Councilmen fund-raisers spark ethics question

Common Cause raises red flag, notes rezoning

March 06, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Freshman Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman has invited dozens of guests to his $125-a-person ($1,000-a- sponsor) fund-raiser tonight in River Hill, where he hopes to raise $15,000.

At the same time, his action is raising a question of ethics.

Is it appropriate for the five County Council members to raise campaign money in a year that will end with their votes on the county's once-in-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process, when theoretically every speck of valuable county land is under scrutiny for possible new uses?

Among others, Ulman invited James R. "Rob" Moxley, a principal of Security Development, a major county developer whose Hoods Mill Corp. gave $1,000 to Ulman's Republican opponent Joan Lancos in last year's election.

Ulman criticized Lancos during the campaign for taking builders' money and being too close to developers.

Moxley, who called Ulman "a young, bright guy," said he plans to attend in the belief that "the election's over and life goes on."

In coming months, the County Council will be asked to assess at least two proposals from Security Development for land that may be rezoned as part of the comprehensive rezoning effort.

Common Cause Maryland's executive director, James Browning, thinks the donations do raise an ethical question, but Howard's five county councilmen disagree. All are planning events this year, although County Executive James N. Robey is not.

"I'd say this is a clear-cut case of paying to play," Browning said about those who contribute during the nearly yearlong rezoning process.

Disclosure is good, he said, but he noted that authorities in New Jersey and Louisiana have moved to ban contributions from those with business before legislative bodies.

That has not been the case in Maryland, where gambling and race track interests poured cash into last year's campaigns for governor and the General Assembly in hopes of winning approval this year for slot machines at racetracks.

Still, in 1996 and in 2000, Baltimore County councilmen voluntarily decided not to accept political donations during that county's comprehensive rezoning process, a move applauded by reformers.

Baltimore County Council secretary Thomas J. Peddicord Jr., said he recently sent notes reminding the seven council members of the practice as they prepare for another round of rezoning in Towson.

In Howard County, the councilmen feel differently. And it is not something that divides Democrats from Republicans.

"I really don't have a problem with it," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, explaining that he is planning an event featuring Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s wife, Kendel, on June 12 in an effort to build a bigger war chest for a 2006 campaign for higher office.

The other three councilmen, Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, Democrat David A. Rakes of east Columbia and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman are all figuring on holding fund-raisers this year. None sees an ethical problem.

"It's all a matter of the extent to what any one individual may be contributing who may have a property up for rezoning," Guzzone said, noting that state law requires disclosure of campaign gifts.

The five council members also sit as the county's Zoning Board, and campaign gifts of $500 or more must be disclosed in board cases and for the much longer comprehensive rezoning process, too, according to the assistant county solicitor, Paul Johnson.

The councilmen say disclosure lets the public know where money is coming from because if every contributor with an interest in council legislation were banned from giving fund raising would be impossible.

"The rezoning of land is a legislative process like anything else is," Kittleman said. "It doesn't sway my vote when people contribute to my campaign. I don't see this as any different."

Ulman, who reported being $10,486.27 in debt in his Jan. 15 state campaign finance report, said he sees no problem since the council won't vote on the rezoning bill until late next fall, and he wants to get out of debt now.

"I frankly wanted to do it early and get it out of the way and move on. All those folks gave money only a few months ago," during the fall election campaign, he noted.

Rakes, too, said he lent his campaign $9,000, which he wants to recoup with a fund-raising event late this month.

Guzzone, who reported no debts and $2,748.44 in his campaign bank Jan. 15, said he has no specific plan for an event, but expects to hold one sometime during the year.

Kittleman, also debt free and with $10,560 in his kitty according to the January report, is planning an April 10 "happy hour" event for $40 a ticket.

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