Zoning Board hearing turns into debate on campaign contributions

September 13, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

When the testimony turned to campaign contributions, County Councilman C. Vernon Gray couldn't wait to begin the cross-examination.

During last Wednesday's Zoning Board hearing on the Waverly Woods II project, Marriottsville resident Tim McVey pointed out that as a federal employee, it would be illegal for him to contribute to President Bush's campaign fund.

"But in Howard County, petitioners, developers, builders, bankroll the council to get them elected," he said.

Mr. Gray, who presides over council members when they sit as the Zoning Board, immediately interrupted Mr. McVey's testimony.

"I'm going to ask you if you've looked at each of our, at least my, report, [if] you have really made analysis of the returns, and what percentage comes from builders, developers, what percentage comes from ordinary citizens.

But McVey indicated that he had done his homework, and developer or building industry contributions average 60 percent of council members' campaign funds.

"I think you're absolutely wrong on my . . . situation," said Mr. Gray.

But Mr. McVey insisted that the funds ranged from 20 percent to 80 percent development-connected funding.

As board member Darrel Drown pointed out, contributions from developers or development interests are not always easy to identify.

All five council members have, either before their 1990 election -- or since, received some money from builders, architects, landowners or zoning attorneys.

For example, on Mr. Gray's campaign finance report filed in August 1990, more than 23 percent of accumulated contributions of more than $50 were easily identifiable as development-related. But more than 24 percent of the money was from unspecified contributions less than $51.

Drown prompted laughter when he asked, "Was I the 20 percent or the 80 percent on that?" Mr. McVey replied that he was on the low end.

Board member Charles Feaga said his percentage was even lower.

PD "I didn't get 20 percent of my campaign funds that way. I turned

back $3,400 that I thought I shouldn't take. I'll share that with you."

Mr. Feaga added later that he didn't see anything wrong with business contributions.

"I'm not ashamed to take some money from businesses. Businesses are very important to the United States. It was built on businesses. So I don't turn them away if someone comes to my fund-raiser. I welcome that."

As far as developers are concerned, Mr. Drown said, "I sat down and honestly tried to figure it out one time and could not come up with who is a developer. It's very, very difficult."

"I go through agonizing things on this because I honestly do believe . . . there's an area for improvement there, and I don't know how you get around it.

"But if you're gonna win, you've gotta have some bucks," Mr. Drown added.

Mr. McVey said he would like to change all that.

"For me, I can't see how we're getting a fair shake in this process," he said. "I just wish there was a way to totally cut off the financing" and switch such decision-making "to an impartial board, not elected."

Mr. Gray pointed out that the issue is not peculiar to county politics.

"I know Mr. Bush has been accused of taking money from the rich folks and and appointing them ambassadors and other kinds of things, so it, as you said, operates at all levels of government."

"Yeah, I know. I don't like it," Mr. McVey replied.

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