From William Onorato, on behalf of 543 Concerned Citizens:
Councilman Richard Slutzky, current representative of District E and Council President hopeful, serves a dual role as not only a legislator but also as a “judge “on the Board of Appeals for zoning cases as do all seven Council members. This puts Council members in a very powerful position when it comes to zoning matters. Not only do they have the power to change the zoning laws as legislators, but they also sit in a quasi-judicial capacity presiding over requests for variances, requests for zoning changes, appeals of certain issues, among other zoning related matters.
The problem with this dual role rears its ugly head when the citizens a Council member represents encounter problems caused by over-ambitious developers. The development of Eva Mar Farm is just such an example. Developers plan to build a 514 unit continuing care retirement community (“CCRC”) and 144 single family homes on the 155 acre property on Route 543 in between Route 22 and C. Milton Wright High School. Residents of the communities surrounding the farm went to Councilman Slutzky to express their concerns and to seek help in mitigating the development’s many negative impacts. Councilman Slutzky, while initially responsive, told his constituents that he was unable to get involved because it would be a conflict of interest due to his role on the Board of Appeals.
Mr. Slutzky explained that if a zoning case arose from the proposed development, his ability to be fair and impartial would be compromised. Councilman Slutzky’s view is arguably contrary to the County Charter which was recently amended in June 2012 to clarify this dilemma (see Bill 12-33). The County Charter understandably indicates that Council Members may not discuss cases that have been actually filed and/or are pending before the Board of Appeals. The issue here is that nothing at all has been filed or is pending or even likely to get before the Board of Appeals on the Eva Mar case. The consequence of Councilman Slutzky’s narrow view is that the citizens he represents are left without government representation in matters that greatly impact their safety, property values and quality of life. In and of itself, that presents a serious problem for taxpayers. But Councilman Slutzky’s view is not shared by all council members and is only one part of the problem.
The other part of the problem is that Councilman Slutzky does not take a similar position when it comes to accepting campaign contributions from the very same developers who also might come before him on the exact same matter. In reviewing his publicly available campaign finance records, it was learned that on or about September 4, 2013, he accepted a check for $1,000 from Dixie Construction Company. Shawn Pyle, president of Dixie Construction, is on the Board of Directors of Presbyterian Homes of Maryland (“PHM”) who will operate the CCRC planned for Eva Mar. In addition and more directly, on or about September 17, 2013, he accepted $200 checks from both Michael Charlton of Elm St. Developers and the law firm of Snee, Mahoney, Lutche and Helmlinger, P.A. Mr. Charlton is the developer of the Eva Mar project and Joseph Snee, named partner in the law firm, is the attorney for the developer. All of these parties are just as likely to be before him on the Board of Appeals. Aren’t they?
So how does the acceptance of those checks from parties related to the Eva Mar project not also present a conflict of interest when those parties are also likely to be in front of you on a case before the Board of Appeals? Doesn’t the acceptance of these checks create an even greater appearance of impropriety than helping your constituents deal with well-connected and deep-pocketed developers? To be clear here, I am not alleging that there are any actual quid-pro-quos going on here or in the past. There is no proof of that. My point is to question the consistency and accuracy of Councilman Slutzky’s position on this issue and whether this position is good for his constituents (and the County) when it comes to matters like this.
Beyond just the Eva Mar related checks, Councilman Slutzky has a long history of accepting significant contributions from developer related interests which further undermines his position on declining to help his constituents in zoning matters. In addition to the most recent contributions related to the Eva Mar project, Councilman Slutzky has received since 2005 around $36,000 from developers, attorneys for developers, construction companies, people who have sought zoning changes to property they own, etc. This is out of total contributions received from all sources of $55,175. That represents 65% of his total campaign contributions coming from people who have interests in zoning related matters. This is the highest percentage by far of any council member. One has to at least question whose interests Councilman Slutzky truly represents in these types of matters and the appearance this pattern of contributions creates.
To be fair, the acceptance of campaign contributions from developers is not limited to just Mr. Slutzky. All council members (and our County Executive) receive contributions from developers, some more than others of course. The difference is that other council members actually have the courage to help their constituents with these issues whether or not they might lead to a Board of Appeals case and do not hide behind a conflict of interest to avoid taking an unpopular position with developers. See for example Bill 13-16 introduced by Councilmen McMahan, Woods, Boniface and Guthrie to assist the residents near the proposed Wal Mart on Route 924. That case is analogous to the Eva Mar development and yet those Councilmen come to the aid of those residents who have the same complaints about traffic and safety as we do. So what is the solution?
First the solution is not to rely on the County Executive for representation as Councilman Boniface suggested in recent public comments. This is contrary to everything we learned in Government 101. But to play along, we tried early on to reach out to David Craig on this matter but he too declined to get involved and referred us to planning and zoning. Their job is not to be an advocate for us rather their role is simply to interpret and enforce the zoning laws. Further making Councilman Boniface’s suggestion completely unworkable is the close ties David Craig has with Joe Snee, lead attorney on the project who served as a campaign advisor to Craig. The Craig administration fully supports this development from top to bottom as evidenced in part by the comments of Mary Chance, Director of Administration, and Jim Richardson, Director of Economic Development, that can be found right on the web page for the CCRC. The expectation of impartiality from the executive branch in this case is purely an illusion at best.
One solution is for the council member in whose district a contentious development plan arises to recuse himself from the Board of Appeals on that particular matter. One, this allows the Councilman to help his or her constituents without worries over conflict of interest issues. I should say here that I fully recognize that the developers are constituents too. But a Councilman cannot represent one over the other as is being done in this case. Two, it removes any temptation from developers to make campaign contributions in hopes of a favorable result or support in exchange. And three, most importantly, it removes any appearances of impropriety that arise from accepting checks from developer related issues. The objection to this proposal is that the Council members want the ability to cast a deciding vote in matters in their jurisdiction. That is exactly what we do not want and what leads to developers making such campaign contributions in hopes of getting the deciding vote in their favor. After all, $200 is a small investment on a multi-million dollar project. Let’s take that option off the table all together and remove the Council member from the picture in matters like this so he or she can do what they were elected to do – that is represent the people.
In conclusion, the position that Councilman Slutzky is taking with respect to representing his constituents is completely inconsistent with his practice of accepting campaign contributions from developer interests in close proximity to a plans for a development going public. His position is not consistent with the positions other Council members have taken in other zoning related matters such as the Wal Mar/924 case. Nor is his position consistent with the recent amendment of the County Charter on this very issue. Councilman Slutzky’s indefensible position has left taxpayers without representation on an issue that presents significant concerns over a multitude of issues, including but not limited to public safety, quality of life, excessive traffic, and property values. The response by our government to our concerns has been riddled with inconsistencies, unanswered questions and, in short, nothing short of abysmal. The issue here is not that we don’t like what we are hearing. The issue here is that the County Council does not like what it is hearing from us and does not like having its relationship with developers being called into question. This should worry all Harford County residents who live next to or near undeveloped land and should be on everyone’s minds as we head to the polls this June and again in November.
William Onorato, On behalf of 543 Concerned Citizens