Balto. Co. charter change is sought

2 councilmen seek repeal of state job prohibition

August 01, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,sun reporter

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina worked for a quasi-state agency, then collected a six-figure legal settlement from the government when he challenged his firing. Now Gardina, along with fellow Councilman John Olszewski Sr., want to place on the 2008 ballot a charter amendment to repeal a prohibition against council members holding state jobs.

Gardina and other county officials say they were unaware of the charter provision in 2003 when the councilman was a project manager for an agency created by the state legislature. He and Olszewski say the prohibition is antiquated and unfairly restricts who can run for the council.

But opponents contend that council members with state jobs hold the possibility of having too much influence, and would inevitably run into conflicts of interest.

"Suppose your boss, the governor, wants something done, and it's contrary to what the county executive wants to do," Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said yesterday after the bill was discussed at a County Council work session.

Kamenetz, one of two council members who have raised objections to the bill, added, "Why place yourself in the middle of a political tug of war?"

Two critics have called for Gardina to return his $100,000 settlement.

"If you're working for one branch of government, you shouldn't be working for the other," said one of them, Alan Zukerberg, a Pikesville community organizer. He added that working on the council and for the state "allows for more manipulation that's behind the scenes."

The council is to vote Monday on whether the proposal should be placed on the November 2008 ballot, with voters deciding whether to amend the charter.

The provision, part of the county charter drafted in 1956, states that "no person shall qualify or serve as a member of the County Council while he holds any other office or employment for profit of or under the state or county."

County officials interviewed yesterday said they do not know why the provision was included.

At least two people have served on the council while working for the state.

Wayne M. Skinner, deputy director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, was a state employee throughout his tenure as a Republican County Council member from 1998 to 2002.

Gardina, who has served on the council since 1990, worked for the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency, for five months in 2003. He later sued then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, claiming he was fired from the job because he is a Democrat. In early 2005, the administration paid him $100,000 to settle the suit.

Gardina said he worked for the MES as a project manager overseeing work in the Baltimore harbor, and that his work with the agency never directly affected the county.

"Certainly you don't want to be in a position ... in the state approving capital funds for Baltimore County," Gardina said. "If you're a biologist out working on counts of crabs in the bay, being a councilman has no conflict with that."

Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat who campaigned heavily for Gov. Martin O'Malley last year, said the charter prohibition unfairly restricts low-level state employees, using the example of a 15-year mechanic who wanted to run for County Council.

"He'd have to give up his full-time job" for a part-time job on the council, he said.

Kamenetz pointed out that certain state employees, such as budget managers, make decisions that affect county governments.

He said he would oppose the bill out of deference to the framers of the county charter. He also said he wanted to avoid enacting legislation that would appear self-serving, asking rhetorically in an interview last week whether Gardina and Olszewski would refuse offers for state jobs if the charter passes.

"Why should we change any conditions of office during the current term?" Kamenetz said.

Gardina and Olszewski said they have no open offers to work for the state.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder said he did not support an amendment that would take effect during the current council term.

Catonsville community organizer Steve Whisler joined Zukerberg yesterday in calling for Gardina to return the settlement in light of the revelation of the county prohibition on council members holding state jobs.

"Those who violate our charter and others who fail to enforce it should be held accountable," Whisler testified at a council work session in Towson.

Zukerberg said in an interview that Gardina's and Skinner's employment with the state while serving as council members represents "a total disregard for the law."

He said he finds it hard to believe that no one in the state or county government knew about the provision until now.

"These are county councilmen. One of the things they should do twice a year is read the charter," Zukerberg said.

Gardina said he would not respond to demands to return any state pay or resign.

Attempts to reach Skinner yesterday were unsuccessful.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said the county law has no bearing on a person's qualifications for a state job. "The prohibition is on the county side," said the spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory.

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