Developer disclosure is vetoed

May 27, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed a county bill yesterday that would have required developers applying for zoning changes to disclose political contributions to County Council members.

Howard state legislators, who have pushed the legislation for the past four years, denounced the veto, charging that the governor appears to be protecting "special interests" and is out of touch with the desires of Howard residents.

"I'm sure it was politically motivated. Some of the special interests in the county got to him," said Del. John S. Morgan, R-13B, one of the sponsors of the Howard County ethics bill.

But representatives of the Howard County chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and several County Council members said yesterday that the legislation was flawed and applied too narrowly to applicants for zoning changes and to County Council members.

The bill, which would have required disclosure of contributions of $500 or more over a four-year period, was intended to address concerns that developers' campaign contributions have undue influence on zoning decisions by County Council members, who serve as the Zoning Board.

The home builders group wrote a letter to the governor several weeks ago opposing the legislation. Mr. Ecker said he explained his opposition to the bill, which did not apply to the county executive, to a Schaefer aide who contacted him several weeks ago.

Pamela Sorota, secretary and legislative chairwoman of the home builders' Howard chapter, said the organization opposed the bill on constitutional and ethical grounds.

"Our primary concern was that it implied there was some kind of evil in this county, that developers were able to have an entree to zoning officials by attending a fund-raiser or contributing to a campaign," said Ms. Sorota, a real estate attorney. "There's never been a scintilla of a scandal of that type."

In a letter to the Maryland Senate president explaining his veto, the governor said the legislation was unfair because it did not include other elected officials that have an influence on land-use decisions, such as the county executive, or parties that may oppose an applicant's zoning change request.

"Ethics laws are vital to maintaining the public's confidence in government at all levels," the governor wrote. "However, such a law is meaningless if it does not address all identifiable aspects of the problem it seeks to remedy."

Howard state lawmakers disagreed with the governor's reasoning.

"I think the governor is a little out of touch with what Howard County wants. His excuse was extremely feeble," said Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, D-13, adding that the bill was intentionally drafted to be narrow.

Del. Martin G. Madden, R-13, said the veto served to "protect special interests."

"Many people said this bill didn't do anything, that it would have no effect. But I think we found out it did have a big effect," he said. "There were a lot of powerful people in Howard County who didn't want to see the bill enacted."

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, was one of those. He said he discussed the bill's "flaws" with the governor after it had passed the General Assembly. Mr. Morgan said Mr. Gray lobbied against the bill during the session.

"You can jury-rig any legislation, even if it's not needed, say it's an ethics bill, and hoodwink citizens into thinking it's going to solve a problem," Mr. Gray said. "If we want an ethics bill, we should have one that includes all elected officials that have something to do with land use."

Mr. Gray said County Council members already are required by law to disclose campaign contributions, which are public record.

Fulton resident Peter J. Oswald, who is leading a petition drive to change the county charter to allow comprehensive rezoning decisions to be put to a referendum, said he was discouraged by the veto.

"I think people need to know why and how things are being influenced," he said. "This is a bill to provide more open government. People who don't want open government are lobbying against these kind of things."

Common Cause of Maryland, a citizens lobbying group advocating open and accountable government, criticized the veto. "It was just a disclosure, not a prohibition," said Deborah Povich, executive director. "The governor worked against the public interest."

But Councilman Charles Feaga, R-5th, said the bill was "somewhat ridiculous" because it didn't apply to all elected officials.

"No County Council member is going to sell his soul in politics for a donation to a campaign," he said.

Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, called the bill a "halfway measure," saying any disclosure requirement should cover all groups who negotiate with the council.

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