In an apparent effort to make a controversial Towson development project work, the Kamenetz Administration has bent over backwards to benefit a politically connected developer known for its hefty campaign contributions.
In what the county described as an effort to “accelerate the settlement,” of development project, “Towson Gateway,” it spent at a minimum $80,000 in public money during a two-day period this year by cutting trees and razing buildings to help prepare the site for developer, Caves Valley Partners (CVP).
But, because no one in the Kamenetz Administration would discuss the issue, it is unclear what legal justification the county has for spending public money on a private project. And it wasn’t until Tuesday of this week that any county official would confirm that it was Fred Homan, the county administrator, who ordered the work done.
The disclosure came after a reporter, last Friday, was sent between five departments for answers, locked out of two county offices, was ejected from a government building, and told to email questions to the county’s deputy communications director – as she sat outside of the deputy’s office.
While hiding behind a slate gray partition in a county office last month, a Baltimore County spokesperson, who refused to speak on camera, delivered a message to a reporter on behalf of Fred Homan, the county’s second most powerful leader.
“There is no file….what you are looking for, they do not have,” spokesperson, Julie Sanders said.
It was, to say the least, a bizarre moment.
Stranger yet was that minutes later, Brian Lindley, in the Department of Environmental Protections and Sustainability, said he was copying the record that Homan had just said did not exist.
Could reporters see the record? No, county official, Jeff Livingston said.
Although the record was a stone’s throw away, reporters would have to file a Public Information Act request that the county would answer in up to 30 days.
While it is not unusual for reporters and politicians to clash over access to public records, the struggle in Baltimore County – typified by county officials literally hiding from reporters – has reached a new and disturbing level.
While Sanders at least answered questions from her hiding place, top officials in the Kamenetz Administration, including Kamenetz himself, have refused to talk with the press for months on end.
For Kamenetz, who announced he was running for governor on September 18, styling himself as the “hermit” candidate is an unorthodox political strategy. He and other Baltimore County government officials have chosen not to meet with reporters even to discuss their unwillingness to meet with reporters.
In two cases last week, government officials not only refused to comment, but blocked a reporter from even entering county offices to ask questions. An official from Baltimore County Property Management locked down the agency’s building in Glen Arm and, when the reporter took a picture of the building, ordered her off the premises.
The Office of Communications in Towson, on the other hand, refused to open its door to a reporter. Instead Ellen Kobler, the County’s Deputy Communications Director, stepped out into the hallway to tell a reporter that, if she wanted, the reporter could email questions from the hallway to Kobler sitting in her office. But when the reporter attempted that, Kobler did not reply.
Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, told The Baltimore Post, “There’s so much suspicion between a journalist and officials. I think it’s an impossible job to do because, at every point, when you’re trying to get information – even with a freedom of information act – they’ll delay, delay, delay,”
“Very few people have intrinsic ethics that dictate what they do. It’s all the practicality of whether they think they’re going to benefit or lose by cooperating with you,” he said.
Kamenetz has not always been unwilling to speak, however. In a heated exchange with protesters at a Mays Chapel development groundbreaking in 2013, the County Executive shouted at a protestor “It’s my time to talk, it’s your time to listen right now.”
Kamenetz would later apologize while appearing on a segment about canine inoculations on WBAL-TV, lightening the mood by saying, “Contrary to popular belief, I did have my rabies shot last week at Mays Chapel.”
While the current administration has remained silent during the search for public records for controversial development project, Towson Gateway, two candidates running for county executive in the 2018 election did not mince words.
State Senator Jim Brochin, a conservative democrat, told The Post about politicians who avoid the press: “Kevin (Kamenetz) is responsible for Kevin. The press might ask uncomfortable questions, but I think at the end of the day, it serves as a very necessary check and balance in a system that is incredibly fragile.” He continued, “We desperately need to change the culture in this county and a change agent that will come in and change the culture. And that means, one minute after 12 – after sworn in – getting rid of the chief administrative officer of Baltimore County.”
State Delegate Pat McDonough, a Republican running for county executive, spoke of an administration he envisions having “accountability and transparency on steroids.”
“Character and courage of a leader make a difference.” He said “the elite, arrogant leadership of the (current) County Executive is what controls the government through special interest groups running its agendas.”
The Post also reached out to Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, but she chose not to respond to a request for comment.
Although Michael Field, the county’s attorney, named Homan, he added that the county administrator would not agree to be interviewed about his decision.
“I don’t know that he’ll even give interviews to a reporter,” Field said. “He does not make a habit of it.”
Field was the only county official willing to meet with the reporter.
Despite intense resistance from several officials in the county government over a one month period, The Baltimore Post was able to obtain documents that piece together details, exposing the apparent symbiotic relationship between the Kamenetz Administration and CVP, one of the county’s major campaign donors.
The Baltimore Post found through a computer analysis of state campaign finance records that the Towson developer has donated at least $160,000 through its various businesses, business partners and front companies to Kevin Kamenetz, the county executive, the county council and a slate campaign.
At the same time, The Baltimore Post filed seven Public Information Act requests that document how the Kamenetz Administration, after putting up for bid a 5-acre parcel it once used for a firehouse headquarters, assisted CVP in developing the site.
Although at first conceived as a mixed-use development by the original winning developer, Mark Sapperstein, CVP’s ultimate winning proposal for the 800 York Road property included a gas station, not zoned for that purpose.
Sapperstein’s vision included a Harris Teeter grocery store and apartments. The developer had offered $6.2 million, and the development was projected to yield an annual tax revenue of $557,224 for the county. But when pressured by county officials to produce a firm letter of commitment from the intended grocery store tenant – within a two-month timeframe – the deal fell apart. The county council then voted to accept CVP’s $8.3 million bid.
While the CVP offer was higher than Sapperstein’s, community groups were unhappy with the idea that the gateway to Towson would be a gas station in an area not zoned for gas stations. And the county’s projected tax revenue from the sale to CVP was considerably less than Sapperstein’s, at $26,125 annually.
In March 2016, CVP submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application that would later be submitted to the county council by District Five Councilman David Marks. The PUD would serve to change the zoning on the property to allow for a gas station.
Records reveal that in April 2016, the developer applied for, and then withdrew, a variance application for the removal of six specimen trees on the property. The same month, engineers created a Preliminary Forest Conservation Plan for CVP, a plan that Mr. Homan told a reporter, through a spokesperson last month, did not exist.
(Vince Gardina, the head of the Environmental Protection and Sustainability Department since 2010, oversees those files. Although two employees in his department acknowledged last month that they had CVP’s file in a back room, an official in Gardina’s department would not allow reporters to see that file that Homan, minutes earlier, said did not exist.
Maryland’s campaign contribution database shows that Gardina received over $9,000 between 2005-2009 from two Caves Valley partners, when he served on the county council.)
In response to sustained community protest to CVP’s plans for Towson’s “Gateway,” Councilman Marks amended the PUD resolution which included language specifically protecting the trees on the property. The amended PUD resolution passed unanimously by the county council in December 2016.
Yet, one year after the variance to remove the specimen trees was withdrawn by the developer, the county removed the same trees – and 24 others – at a cost of at least $25,000 to taxpayers.
Homan’s move to remove the trees directly defied the council resolution that said the trees should not be touched. Because all expenditures have to be approved by the county council, it is unclear how Homan could spend money on a project that the council not only had not approved, but had specifically opposed.
But The Baltimore Post has found the county funds used to pay for the removal even more troubling.
Former Anne Arundel County Attorney, David Plymyer, identified the funds appropriated for the trees’ removal as coming from the County’s Ground Maintenance Program, administrated by the County’s Property Management Division.
According to the County budget, “The purpose of the Maintenance of Grounds and Recreation Sites program is to provide grounds maintenance for all County facilities to the citizens of Baltimore County so that they can participate in leisure activities in recreation facilities in a safe and clean environment.”
Included in the Grounds Maintenance Program: grass mowing, ball diamond grooming, turf management, and general landscaping.
The use of county funds to remove 30 trees at 800 York Road to – in Homan’s words at an April 3 council meeting – “accelerate the settlement” with Caves Valley Partners, is in conflict with the funding source used to pay for it.
According to Plymyer, “removing trees for the purpose of preparing a site for development is not ‘maintenance’ under any stretch of the imagination.”
Also troubling is that three days before the trees’ removal from the property, the county razed one of several buildings – at the expense of the county. Homan, who the county attorney said ordered the demolition, used Capital Allocation Funds to prepare the site for the developer by demolishing the structure.
However, the contract between the county and CVP specifically says that the property is to be conveyed “as is.” While The Baltimore Post has not yet been able to determine the total cost of the demolition, it found an estimate of $50,000 for the razing of one building – a document not provided directly from county government, although requested. The Baltimore Post was also unable to find any record that the county council approved this expenditure.
Citing the County Charter, Plymyer said that Section 715 “prohibits any County official or employee from spending County funds for any purpose for which funds have not been appropriated.”
The attorney told The Post, “any official or employee who violates that prohibition is subject to removal from his or her position by the County Council. The logical next step for the County Council would be to pass a resolution ordering the County Auditor to perform an audit verifying whether or not funds were spent for a purpose for which they were not appropriated, and then for the County Council to take action as appropriate.”
Kamenetz and Gardina failed to respond to requests for comment. All seven councilmembers did not respond to questions The Post posed about county council procedure for handling misappropriation of county funds. Homan chose not respond to emails, while declining to be interviewed through the county’s attorney.
On October 16, the State Board of Elections (SBE) referred to the state prosecutor’s office, campaign records detailing $450,000 worth of statewide political contributions given by Caves Valley Partners and its affiliates over a five year period. The SBE’s director recommended investigation and possible enforcement action.
In an earlier communication with a spokesman for the developer, Arthur Adler told The Baltimore Post, “we want to make it clear that all of our activities were and are permitted under the relevant Maryland Law.”
The state prosecutor’s office does not confirm, deny, nor provide updates on active investigations.