Ethics dispute reflects downtown fight

political notebook

April 12, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

An ethics flap over Del. Elizabeth Bobo's use of her legislative e-mails to support Philip W. Kirsch's re-election to Wilde Lake's seat on the Columbia Association board of directors highlights again the fault lines in the debate over remaking downtown Columbia.

On one side are people like Bobo and Kirsch, who are skeptical about parts of the General Growth Properties plan and want more safeguards for residents. On the other are those such as Kirsch's opponent, Realtor Linda Odum, and former Town Center board member Jud Malone, who back a more business-friendly position on the 30-year plan to create an urban-style downtown. Odum lost to Kirsch last year by just 35 votes and says Bobo's support was "crucial."

"She is very influential," Odum said.

The Columbia Association's cooperation is important for the GGP plan because CA owns parts of the Lakefront and Symphony Woods, where GGP envisions significant changes. After years of discussion, the issue is coming closer to a head as the county Planning Board begins discussions on the plan Monday night, before eventually voting on a recommendation to the County Council.

Malone filed the complaint with the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Ethics, claiming that Bobo's past use of legislative e-mails violates rules barring use for partisan political purposes. He said he has received complaints about Bobo's use of e-mails in 2007 and 2008, and decided to act pre-emptively this time.

"This year, I just felt that enough was enough," he said.

Bobo said she does not believe she violated rules.

"This is not partisan politics so I thought it was OK," said Bobo, a former county executive.

She added that she has used the e-mails for village advocacy for years - including to support Malone's election in 2004.

Malone recalls otherwise.

"Liz did offer to make phone calls for me with my approval, but I was never aware that she had sent an official e-mail communication," Malone said in an e-mail response to a question on the matter.

No legislative ethics committee meeting is scheduled, said the panel's counsel, William G. Somerville. He declined to comment on the complaint.

Bobo said that she would abide by any ruling the committee may make but that she has refrained from the e-mail practice this year anyway, citing new tighter guidelines that came out in February.

"I decided to limit my state computer only for the narrowest uses," she said.

Still, she and her husband, former County Council member Lloyd Knowles, are property owners, too, and are interested in the future of the village and of Columbia.

"At a minimum, I'll tell people my opinions," the delegate said. "Beyond that, I'm not sure."

Last fall, Malone founded a group called Columbia Tomorrow to help push the GGP redevelopment plan forward. The group feels that without the project, central Columbia is stagnating economically.

David Yungmann, another real estate broker who founded another business-oriented group called Columbia 2.0, jumped into the fray last week.

"The candidates promoted by Del. Bobo have been some of the most vocal critics of the plan to redevelop downtown Columbia, and the Columbia Association boards carry significant weight with county officials," Yungmann wrote in a news release.

He accused Bobo of acting like a "political boss" and said she and Knowles are "consistent opponents of any meaningful development efforts in downtown."

That's pretty tough talk for Columbia. But Bobo says she's advocating for Columbia residents who are wary of the financially ailing developer's promises.

Kirsch, she said, has taken part in all the meetings on downtown's future and has advocated with Bobo for a thorough traffic study, a height limit on tall buildings such as the proposed 23-story WCI condominium tower, and a supermarket for Wilde Lake, instead of 500 new apartments.

Lafferty cleared

Speaking of ethics, Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Towson Democrat who is also director of special projects for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, has been cleared of any ethics violations under county law in the contentious battle over the supermarket planned for Turf Valley.

The county ethics commission found Lafferty free of any wrongdoing for having accepted campaign contributions for his Baltimore County campaign from an executive of Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, the development firm planning to build the village center at Turf Valley.

After Lafferty's request for a review, the commission concluded that the contributions began before Lafferty came to work for the county, that he did not work on the Turf Valley issue and that he did not review zoning amendment changes like the one affecting the supermarket size as part of his job.

"I didn't expect them to come back with much different," Lafferty said Wednesday.

The commission did warn Lafferty to consider "areas of overlap between political campaigning and fundraising and service to the county."

The ethics opinion was issued earlier this year.

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