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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer9:00 amDec 12, 20230

Baltimore County Council: Fess up before your silence looks like a cover-up

The secrecy surrounding the Council’s deliberations over the inspector general bills is giving its members a black eye [OP-ED]

Above: The Baltimore County Council, from top left clockwise: Izzy Patoka, David Marks, Mike Ertel, Pat Young, Wade Kach, Julian E. Jones Jr. and Todd Crandell. (maryland.gov)

There is no doubt that it was wrong for Baltimore County Council Chair Julian E. Jones Jr. to invite Council members to a private, off-the-record meeting to discuss amendments that Jones wanted to make to two bills affecting the Office of Inspector General (OIG).

But what about the five members of the Baltimore County Council who, according to The Brew, attended the meeting? The members were Todd Crandell, Mike Ertel, David Marks, Izzy Patoka and Pat Young.

Many years ago, I worked for the late Warren B. Duckett, Jr. when he was the state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County before becoming a circuit court judge. I recall his advice, always prefaced with the statement that he learned the lesson the hard way:

“Don’t be the last person to admit your mistake.”

It’s good advice. The longer you wait before admitting a mistake, the less likely you are to be forgiven for it.

It’s advice that I hope that Crandell, Ertel, Marks, Patoka and Young (Wade Kach, the 3d District councilman, did not attend) take to heart today when they meet publicly at a work session on Jones’ amendments.

They can be forgiven if they committed an error in judgment by meeting with Jones in apparent violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

They won’t be forgiven if it looks like they are trying to cover it up.

No Excuse for Meeting in Secret

On December 3, Jones used a private email account to send an email to all Council members asking them to attend the meeting so that they could “discuss the amendments as a group.” Copies of the amendments were attached to the email.

The meeting took place at 5 p.m. on December 4, or one hour before the beginning of the public session at which votes on the bills were scheduled to take place.

The amendments were described by The Brew in a story posted at 5:03 p.m. on December 4. The story quoted IG Kelly Madigan as stating that the amendments would undercut the effectiveness of her office and subject it to political influence.

Exclusive: Julian Jones plans to propose amendments tonight to strip away the power of Baltimore County’s inspector general (12/4/23)

Following a midnight drop of amendments to hobble Baltimore County’s inspector general, Julian Jones held a private meeting about them (12/6/23)

Text of Julian Jones’ Inspector General amendments (12/6/23)

Julian Jones changes the amendments he tried to get the Baltimore County Council to pass last week (12/11/23)

At the Council’s public session, no amendments were introduced, and the votes on the bills were postponed with little discussion.

It was an odd outcome that had the appearance of being orchestrated. Why not introduce the amendments at the legislative session and discuss them then and there – in the open?

The private meeting described by The Brew was a blatant violation of the Open Meetings Act.

It deprived county residents of the right to hear their representatives deliberate on a subject about which residents have demonstrated an intense interest.

The bills, and presumably Jones’ amendments, are now scheduled to be discussed at a Council work session at 4 p.m. today.

If a mistake was made, admit it and apologize for it.

To my knowledge, none of the five members who attended the private meeting at Jones’ invitation have publicly denied attending the meeting or otherwise chosen to speak publicly about it.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if they now confirmed or denied participating in the meeting and, if they did attend, explain why they chose to do so in light of the advice given to them in March by County Attorney James Benjamin that such meetings violate the Open Meetings Act?

Their admissions and apologies will count for nothing, however, if they wait for the Open Meetings Compliance Board to investigate and issue a finding of violation.

Baltimore County Council Chair Julian Jones listens as Inspector General Kelly Madigan speaks during a work session about legislation relating to her office. (Mark Reutter)

Julian Jones listens to IG Kelly Madigan at a November 28 Council work session where he raised no objections to legislation he tried to gut a week later through last-minute amendments. (Mark Reutter)

Jones’ Actions Were No Mistake

I’m willing to write off participation by the five as errors in judgment if they are forthcoming. They may not have wanted to offend the chairman by refusing to meet, but none of them are foolish enough to follow him out on a political limb by supporting his amendments.

They saw what happened when County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. drafted a bill in July 2021 intended to make the OIG less independent and effective. The bill was never introduced because of a furious public backlash, and Olszewski still bears the political scars from his misadventure.

On the other hand, Jones’ action in calling for the meeting cannot be dismissed as a mere mistake. It is part of a campaign to discredit Madigan and eviscerate her office that began at a budget hearing in May 2021 and has continued ever since.

Two reports critical of Jones’ conduct filed by the IG in April 2022 and November 2022 undoubtedly fueled what seems to be a personal vendetta. Ironically, as I explained earlier this year, I believe that Jones got off lightly in the latter report, in which the IG concluded that his intervention at the request of a businessman (who later became a campaign contributor to Jones) resulted in repaving a Towson alley in contravention of county policy.

The county’s chief of highway design told the IG that Jones called him on his cell phone when he was at home to pressure him into approving repair of the alley, which he declined to do. The repaving ultimately was approved by his supervisor, the acting director of public works and transportation, D’Andrea Walker.

If the call occurred, it was a clear violation of Section 310 of the county charter, which prohibits council members from contacting employees in the executive branch other than the county executive “unless for the purpose of inquiry or information” and from attempting “in any manner” to “influence or coerce” those employees in the performance of their duties.

A violation of Section 310 can result in prosecution for the crime of misconduct in office. One of its purposes is to reduce the opportunities for corruption by elected officials, an especially important consideration in Baltimore County.

Madigan had unrebutted testimony that the call occurred. Although Jones apparently denied the conversation to a reporter, he refused to be interviewed by Madigan during the investigation and claimed his refusal was based on his general objection to her policy of recording interviews.

I’d have cited him for a violation of Section 310; Madigan didn’t.

Maybe Jones is worried that he won’t be so lucky in the future if there are more dimes to be dropped.

Making a Choice

Jones’ crusade to grind down the OIG is becoming increasingly odd. He is out on a limb. He must realize that his colleagues and Olszewski will gladly saw it off to save their own skins.

By bucking the strong support of the OIG by county residents, he is damaging his personal reputation and ruining his aspirations to become county executive.

He is, in effect, forcing county residents and others to ascribe to him the worst possible motives.

His penchant for secrecy hasn’t helped. He didn’t want to be interviewed on the record by the IG. He asked to give his testimony to Olszewski’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability in private. And now he allegedly convened a private meeting of the council to discuss legislation.

Todd Crandell, Mike Ertel, David Marks, Izzy Patoka and Pat Young have a choice to make. Are they going to close ranks with Jones and keep their lips sealed, or are they going to shed light on what occurred at 5 p.m. on December 4?

There is a term for that choice. It is called an “integrity check.”

• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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