Associate lobbies Ecker on amusement tax rise

May 14, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

A close political associate of Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker went to bat as a paid lobbyist last month for the promoter of Merriweather Post Pavilion, asking the executive to reconsider his plans to increase the county amusement tax.

Mr. Ecker included the tax rise in the budget he unveiled April 16 but delayed its implementation until Oct. 1, after the Columbia pavilion closes for the season. The delay is expected to save the promoter about $150,000.

Michael W. Davis, a Columbia lawyer who was co-chairman of Mr. Ecker's transition team and is chairman of a citizens' panel drafting an adequate public facilities ordinance, had written to Mr. Ecker April 12, asking him to discuss alternatives to the amusement tax increase.

The proposed increase, from 5 percent to 7.5 percent, would impair Merriweather's ability to compete with the Pier 6 concert pavilion in Baltimore and Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia, argued Mr. Davis, now a lobbyist for the promoter, Nederlander Organization. Alternatives "can be implemented that will provide enhanced tax revenues, but not impact Merriweather's competitive position," he wrote.

Besides, he added, the tax would be a "double whammy" because the County Council also was considering increasing concert fees paid to the county.

Mr. Davis said yesterday that he acted properly because he had registered as a lobbyist March 1 and because Mr. Ecker had not objected when informed that the promoter wanted to hire Mr. Davis.

"The question is full disclosure and as long as everyone knows where people are coming from, I do not see a problem," he said.

Mr. Ecker announced plans to increase the tax that applies to movie and dinner theaters, arcades and professional soccer games, as well as concerts, while he was preparing his budget. At a news conference April 16 to detail his proposals, he said he would delay implementation of the increase to avoid creating contractual problems for Nederlander, which already has booked acts for the coming season.

Yesterday, Mr. Ecker said he had no reaction to Mr. Davis' lobbying efforts. He maintained that he had decided to delay the increase at the request of a Rouse Co. official before he received Mr. Davis' letter.

Rouse owns the pavilion and leases it to Nederlander, which operates locally as Columbia Arts Association.

Mr. Davis' lobbying drew a mixed reaction from County Council members. Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, fretted about a "perception that Mike Davis has an awful lot of influence with the county executive.

"It could make one wonder who is running the administration," she added.

But Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, argued that Mr. Davis "had a right to lobby Chuck, who makes up his own mind."

"Mike Davis made it clear to us that he is playing a role and he wants to be successful in business," Mr. Feaga said. "He has a right to do that."

Since Mr. Ecker's election, Mr. Davis' lobbying business has grown. Last year, he was not registered with the county government. Now, he lists three clients, Nederlander, Halle Companies, of Silver Spring, and John Mikolasko, a real estate developer.

He dropped one client, Morgan Management Systems Inc., because the firm deals with personnel issues. Joanne T. Nelson, a friend of Mr. Davis, was recently appointed county personnel administrator.

Mr. Davis said his active roles in Howard County business organizations helped him, but he acknowledged that his association with Mr. Ecker has contributed to his increased status as a lobbyist.

But Mr. Davis added that his government work is "independent" of his lobbying.

"I am not a compensated official," he said. "Everything I do is volunteer."

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