Rezoning slows campaign giving Councilmen say 'no' to gifts to avoid conflict

December 04, 1996|By Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson | Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Imagine this: Politicians saying no to campaign contributions.

In Baltimore County, where the memory of scandal lingers in the halls of government -- with portraits of two disgraced former county executives hanging on the wall -- the current crop of council members is taking pains to avoid any hint of influence-peddling.

Mindful of past ethical uproars over rezoning, most councilmen declined to hold fund-raisers this year amid the countywide rezoning.

The one who did hold a fund-raiser during the rezoning process, Douglas B. Riley of Towson, returned more than $3,000 from people seeking zoning changes.

Riley's refunds went to lawyers, developers and Realtors -- including prominent businessmen such as Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

Of course, the fund raising hasn't stopped altogether. Two councilmen -- Kevin Kamenetz and Stephen G. Sam Moxley -- began raising cash again just after the Oct. 8 voting on 482 rezoning proposals.

New campaign reports list some donations from people doing business with the county. Monday night, in fact, the council voted to buy land from a developer who contributed to at least two campaigns.

Still, the collective effort to temporarily halt the flow of campaign money is unusual.

"Well, how admirable," said Deborah Povich, executive director of public interest watchdog Common Cause of Maryland, who acknowledges that she's never heard of such a thing before.

"Historically, we have seen that the large contributors to county council members have been developers and builders who have a direct financial interest in zoning decisions. So it is particularly admirable that the council members are trying to distance themselves from those parties."

The councilmen's action contrasts with the fund-raising efforts of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The Democrat raised more than $400,000 in the period covered by new campaign reports -- December 1995 to November 1996. That's more than four times the $88,269 total for the seven councilmen. Dozens of Ruppersberger's donations come from companies doing business with the county.

Most councilmen say their races are different. "County Council races don't require much funding," said Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

The council's reluctance to raise cash comes after a 1988 uproar involving Ronald B. Hickernell, then the southwest county councilman.

Outraged at his efforts to promote a Patapsco "new town" on 5,000 acres of mostly rural land, several area residents accused him of a conflict of interest. They charged that he had accepted contributions from developers and land planners who stood to profit from rezoning.

The opposition killed the proposal, and both the county Ethics Commission and State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli ruled no laws or ethics rules were broken.

But Hickernell, a three-term Democrat, was defeated in 1990 by an anti-development candidate.

Baltimore County considers all rezoning proposals at one time, every four years, with the council having the final vote. The

decisions can mean huge differences in land values.

Republican Riley returned 22 contributions this year totaling $3,095, out of about $21,000 total he raised. Most refunds were related to zoning matters, though one for $70 went to Comcast Cable, which begins discussions this month on renewing its franchise agreement.

Explained Riley: "I do that every time I have issues where I think there is a potential conflict."

A $140 refund went to Nottingham Properties, which sought rezoning of 18 acres in White Marsh from light office/manufacturing to commercial. Riley returned the money even though the property wasn't in his district.

"The fact that he has that standard -- you've got to respect him for that," said J. Joseph Credit, a Nottingham senior vice president. "Although I didn't see there being any real conflict."

Riley attached a letter to his refunds. On May 3, he wrote to Orioles owner Angelos, explaining why he was returning $70.

Angelos, a lawyer, sought rezoning of 1.9 acres on the west side of York Road north of Crowther Avenue in Timonium, where he is building a small shopping center. Riley denied the change.

"I do not suggest for even a moment any impropriety in your making the contribution, or that my judgment would be impacted by it," Riley wrote. "However, considering the sensitivity of this quadrennial process, I have decided it would be best for all concerned not to accept contributions this year from anyone involved in the process."

Three councilmen -- Gardina, Fullerton Democrat Joseph Bartenfelder and north county-Owings Mills Republican T. Bryan McIntire -- said the rezoning process kept them from holding fund-raisers.

"I wanted to avoid the appearance of any conflict," said McIn- tire, who received $7,550 in other contributions.

Dundalk Democrat Louis L. DePazzo held no fund-raiser either -- but for a different reason.

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