Prince George's council could lose power over development decisions
State lawmakers call for appointed board to approve zoning matters, as is done in rest of state
State lawmakers have come up with their own plan to prevent political meddling in Prince George's County development decisions: strip the County Council of its final say on projects.
"It's being discussed by a lot of members of the delegation. It seems to have a lot of support," said Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly.
The discussions surfaced Thursday, soon after state senators representing Prince George's rejected a proposal that would have prevented council members from receiving developer campaign contributions through slates while the developer had a project pending; contributions could still be made before or after the project's approval, however.
Senators said the proposal failed to address other loopholes that could allow for unethical interference in development plans.
State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach has already proposed the measure, and a majority of the county's 23 delegates are also in favor, Ivey said.
Miller said the change is an alternative to ethics reform proposals suggested by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and the County Council that do not go far enough.
"I just don't see how this is different from what's been going on for more than 20 years now," he said of the reforms.
Senators are expected to resolve their version in the next week, Ivey said.
If Miller's proposal is passed before the General Assembly session ends April 11 and approved by the governor, the nine-member County Council would no longer get to decide zoning matters and approve or reject development projects, such as new stores and building renovations. The Prince George's council is the only elected body in the state that also gets to approve development applications, Miller said. The measure calls for the county executive and council to appoint a resident board to review and decide development matters after the projects are reviewed by the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission.
"They should be just like Anne Arundel, like Baltimore County. Like any other county," said Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Landover.
Miller's measure is stricter than an alternative set of ethics reforms proposed by Baker and the nine-member council that, in addition to addressing campaign contributions, would also impose a 205-day deadline for the council to act on development decisions.
"It's good window dressing, but it does absolutely nothing," state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington said of the ethics reforms.
Council Chairwoman Ingrid Turner (D-Dist. 4) of Bowie said the council opposes efforts to dissolve the District Council, the title used by the council when it is deciding zoning matters.
"We thought long and hard about how we could put together bills that would improve transparency," Turner said. "We have discussed this with the county executive. He feels it is a sensible package of reforms."
Baker did not respond to a request through Press Secretary Scott Peterson.
Ivey, Miller and others say the move would end the county's reputation for political meddling in the development process, which made national news when former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) was arrested late last year on charges of extortion and bribery for allegedly taking payments in exchange for helping developers get federal grants.
Past council behavior has also damaged the county, Miller said. Resident groups have long complained that developers contributed heavily to council members in exchange for project approvals. Meanwhile, business leaders have criticized council members for holding up approvals to seek contributions for community groups, police stations or schools in exchange for their consent.
"The previous council was bad. There's no question about it, they were bad," Miller said, saying that the five new council members and Baker have improved the county. "We want to say These are the rules. It's a brand new day.' "
Councilwoman Mary Lehman (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel said the council is relying on Turner to negotiate some solution to implement ethics reforms.
"My real worry is that nothing will pass, which just increases voter cynicism," she said.