Council questions Baker's ethics reform proposals
Members worry about potential loss of vote for several years on development projects requested by campaign contributors
Two ethics reform laws proposed by Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) are raising concerns among council members, that the legislation would limit their authority over development requests.
The first bill would ban council members from voting on any project request from a developer who has contributed to their campaign or slate in the past three years. The second bill would prohibit council members from calling for review of a development site plan unless a developer or resident calls for the review. According to a news release from Baker, the second bill was drafted "to address prior instances of pay to play' where council members have called' up cases for purposes to seek concessions from developers."
Baker's proposals were unveiled as part of a pledge to "restore faith in county government" in Prince George's.
Reached after the meeting, Baker said the bills must be passed to reform the county's public image, which has been mired by criticism that lawmakers unduly influence development.
"On many issues, there will be points where we disagree," Baker said of his work with the council. "But it's important for the wider Washington area to see that it's a brand new day in Prince George's County."
Ethics changes took on new urgency in November, when FBI agents arrested former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, County Councilwoman Leslie E. Johnson (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville, on federal charges of evidence tampering. Jack Johnson is accused of accepting more than $100,000 in bribes from an unnamed developer in exchange for helping that developer secure federal housing funds.
Councilman Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville said it would be unfair to force county-level lawmakers to recuse themselves on development issues when other lawmakers in the state aren't under the same rules.
"I don't mind this, if everything was equal," Campos said. "But are there any bills proposed for the rest of the state to bring us all in compliance? Why not? Why is this restraint just being placed on the Prince George's County Council?"
The Prince George's County delegation would have to vote in favor of the bills then introduce them during the 90-day session that began last week. Dels. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville and Barbara Frush (D-Dist. 21) of Beltsville have both expressed support for the legislation.
Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro objected.
"Sometimes, the only recourse is to have a council member standing there as a means of last resort," he said.
Council members said they plan to continue discussing the bill as the session proceeds.
Staff Writer Zoe Tillman contributed to this report.