Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, part of a razor-thin majority that blocked funding for the $70 million jail expansion in Towson, announced yesterday that he will switch his vote again when the issue comes back before the council June 18.
"I made a mistake," Kamenetz told reporters who were summoned to his council office yesterday morning. "Most of my advisers have suggested it's better to remain quiet ... and not change my vote. [But] it is a matter of conscience and doing the right thing."
The flip-flop-flip -- or his "third decision" on the jail, as Kamenetz called it -- would seem to ensure passage of the project. But, given the events of the past 10 days, it's beginning to seem there are no certainties when it comes to the jail expansion.
Kamenetz's announcement, which he repeatedly described as a decision based on "principle over politics," occurred one day after County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger proposed shifting $32.5 million from 31 capital projects in the 2001 budget to keep the jail expansion on track. The council will vote on this proposal June 18.
"We were hopeful that would happen [when the budget transfer was proposed]," said Ruppersberger spokeswoman Elise Armacost. "[Kamenetz] decided to make a very tough decision. ... He deserves credit for doing the right thing."
Jail opponents, though not completely surprised by the decision, chose to characterize it differently.
"Well, he's certainly free to change his mind, but this roller-coaster ride is crazy," said Henry A. Strohminger III, president of the Morningside Drive Community Association, whose members live near the Baltimore County Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive. "I'm not sure what to say."
Cathi M. Forbes, who spearheaded last fall's failed effort to have the jail expansion overturned by referendum, said she had been waiting for this shoe to drop. "It was evident when Ruppersberger announced he was doing this do-over that he knew he had the votes. He's a politician," she said.
Almost everyone agrees that Baltimore County needs more beds for a burgeoning inmate population and that the old county jail on Bosley Avenue, which houses female inmates and men on work-release programs, must be closed or overhauled.
But neighborhood residents, furious about what they saw as a lack of due process, have been fighting the expansion of the Kenilworth Drive jail since Ruppersberger announced the plan in July. They found an ally in Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Republican who represents Towson. But the six other members of the council had supported Ruppersberger's plan, which would double the jail's size in the next 20 years. In 1999, Kamenetz told The Sun that expanding the Towson jail "would be the most prudent" solution.
The dynamic of the council changed last month, however, after five council members proposed a redistricting plan that would split Towson among three districts -- Skinner's 4th, Kamenetz's 2nd and T. Bryan McIntire's 3rd. The plan also would put Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat from the 5th District, in the same district as Skinner. Suddenly, four councilmen were interested in Towson and its constituents.
Those four formed a bloc and voted May 29 to strip the $70 million allocation for the jail out of next year's capital budget. (About half the money for the expansion, which would add 784 beds to the Kenilworth jail, would come from the state.)
Yesterday, Kamenetz said the May 29 vote was the worst decision of his political career, one he regretted "60 seconds after I did it."
"It was made in haste," he said. "We all make bad decisions when we make decisions quickly."
Skinner, initially nonplused by Kamenetz's defection, said he couldn't understand that characterization. Kamenetz had agreed to vote against the allocation at a committee meeting May 21, Skinner said. Kamenetz had eight days to think about his vote -- and nine more to change his mind again.
Kamenetz, McIntire and Gardina insisted yesterday that they have not spoken to Ruppersberger or anyone on his staff about the jail or the redistricting plan, which is expected to be amended before it is presented at the council's work session next week.
McIntire said he saw Kamenetz on Wednesday and told him which way he was leaning on the jail (something McIntire declined to tell The Sun). But he said Kamenetz said nothing about his feelings on the issue, and McIntire did not think to ask him about it.
Gardina said yesterday that he has not made up his mind about the vote June 18.
The jail's opponents are looking beyond Towson to Annapolis, hoping they can persuade state legislators to block the state's funding of the jail expansion.
"It's not a done deal," Strohminger said, "until they start digging the hole."