Officials wrangle over funds

Veto complicates process in Harford

March 20, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Several elected officials in Harford County, who had promised not to accept campaign contributions while they were engaged in the politically delicate task of overhauling the county's zoning laws, have reversed course now that a veto has sent the process into overtime.

Last week, County Executive David R. Craig, who last year suggested the halt on contributions, held a $500-per-ticket fundraiser. Through a spokeswoman, Craig, a Republican, said drafting a bill to resolve the rezoning dilemma - not collecting money - is his focus.

"This is only problematic in perception," said Roxanne Lynch, director of government and community relations. "Right now, he's more intent on trying to make sure that we have a comprehensive rezoning process that's fair to property owners."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section misidentified Harford County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie. Also, the timetable for Baltimore County's comprehensive rezoning process was misstated. The process takes place every four years.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But to his opponent and a campaign finance watchdog group, Craig is altering rules he set forth.

"At this point, it really looks to me like Mr. Craig is not a man of his word and is not to be trusted on what he says," said Ann C. Helton, a Democrat from Darlington who is running for county executive.

The rezoning process takes place every eight years in Harford, allowing property owners to request new uses for their land. In the fast-growing county, the implications of the current rezoning are viewed as particularly important because of the potential growth generated by the Pentagon's base realignment and closure process, which is expected to draw 30,000 private- and public-sector jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground over the next six years.

Though accusations of candidates being too developer-friendly are nothing new, the Harford council followed Craig's lead over the summer and passed a resolution barring members from accepting contributions from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28. It cited a desire to "remain objective to best serve the interest and needs of all the citizens of the county."

Unhappy with amendments added by the council that he said created too much new business zoning and extended beyond the county's designated growth area, Craig struck down the bill in the first week of March and pledged to work with the council to create new legislation.

His veto has complicated matters. According to the zoning code, the process is over and the county now reverts to the previous zoning designations resulting from the 1997 version of the process. Officials agree that an updated bill is necessary and have been working to resurrect the effort in some form.

Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican from Darlington who decided not to run for re-election, said the council has not discussed the topic of another fundraising moratorium but might need to reconsider.

"I think it's a legitimate question to bring back," Miller said. "I've got a feeling it will be a topic of discussion."

Other counties in the region have different philosophies on fundraising during rezoning.

In Baltimore County, elected officials refuse political donations during rezoning, which occurs every eight years. Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat who has served for 12 years, said members voluntarily adhere to the policy to avoid accusations that the process has been tainted.

In Howard County, the five-member council, which doubles as the zoning board, continues to raise campaign money during rezoning but must disclose gifts of $500 or more. In an election year, the council refrains from considering zoning cases after July.

Three incumbents on Anne Arundel's council, which has no rules prohibiting contributions during rezoning, called Harford's self-imposed moratorium impractical and said the current system of disclosing financial supporters is adequate to alleviate most concerns over ethics.

Bobbie Walton, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said elected officials have an ethical obligation to abstain from taking campaign contributions during rezoning.

"If it has the appearance of impacting any decisions that are made, then the public's interest is not protected," Walton said.

In vowing to eschew contributions until the administration's work with the rezoning bill was finished on Jan. 1, Craig said he wanted to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

"Basically, I don't think it looks good for a county executive to be raising money when we are in the process of changing laws that could hurt or help certain people in the county," he said in July.

His spokeswoman said Craig would not disclose who made contributions at his March 9 fundraiser until the next filing deadline.

"Let's look at it technically - it's really not in dispute. The veto went through, and really we're back at [the county zoning from] 1997," Lynch said.

Walton said Craig was "playing fast and loose" with his own self-imposed rules. "If [rezoning is] still needed, if it's still in discussion, then it's not a dead issue. They're making a mockery of their original pledge."

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