Balto. Co. voters to decide on council jobs

Charter now bans members from working for the state

October 29, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Baltimore County voters will be asked next week to decide whether to allow their part-time County Council members to work as employees of the state.

The county's charter forbids such crossover jobs, a prohibition all but two council members, Kevin Kamenetz and T. Bryan McIntire, find unfair. Kamenetz and McIntire cast the only dissenting votes last year when the seven-member council approved a bill placing a question on Tuesday's ballot that would amend the charter to remove the ban.

The question is the only one of the county's 10 referendum items to deal with matters other than bond issues. The charter change would not become effective until 2010, after the current council members' terms expire. Appointed state jobs would remain off-limits to council members.

Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Wicomico counties also forbid council members from holding state jobs.

In Baltimore County, the proposed charter amendment has drawn criticism from community activists who argue that working for the state while representing the county poses at least a potential conflict of interest. Council Chairman Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, is of a like mind.

"I think it's a terrible idea," he said. "Say the governor wants you to support slot machines, and suppose you think that's not appropriate for Baltimore County. Which master do you please?"

Kamenetz, a lawyer and former assistant state's attorney, said that the prohibition has "served us for 50 years" and that there is no reason to change it. "This kind of irks me. I don't think it's an issue on people's minds."

He added that the charter's framers were "wise in requiring that council members have real jobs in the real world, and bring those experiences and pressures of the private sector to aid us in becoming better public servants."

But Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said the issue focuses on a question of fairness. Olszewski, who works as a safety coordinator for an importer and exporter of vehicles in Fairfield, decried the "wasted talents" of educators, engineers, auditors and others "who can't run for the council" because of their connections to the state.

"If you work for the MTA and you win, you'd have to give up your job, after years of raising your salary and your pension," Olszewski said, using the example of a Maryland Transit Administration employee who might wish to run for a council seat.

Olszewski co-sponsored the bill last year with Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who had - apparently inadvertently - violated the charter by working for five months in 2003 as a supervisor of dredging projects for the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency. Gardina later sued Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, contending that he was fired from the $56,000-a-year job because he is a Democrat. In 2005, the Ehrlich administration settled the suit for $100,000.

A former County Council member, Wayne M. Skinner, was a state employee throughout his time on the council, from 1998 to 2002, although his apparent violation of the charter did not become an issue during his tenure.

The other nine referendum questions on the ballot would authorize the county to borrow money for a variety of purposes, including $105.2 million for school projects.

The county's 502,354 registered voters - including more than 15,000 who signed up in the two weeks preceding the Oct. 14 registration deadline - will be eligible to vote Tuesday at precincts with a total of 2,600 touch-screen machines, said Katie Brown, director of the Baltimore County Board of Elections.

Brown said that because of a software problem no names have been purged this year from the voter rolls, which comprise 298,000 Democrats, 132,000 Republicans and lesser numbers from the Independent, Green and Libertarian parties, as well as voters who registered as "unaffiliated."

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