Party for zoning chief is postponed to avoid hints of impropriety

Developers were expected at event before Schmidt left Baltimore County post

September 25, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

An attorney who is forming a law practice with Baltimore County's departing zoning commissioner was set to throw his new partner a party, with developers invited, next week -- while the official is still working for the county.

Yesterday, Baltimore lawyer David Gildea said the party he planned for Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt would be postponed to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

"My reputation and Larry's reputation means more to us than anything," Gildea said yesterday. "He's a public servant at heart. We just wanted to commemorate that."

Schmidt, 51, is stepping down after 13 years as zoning commissioner. For six years before that, he was a member of the county's Board of Appeals.

According to county officials, Schmidt's resignation will take effect Friday. He said last week that he and Gildea will form a private practice specializing in land-use issues.

Reached late yesterday morning, Schmidt said he didn't know specifically who had been invited to the event planned for Wednesday evening.

Later, Gildea confirmed that developers were among those invited to the affair at the Elkridge Club, and said the event would be rescheduled.

"He intended to have all his opinions out before the party," Gildea said. "But if we were close to the line, we'll postpone."

Gildea said a new date for the party has not been set. Attempts to reach Schmidt for comment on the postponement were unsuccessful.

As zoning commissioner, Schmidt presides as an administrative law judge over zoning cases and is the designated hearing officer in the county's development review process. Zoning office staff said that a development hearing is scheduled before Schmidt for Wednesday, and that several of his zoning decisions were being transcribed.

"A retirement party may be a happy occasion," said James Browning, executive director of the political watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. "But there's an appearance of undue influence and a very real possibility of undermining public faith in the system."

He said postponing the party is a "slight" improvement.

In the late-morning interview yesterday, Schmidt said he plans to adhere to county ethics laws while in private practice. Those laws state that a former official or employee may not be paid to represent an outside interest for 12 months in connection with "any proceeding, application, case, contract or other specific matter involving the county or any agency thereof" if the matter is one in which he "significantly participated as an official or employee through decision, approval or recommendation."

"I won't be participating on any matter I was involved in with the county," Schmidt said.

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