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How the legislative sausage gets made on the Baltimore County Council is being challenged

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski signs the plastic bag ban ordinance into law in February 2023.
John Lee
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski signs the plastic bag ban ordinance into law in February 2023.

In theory, local governments make laws in a transparent way that allow citizens to participate. But in practice, some wonder whether the Baltimore County Council is shutting people out of the legislative process, especially when ad hoc amendments are added to bills then passed quickly.

At times, it can be a mad rush to the finish with the public having little idea what last-minute changes are being made to bills.

“It has been confusing,” said Joanne Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a grassroots nonpartisan watchdog organization.

In February, Baltimore County Council voted 5-2 to ban single-use plastic bags. During the public hearing process, there was a flurry amendments added on the fly that were debated in real time and voted up or down without much clarity about what the final bill would be.

It wasn’t pretty.

Anyone watching had a hard time following it, and council members themselves were getting confused by amendments.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, voted one way on an amendment before realizing he had made a mistake.

“In all of this confusion, I would like to definitely change my vote,” Jones said. “We may have to do this again.”

At one point, Council Secretary Tom Bostwick had to clarify for Republican Councilman Wade Kach which amendments they were voting on.

Republican Councilman Todd Crandell remarked during the debate, “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen in my eight plus years on the council, a more convoluted piece of legislation.”

The plastic bag ban passed, but no one from the public saw the amendments before the vote. County Executive Johnny Olszewski didn’t see them either.

“We were not aware of the amendments that were presented on that legislation,” Olszewski said.

Most legislation that comes before the council does not get so heavily amended but the issue is the same. Even bills with just an amendment or two are passed before the public gets a chance to see the changes.

Antoine, the executive director for advocacy group Common Cause, said the council holds a public hearing on legislation.

Then surprise amendments can be tacked on when the council votes on the bill the following week.

“There doesn’t seem to be a clear process in between that would allow for the public to even fully assess what they’re considering,” she said.

Roger Hartley, the dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said making proposed amendments to legislation public matters.

“We want to make sure that they’re going to achieve what they’re supposed to achieve and mistakes get made all of the time when we don’t have a chance to thoroughly consider them and think a little bit more deeply and get good information on the table,” Hartley said.

The rules of procedure for the County Council allows it to postpone a vote under certain circumstances, including when the bill has an amendment that “is substantive in nature and warrants further consideration.”

Councilman Jones said he believes the current system does not need to be changed because the County Council has the power to delay a vote on a bill with possible amendments.

“As long as we’re cognizant of doing our very best when there’s important issues or substantive changes that need additional study, I think in those cases we have the ability to postpone the legislation,” he said.

The County Council did not do that with the heavily-amended plastic bag bill. Jones said in retrospect, they should have delayed its vote on the legislation to give members more time to think about the amendments.

“It’s sort of like a judgment call, how important the amendments are, how many there are, and whether or not we should extend the bill and give the public more opportunity,” Jones said.

But even if the County Council had done that, it’s unlikely the public would have seen the proposed amendments. It recently delayed voting on an unrelated bill, but the proposed amendments were not made available online.

Councilman Mike Ertel, a Democrat who represents District 6, said that needs to change.

“What we don’t want is for people to think that we’re railroading things behind the scenes,” Ertel said. “Bills are always going to be better if we have input upfront.”

District 2 Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Democrat, said now that there are two new councilmen on the seven-member council, Ertel and Democrat Pat Young who represents District 1, he expects changes are coming to make the passage of legislation more transparent.

“Baltimore County certainly has done things similarly over the past 20, 30 years,” Patoka said. “And I think as this council is taking shape, I think there’ll be more of an appetite for positive change and I think that’s what you’ll see in the upcoming months.”

Councilman Young said he and his fellow Council members have been discussing making the amendment process more transparent.

“The question is just about what that way forward is, and I think that’s where we are at now,” Young said.

Councilman Kach, a Republican who is serving his third four-year term representing District 3, said this is the most reform-minded council he has seen.

“Change is coming, it’s got to come,” Kach said.

Even though Baltimore County is the third largest jurisdiction in the state, the organization of its legislative branch in some ways resembles more rural counties.

For instance, the County Council does not have standing committees. The Baltimore City Council, as well as the councils in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, have committees that hold hearings on legislation where amendments can be considered.

“Amendments to legislation are usually handled during the Standing Committee Process,” said Angela Rouson, a spokesperson for the Prince George’s County Council in a statement.

The Baltimore County Council has only seven members. Prince George’s Council has eleven seats.

Councilman Kach wants the County Council to move towards having committees.

Kach served nearly 40 years in the Maryland General Assembly. Kach said committees, like the ones in the legislature and in other councils, give legislators a chance to do a deeper dive into what they are considering.

“It gives you a better perspective of what each amendment does or doesn’t do and what it accomplishes or doesn’t accomplish,” Kach said.

But Chairman Jones counters that forming committees would make the County Council more bureaucratic.

“I think we are much more leaner,” Jones said. “There are only seven of us. We basically have a committee of one. We’re all involved in pretty much everything.”

County Executive Olszewski has made transparency in government a cornerstone of his administration. Changes he has made in county government include holding budget town halls in each of the seven council districts before he presents his spending plan to the county council.

“I don’t know if I can get into the specifics of how the council conducts its business nor am I sure that’s appropriate, but I would say in general we are supportive of any and all efforts that make both the processes of government more open and that invite more people into the process,” Olszewski said.

Antoine with Common Cause said the County Council needs to follow Olszewski’s lead to make the government more transparent.

“I would hope that they would explore ways to continue to increase transparency and accessibility overall to their legislative proceedings,” she said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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