seeing red over the influence developers have in the county. The residents were there to back legislation that would ban the county executive and council members from taking money from developers.

People from White Marsh, to Towson to Pikesville told the senators that developers are calling the shots, getting their projects through by giving elected leaders campaign contributions.

Joe La Bella, president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association, said relationships between "a developer, its agents and members of the county council or executive office is ripe for conflicts of interest."

Russell Donnelly said he has seen the county’s government shift from serving the people to "where our rights and voices are not being registered in Baltimore County as they formerly were."

The legislation, sponsored by Senator Jim Brochin, a Towson Democrat, would forbid a developer with a project in the county from making campaign contributions to the county executive or county council members. And if that developer had given money in the previous three years, that money would have to be given back.

Brochin said he’s seeing projects get green lighted despite unanimous opposition from people who live nearby. He said he’s not laying this at the feet of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz or the current County Council; it’s been going on for years.

"And somebody has to say enough and connect the dots and say why is it that every development that’s opposed by a massive amount of community members is approved," he said. "And then you follow the campaign contributions."

One person spoke against the legislation. Josh Greenfeld, of the Maryland Building Industry Association, said projects sometimes take years, are debated publicly, and can be appealed.

"There’s little or no evidence of undue influence in Baltimore County by developers," he insisted.

And he questioned whether the legislation is constitutional.

"It’s unconstitutional to single out one type of business or one type of entity and say they cannot give campaign contributions," Greenfeld said. "Campaign contributions are an act of political speech protected by the first amendment."

Brochin dismissed that argument, pointing out that Prince George’s County for years has had similar legislation on the books.

Jennifer Bevan Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, agreed.

It’s true the Supreme Court has ruled against restrictions on campaign contributions, she said. But in every case, "he reason for their decision is that there wasn’t a direct link between the donor and the entity receiving the money.

"Here you have such a clear nexus that I’m very confused where the developers think that argument would lead them," she said.

Brochin needs to get the support of a majority of his fellow Baltimore County Senators for the legislation to have any chance of passing. That means at least five votes and he said he has two so far, including his own.

He says he believes a couple of other senators may be leaning his way, but he expects the vote in the delegation to be close.

"For some of these senators who were here, this is the first time they’ve heard it because it happens in some districts more than others," Brochin said. "I'm unlucky that it’s been happening in Towson quite frequently."

No one from the County Council or from County Executive Kamenetz’s staff testified at the meeting. But in the past they have denied any influence from developers.

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