Howard council discloses campaign donors

Developer funds examined before rezoning hearings

August 19, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As they prepare for public hearings next month on Howard County's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning, four County Council members released lists of their political campaign contributors, some of whom have rezoning requests pending.

The council members released their fund-raising lists after requests by The Sun.

All the members defended their right to raise money for future political campaigns even as they ponder the future of sometimes-sensitive parcels of county land, raising an ethical question for some. The members double as the county's Zoning Board.

Several councilmen noted that developers who contribute more than $500 must disclose those gifts under county law, and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said he has returned a $1,500 contribution from developer J. Chris Pippen. Pippen is embroiled in a major zoning controversy over commercial uses of land near the Long Gate shopping center.

Merdon did accept $100 from James R. Moxley, another developer whose company, Security Development, has two rezoning requests pending. Other members also received small donations from donors in the land development business.

"I think you have to look at the amount that was offered," Merdon said about the money he gave back to Pippen, who refused to comment. Although Pippen's contribution was "very generous," Merdon said $1,500 "would have raised a red flag to the community." Merdon noted that residents opposed to the Montgomery Road rezoning Pippen wants also contributed to his campaign, though in lower amounts.

Merdon and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman plan to seek higher office in 2006, and Merdon said he cannot wait until election year to begin raising money for a run for state Senate or county executive.

But some feel Howard's council members should refrain from raising political funds during a rezoning year.

"They shouldn't do this at all. This dilemma points out the need for more disclosure," said James Browning, director of Common Cause/Maryland, a nonprofit civic watchdog group.

"Troubling as it is for them to take developer contributions during the process, the least they can do is to disclose," Browning said.

But the four members who have held fund-raising events since their election in November agreed to disclose their contributors now - long before the January filing deadline for official campaign finance reports.

The council's final votes on rezoning also are likely in January.

Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, raised $20,116 at his late-May event, including $1,650 from people involved in land development. West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman raised $23,400 at his affair in March, part of which paid off $10,486 in debts. About $9,000 of his total appeared to be from development industry sources.

Merdon collected $17,280 at his private event, held in June at a supporter's home, and featuring an appearance by Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich. About $3,000 of that came from lawyers, engineers, developers and real estate industry donors. The Price family donated the use of their home, food and beverages worth $4,000, the report said.

Kittleman picked up $4,215 at his April gathering, with less than $500 apparently come from development interests.

When they first sought public office in 1998, Merdon and Kittleman refused to accept donations from developers, but changed their stance last year.

In 1998, both men were unknown to the public, Kittleman said. "If we have a track record of being fair and open, they [the public] aren't going to say we're being bought and sold," he said. Now, "people know Chris and I, and they trust us."

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, and Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, have not held fund-raising events since their November election.

Ulman said he needed to pay off a campaign debt from last fall, and wanted to hold his event as early in the year as possible to avoid conflicts.

He invited several developers with active rezoning issues, although he had criticized Joan Lancos, his Republican opponent, for accepting large amounts of money from developers.

"We have a system that requires us to raise money," he said. "The system is as it is. You're sitting there on a pile of debt. I didn't set the schedule," Ulman said.

Council members are not going to change their vote for $50 or for a $500 donation, Guzzone said, but for the sake of perceptions, disclosing donations of that size or larger gives people "a better sense of what's occurring."

County officials have not reported any donation disclosures of $500 or more.

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