Some hard truths about Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski
Despite a string of disclosures about his administration’s handling of the politically connected, Johnny O cruises toward another four years in office [OP-ED]
Above: A constituent’s encounter with Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. (gojohnnyo.com)
Events over the past year threaten to permanently tarnish the reputation of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. It began with his ham-handed attempt to neutralize the effectiveness of the county’s Inspector General.
Now, evidence is mounting that his administration routinely gives favored treatment to politically connected builders and developers and allows campaign contributions to influence policy decisions, despite his denials.
That evidence could explain why he was less than enthusiastic about an aggressive IG.
To no one’s surprise, Olszewski easily won the primary against Adam Reuter, a candidate from Dundalk who is not widely known.
He now faces former Republican state delegate Pat McDonough in the general election. Four years ago, Olszewski handily beat his Republican opponent, Al Redmer Jr., by promising an open, accountable and transparent government.
Since taking office, the gap between his campaign promise and reality has become ever more noticeable.
Exhibit A: Cordish Tennis Barn
In December 2021, when reports surfaced that David Cordish had been given special treatment on his application to build an indoor tennis facility at his home in the Green Spring Valley, Olszewski admitted that he asked his staff to look into the application on behalf of the influential developer.
He insisted, however, that any allegations Cordish received preferential treatment from his office were “patently false,” adding that all residents receive the same level of service “regardless of who they are.”
The IG released a report in June concluding that Cordish had indeed received preferential treatment from the county. The IG described how a high-ranking official, identified by the Baltimore Sun as Deputy County Administrative Officer Drew Vetter, shepherded the application through the county bureaucracy. (Vetter has since tendered his resignation.)
Suffice it to say that not everyone gets concierge service for a routine permit application.
The administration’s response to the IG’s report signed by County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers did not deny the existence of preferential treatment. Rodgers acknowledged that Soil Conservation District review of the tennis barn was improperly expedited.
She also shoved an assistant county attorney under the bus, implying that advice by the attorney that no administrative hearing was required for the permit was wrong, and resulted from lack of oversight by the county attorney. She stated that the problem was fixed by “reorganizing” the county law office.
The IG found no evidence directly linking Olszewski himself to the preferential treatment. Be assured, however, that Vetter and other county employees were well aware of his keen interest in the matter.
Exhibit B: Metro Center fee Waiver
The IG reported in January that during the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a former official, Arnold Jablon, waived millions of dollars in fees and security deposits for the massive Metro Center at Owings Mills project without any authority to do so.
The Olszewski administration ordered the unlawful waivers continued over the objections of its own Permits, Applications and Inspections director when he learned about them in 2019.
In September 2021, after the IG investigation began, Administrative Officer Rodgers formalized continuation of the fee waivers, despite the determination by the IG that she lacked the authority to do so without County Council approval. Rodgers explained, “We inherited this agreement. As such it was appropriate for the agreement to remain in place.”
So, it was “appropriate” to honor an informal, unlawful agreement surrendering county revenue? Only legally binding agreements are “inherited.” It was perhaps the weakest excuse for an action taken by a county official that I’ve ever heard.
An alternative explanation for her action lies in the influence of Howard Brown, chair of the Metro Centre developer, David S. Brown Enterprises. Brown is one of the county’s most prominent developers and a major contributor to Olszewski’s campaigns. You decide which explanation you believe.
Exhibit C: Eagle Transfer Station
In June, Olszewski had this to say about his proposal to add the private Eagle Transfer Station to the county’s solid waste plan: “We never make decisions based on political contributions. We never have and we never will.”
Information uncovered by The Brew strongly suggests otherwise. The “plausible deniability” of Olszewski’s direct involvement with the Cordish tennis barn did not exist for the Eagle Transfer Station. Olszewski’s fingerprints were all over this one.
Emails indicate that the proposal gained traction only after a private fundraiser was held for Olszewski by Jack Haden, the would-be operator of the transfer station.
The day after the 2021 fundraiser, Acting Director of Public Works (DPW) D’Andrea Walker emailed the chief of the Solid Waste Bureau to inquire about the status of the proposal.
Three weeks later, 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 emailed that “the CE has asked for a decision soon.”
Walker endorsed the proposal even though it is inconsistent with policy, precedent and the county’s financial interests and was strenuously opposed by the Solid Waste Bureau.
Later, she chided the chief of the bureau, writing, “The Administration supports this project so that means we all speak the same language. You don’t get to decide that you don’t support this.”
Fudging on Accountability
There now also is evidence of the lengths to which the Olszewski administration will go to keep the public from learning unflattering truths about how it runs county government.
The Baltimore Banner reported in June that the county law office responded to a request under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) with a database tracking county compliance with the MPIA – but failed to disclose that the records had been altered before release, a violation of the act.
As it happens, one of the deleted columns showed whether the county was “compliant” or “noncompliant” with MPIA deadlines.
The law office explained that it “inadvertently” failed to disclose that it altered the documents and that the columns were deleted because they’re “not utilized by the county.”
Did you really expect the law office to say that it was because the deleted columns revealed that the county routinely fails to comply with the MPIA, as detailed in the Banner story?
Olszewski has repeatedly touted the openness and transparency of his administration. Those claims appear to deserve as much credence as his claim that all residents receive the same level of service “regardless of who they are.”
Olszewski’s Legacy at Risk
Three months before the Cordish tennis barn story broke, a flattering article in Baltimore magazine described the changes made to county government by Olszewski as “transformational.”
The evidence that has emerged since then indicates that those changes do not include bucking the “culture of soft corruption” that long has been the bane of the county.
Neither has there been a real move toward transparency: Questionable deals and decisions are not coming to light until reporters and investigators dredge them up out of the shadows.