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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Six candidates seeking to fill the role of Baltimore County’s next county executive are pledging sunlight on what one Baltimore Post reporter has experienced as dark corners in some county government offices during a nearly year-long investigation into a development deal that appeared to favor Towson-based developer and generous campaign contributor, Caves Valley Partners (CVP).
Using a topic that at times has dominated Baltimore County candidate debates – CVP, The Baltimore Post explained the reporter’s behind-the-scenes experience investigating the county’s dealings with the developer and what has become known as Towson Gateway or the “Treegate” scandal, in which a county government appeared to have run roughshod over the wishes of Towson’s residents, bending instead to developers’ demands.
The Post laid out the reporter’s experience dealing with county government officials last year and asked each candidate a singular question.
“I have been stonewalled, yet aggressively confronted in hallways. I was sent to multiple departments and given conflicting information. I have been admonished and demanded off government property when I showed up for answers after not receiving responses to phone calls or emails. I have been promised in-person meetings, only for them to be shut down on the spot after the phone rang. I have been followed home and have called the police. And I have been lied to.
My question for you is: ‘what kind of administration can people expect under a [insert last name] administration and what does transparency mean to you?’”
Towson’s “Treegate” Scandal
A reporter’s job to gather information and present it to the public. When there is interference with that process, it does a disservice to the public. The media serves also to be a check on government operations. But when that process is made difficult or even blocked, it is the public that is deprived of knowledge; it is the public that is kept in the dark.
In 2016, 30 trees were cut down from a site county officials were selling “as is” to CVP. The removal occurred on an early Saturday morning after advocates in Towson had been assured of their preservation through a legislative resolution and unanimous vote by the Baltimore County Council.
It was a deal made as part of a highly contested Royal Farms development project which involved a gas station in a residential neighborhood, unwanted by hundreds of Towson residents.
But despite agreements that had been made, County Administrative Officer Fred Homan ordered a rushed weekend removal of the trees as well as the razing of a building on the property – and all at a cost of roughly $120,000 to the county.
Yet for many, it wasn’t only about the trees; it was what the abrupt removal of them came to symbolize: a county government, beholden to developers, ignoring its own constituents and proper legal processes.
The sudden removal of the trees upset residents and surprised even council members. And hundreds of Towson residents were left asking how such an event could happen. How could a county government bypass an agreement and fund the demolition on a property that was to be sold “as is” to a developer?
The Baltimore Post looked to campaign contributions for answers. See: Developer’s Trail of Campaign Donations Lead Through “Towson Gateway.”
Among other discoveries during its investigation, The Post also found that the county secretly extended a contract with the developer whose own attorneys supplied the site plans to Mr. Homan for the tree removal, indicating exactly which trees should be removed by the county at the county’s expense.
More on the series of stories can be found here.
Last August, after publishing the first article on the contributions that members of the county council and recently deceased county executive, Kevin Kamenetz, received from developer, Caves Valley Partners, The Baltimore Post received an unanticipated flood of response.
What initially started as an intent to write exactly one article on the topic, turned into a roughly 10-month investigation after initial attempts to receive documents were met with what can only be characterized as peculiar behavior by several government department heads.
As a result, what began as a story about campaign donations and influence, morphed into over a dozen articles, read by roughly 40,000 readers, on an electronic publication that was fewer than five months old when the series of CVP stories began.
Yet despite the public’s interest, during the time of the investigation, several government officials remained adamant that Towson Gateway was an insignificant story, not worthy of being pursued – even calling it “small.”
In contrast, readers from all political parties continued to tell the The Baltimore Post a different story, letting reporters know that the Towson Gateway story series not only struck a nerve, but was endemic of a county culture with which they had grown accustomed, but under which they were tired of living.
Democrats, Republicans and independents, alike, continue to write to The Baltimore Post, expressing dissatisfaction with Baltimore County government and are looking to the next administration to change it.
Six of seven candidates assured The Baltimore Post they will.
Yet, while District Two Councilwoman Vicki Almond at first agreed to participate in a discussion with The Baltimore Post about an Almond Administration and the topic of culture and transparency, she ultimately did not respond when it was time to set up the interview.
Almond also did not respond to a single message over the 10 months The Baltimore Post sought answers about CVP’s Towson Gateway development project and its campaign donations to her and her fellow council members. The councilwoman has stated on the campaign trail that she does not believe that there is a “pay to play” system in Baltimore County and that campaign contributions from developers are for access to government officials, but not not favors.
The six other county executive candidates, however, did agree to an interview with The Baltimore Post, each promising a bright new day with the prospect of their respective administrations. And while some candidates described a transparent government moving forward, others ensured it with track records they say they can point to which prove their commitment to an open and honest government and process.
On the Record
Four Democrats and two Republicans are seeking election in this month’s primary. A seventh candidate, an independent, will join the Democrat and Republican winners in November’s general election.
The candidates’ responses are presented in alphabetical order.
Jim Brochin (D)
Recently retired State Senator Jim Brochin, whose campaign has been in strong opposition of what he calls “pay-to-play” politics in Baltimore County, told The Baltimore Post matter-of-factly, “We are going to wipe the slate clean.”
“I will not put up with any employee who treats a reporter or constituent in anything but a transparent and cooperative manner,” he said.
“A Brochin Administration would be friendly and cooperative and would comply with the law,” Brochin said.
Brochin has been a vocal critic of Caves Valley Partners’ development deals in Towson for years and has long encouraged constituents to take their county back from developers. He also was the first politician to call for an external audit of Baltimore County Public Schools.
In November, the New York Times published an article in which Brochin criticized the erosion of public trust in Baltimore County’s school system.
As with his concerns with interest conflicts in the county, Brochin has expressed similar concerns about educational technology companies having influence over the decision-making in the school system in light of the district’s recent ethical lapses.
Kevin F. Marron (D)
Off the bat, Democratic candidate, Kevin Marron, said he is promising an “open and honest government.”
“I would make sure that all questions about development are answered,” he said. “If you can’t open the books, don’t do it,” he added. “I would pledge to make (non-proprietary) information accessible to citizens. And I don’t want an administration where people are hiding things. I would hire people who (would not do that).”
Describing a Marron Administration, Mr. Marron told The Baltimore Post, “You have to be able to run a county like a business. You have to be able to show your stockholders what is going on.”
Mr. Marron also pledged not to seek higher office if elected and would establish an ethics hotline and a no retribution policy for county employee whistleblowers.
Pat McDonough (R)
State Delegate Pat McDonough said that he intends to “put people first,” and have absolute transparency with the media.
“There has been a shadow government in control of our county,” McDonough said. “Developers, powerful lawyers, zoning and general elitist groups.”
“A McDonough Administration,” he said, “will be revolutionary and transformational.” There is a “clear plan and it’s going to be about change. Once I’m in, there’s going to be a new sheriff in town, and he’s doing things differently.”
McDonough also pointed to a voting record where he said, as delegate, he actually voted on matters pertaining to open records and freedom of information laws. He says, as a member of the government operations committee, he voted for the laws, strengthening them for the public’s access to information. “We have a track record,” he said. “We voted for this stuff.”
Johnny Olszewski, Jr.(D)
Former Del. Johnny Olszewski, known as “Johnny O,” told The Baltimore Post, “An Olszewski Administration will be open, accessible, and transparent and will communicate.” And, he said, “Transparency means people having full faith in the government.”
The former delegate pledged that under his administration, all questions will have answers and will be handled promptly. “It’s your government,” he said. The government “works not only for you, but with you.” Olszewski said he wants to incorporate people in his decision-making which is why he would push for budget hearings during evening hours so that more citizens have the opportunity to be part of the process.
Also, he added, “I have a two-pronged approach: Clean up the electorate and reform the government. He said he would put leaders in place who value openness and integrity. “I believe that most employees will follow the county executive. People who follow that,” he said, “will be encouraged; employees who don’t will have to be managed. Our job is to serve the citizens of Baltimore County.” Olszewski said, “If we are not responsive, we are not doing it.”
Al Redmer, Jr.(R)
Maryland State Insurance Commissioner, Al Redmer, Jr. told The Baltimore Post, “The candidates will tell you how they are going to govern,” But, he said, “I’m going to tell you how I’ve governed my entire public and private sector career.”
Regarding the dissemination of public information working as the state’s insurance commissioner, he added, “We are always prompt, thorough and responsive.” Redmer said his track record demonstrates that he has been open, transparent and collaborative with everything his department has done. And he said that both Republicans and Democrats would vouch for it.
“We are open and transparent. That is the culture that I lead as insurance commissioner.” It’s the “same culture I would have as county executive,” he said.
“Most folks (will say) ‘trust me, I’m going to be open and transparent.’ But they don’t have a track record.” But, he said “I do.” Redmer encourages researching his record in the private and public sectors. He says that he has led a culture of transparency as the state’s insurance commissioner and has a good relationship with politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Tony Solesky (I)
Independent candidate, Tony Solesky, did not mince words when he expressed his feelings about Baltimore County government business lacking sunlight. “The only way anyone would support not giving information is if they have an agenda,” he said.
But he also sees the role of county executive, not as a ruler, but as one who makes the right administrative appointments. “I fully understand what the job is. The job is to make appointments.”
Solesky said the job is to make the right administrative appointments and “not to run the county.” Because, “those appointments are going to reflect (the county government).”
Speaking as an independent, he added, “When you elect a Republican or a Democrat, those are parties that represent a group. Any appointments they make will reflect their (political) polices.” He then compared the protection of President Nixon as a protection of his political party. “Political parties are the problem.”
When expressing his vision for a Solesky Administration, Mr. Solesky asserted, “My administration would reflect the goal.” The goal, he says, is to “restore county government.”
The primary election is on Tuesday, June 26.