If you smell something while in Towson tomorrow, it’s not the odor wafting in from Baltimore’s failed Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
It’s the stench emanating from the chambers of the Baltimore County Council, where two of the most offensive pieces of legislation proposed to date by the administration of County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. are being considered.
Bill 41-22 and Resolution 26-22 have drawn unflattering media attention because they appear to be drafted for the sole purpose of benefiting special interests at the expense of county taxpayers.
Both are scheduled to be discussed by the Council on Tuesday, June 28, and voted on the following Tuesday, July 5.
The meetings will serve as a showcase for the culture of soft corruption, fueled by campaign contributions from big donors, that continues to thrive in Baltimore County.
The meetings also will serve as an education for Council Chairman Julian E. Jones, Jr. During the inquisition of Inspector General Kelly Madigan conducted by some members of the County Council last year, Councilman Todd Crandell rose to her defense, noting that “we’ve all heard throughout the years of things that have happened in county government that just don’t seem right.”
Jones retorted, “I haven’t heard it, Councilman.”
The meetings will be Jones’ opportunity to find out (if he really doesn’t know) what his colleague and the rest of the county already understand very well: Lots of things happen in county government “that just don’t seem right.”
Waiving development fees
Bill 41-22 would allow County Administrative Officer Stacy L. Rodgers to waive fees charged for reviewing and approving the development of land. It bestows on her authority that Inspector General Madigan found she lacked in the IG’s investigation of unlawful fee waivers for the construction of Metro Centre at Owings Mills.
The bill places no restrictions on the CAO’s authority to decide what justifies a waiver. If she wants to waive a fee, she can waive it.
The County Council is surrendering its duty to establish standards that would guide discretionary power delegated to the CAO, embracing the novel legal theory that the CAO can set the limits on her own authority.
No public notice of a fee waiver by the CAO is required. So, the CAO would decide on her own which builders and developers get fee waivers and do so without fear of any pushback from the public. What possibly could go wrong with that scheme in Baltimore County?
To paraphrase Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, the bill is a perfect example of “some of the policies and procedures that happen here in the county.” Policies and procedures that give the county a richly deserved reputation for influence peddling.
Garbage for a Private Owner
Resolution 26-22 would add the proposed privately-owned Eagle Transfer Station to the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan, subject to approval by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The county’s own Solid Waste Bureau recommended disapproval of the proposal in January 2021 because it’s contrary to the county’s longstanding adherence to “municipal solid waste flow control” that requires county ownership of all facilities.
It also violates the “best practice” of public ownership of transfer stations described in a consultant’s report included by the Solid Waste Work Group established by Olszewski.
The proposal would do nothing to alleviate the county’s shortage of landfill capacity. The county already has ample transfer capacity, and the privately-owned facility would cost the county up to $1,144,000 in “tipping fees” lost to the private facility, according to the Solid Waste Bureau.
County taxpayers would be required to make up for the lost revenue in the solid waste budget.
Finally, it would compete with the plan to replace the existing Western Acceptance Facility with a new facility capable of waste-by-rail operations.
The project was going nowhere until June 12, 2021, when the person behind it, waste hauler Jack Haden, held a private fundraiser for Olszewski.
The day after the fundraiser, the acting director of Public Works, D’Andrea Walker, emailed Michael Beichler, chief of the Solid Waste Bureau, to inquire about the status of the proposal. On July 1, 2021, she wrote another email:
“This is an item that came directly from the CE [county executive] to meet with Mr. Haden to hear his proposal. I did that about two weeks ago but I needed to close the loop with the final recommendation.”
The following day, Deputy DPW Director Lauren Buckler added in an email that “The CE has asked for a decision soon.”
On August 3, 2021, Haden reportedly met with Walker and CAO Rodgers, neither of whom have solid waste management experience.
Beichler was not present at the meeting. Nor apparently were employees from the budget and law offices who have extensive experience and expertise in solid waste management financing and flow control.
On September 6, 2021, the Olszewski administration approved the proposal to add the Eagle Transfer Station to the county’s solid waste management plan, creating a potential windfall for Haden.
In the past, the County Council has been a willing participant in the pay-to-play world of Baltimore County government.
Bill 41-22 and Resolution 26-22 are particularly odoriferous, however. Will Council members have the courage and integrity to finally say, enough is enough?
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @dplymyer.