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Conference makes a splash for county gov’t officials

Politics and public policy will be on the tongues of county and state officials headed to Ocean City for the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference.

The annual convention of county government officials, which runs through Saturday, comes at a perfect time on the administrative calendar.

“Officials around the state really do start to bury last year and think of next year as we go into the convention,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the MACo.

As many as 2,500 state and local officials from across Maryland and exhibitors are registered to attend this year’s conference, whose theme is “Water, Water Everywhere.”

Attendees will be awash in sessions from a look at the continued implementation of stormwater management programs — a call-back to the 2014 gubernatorial campaign and the so-called “rain tax” — aqua tourism and even a panel featuring Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman speaking on storm emergencies.

Kittleman oversaw his county’s response to two major flood events since 2016 that each devastated the Main Street business area of historic Ellicott City.

And while some question the need for a conference at the beach, the four days in the Ocean City Convention center can highlight significant policy initiatives for local governments and even show fault lines between the jurisdictions and state officials.

In past years, the conference has looked at police body cameras, state revenue, medical marijuana and local zoning issues and how augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go affect how public accesses to parks and government buildings.

In 2011, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley found significant pushback from county leaders as he sought to explain his Plan Maryland smart growth and development planning initiative. The plan was officially cast aside by Gov. Larry Hogan at last year’s convention, although it was mostly a symbolic gesture as details had already quietly been pulled from state websites. Many counties saw the policy as a usurpation of their land-use authority. The announcement was mostly symbolic as the plan had already quietly been pulled from state websites.

Hogan during his term as governor has used the conference to make campaign promise and enlist local leaders to oppose statewide policies.

“We’ve had a lot of big policy announcements rolled out,” said Sanderson. “We have a lot of state officials attending and we’re just at the right time on the calendar.”

Education, campaigns

This year, county leaders could get their first look at how they will be affected by school funding recommendations expected to be made by the Kirwan Commission. William “Brit” Kirwan, the eponymous panel chair, and Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, will be part of a panel discussion on education spending. The commission’s report is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Sanderson said county officials and observers believe now is the time when the commission is starting to pull together recommendations in preparation for the final report.

“As we get closer to making possibly a $4 billion commitment to education, I’d be really surprised if we left that room without a clear idea if what Maggie and Brit are thinking,” said Sanderson.

With election day less than three months away, politics also will be on the menu to some degree.

“There will be the usual array of fundraisers and candidate walk-arounds that are a staple in an election year,” said Sanderson.

Four years ago, the closing session featured a gubernatorial candidate’s forum between then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Hogan. The association planned to repeat the program this year with Hogan and Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee. Jealous, however, declined the association’s invitation last week, citing a campaign schedule that will take him to the western part of the state.

Instead, Hogan will give the closing remarks as he has the last two years. In 2015, he missed his first convention as governor because he was undergoing cancer treatments.

The convention is also a time for candidate fundraisers, including for Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot; Barry Glassman and Allan Kittleman, the Republican county executives of Harford and Howard counties, respectively; Sens. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, and Jim Mathias, a Democrat whose district includes the beach resort town; and Democratic Dels. Eric Bromwell of Baltimore County, and Sheree Sample Hughes, who represents Dorchester and Wicomico counties.

The open sessions during the conference also open up the possibilities of gaffes.

In 2015, Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Ken Holt floated the idea of creating a program that would allow younger, first-time home buyers to consolidate their student loans into a mortgage as a way to simultaneously increase home ownership and reduce the number of properties maintained by the agency.

That announcement was overshadowed, albeit temporarily, when Holt quoted an erroneous anecdote about women who allegedly would use lead fishing weights to intentionally expose their children to lead poisoning as a way of securing benefits and payments from landlords.


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