I think I like Comptroller Peter Franchot. I sympathize with his seemingly constant frustration with the workings of state government. And there is something gratifying about seeing snippets of that frustration in print, and directed at the powers that often seem unconcerned with even keeping up an appearance of fairness or accountability. And that frustration is in full force with this dubious no-bid land deal that Gov. Martin O’Malley has only half backed off from.The situation is like this. Organic farmer, former environmental lawyer, and O’Malley donor Cleo Braver approached the governor with a plan to create a “food hub” on the Eastern Shore that would distribute organic and sustainable food, and grow some itself. The O’Malley administration then went and drew up a proposal to buy 255 acres of farmland in Kent County for $2.8 million with money from Program Open Space to turn around and lease the property to Braver’s non-profit for $1 a year. In a separate deal, the state planned to give the food hub $500,000 in bond money.
A Franchot spokesman called the deal “highly irregular.” Franchot himself later called it “sleazy.” After he voiced his misgivings — and the Sun reported on the deal — O’Malley sort-of backed off. The no-bid lease to Braver’s non-profit was nixed, but the purchase went through — over Franchot’s nay vote.
“This kind of contract with political contributors is what destroys public trust in the integrity of government,” Franchot said. And he doesn’t believe that the land purchase is a legitimate Program Open Space purchase, even as Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill claimed the land “is under threat of development.”
“What in God’s name is the risk of development in a remote part of the state that has a railroad running through it?” was his reply. (Interestingly enough, Gill undercut his assertion about the land’s attractiveness for developers when he later claimed that the market rent for the property would be lower than people think.)
The best quip came when Franchot defended himself against the charge that he didn’t value the basic aims of the food hub project. “I’m from Takoma Park. I like organic vegetables.”
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