Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Wednesday he will veto a bill altering the county’s planned unit development law because he believes it violates county ethics laws.
The bill, which was passed unanimously by the seven-member council earlier this week, would alter the definition of community benefit to allow developers to make cash donations to nonprofit, county or state entities. Currently, the law as drafted in 2010 by Kamenetz when he was a member of the council defined community benefit as capital projects that would be open to public use.
“I don’t count votes when I make a decision to veto a bill,” Kamenetz said. “I look at whether or not it comports with the law. This bill is wrong.”
The county executive said the bill sets up situations where council members, who are deeply involved in the approval of planned unit development projects, could be seen as soliciting gifts from developers seeking the designation that allows them to build projects that would otherwise not be permitted by existing zoning.
Kamenetz said he had an opinion from the Baltimore County attorney that such a law would violate ethics rules, which forbid public officials from soliciting gifts for themselves or on behalf of other individuals.
“It’s no secret that registered lobbyists do most of the legwork on these PUDs,” wrote Baltimore County Attorney Michael E. Field. “They are in the audience at every work session and council voting session where they are considered and voted on, though they rarely testify about their PUDs. Bill 54-15 will effectively allow the solicitation of a ‘gift’ from ‘registered lobbyists on behalf of another person.’”
Field said the bill raised concerns but added that he could not “say that bill 54-14 is ‘illegal’ in any way.”
“In my opinion, the community benefit to be allowed under bill 54-15 looks more like a gift than the kind of community benefit envisioned in the PUD law,” Field wrote. “It, at the very least, does not comport with the spirit and intent of the Baltimore County Ethics law. Its use could give rise to complaints to the ethics commission, which would then have to balance the county’s right to enact its own development law against state law requirements for local elected officials.”
Democratic Councilman Julian E. Jones Jr., sponsor of the bill, did not return a call from a reporter seeking comment. Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins was also not immediately available for comment.
Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond said members of the council approved the changes in an effort to ensure communities got the most benefit from smaller projects.
“We wanted to make sure we could get more for the communities,” Almond said.
Almond said she believes the council won’t rush to judgment on Kamenetz’s veto but acknowledged a 7-0 vote is more than enough for an override.
“I know we will look at it and try to see if there is a place to compromise,” Almond said.