Olszewski fields reforms for lobbying, government watchdog, public campaign financing

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. Image via Facebook.

Baltimore County’s new executive is putting forth a package of proposed lobbying rule changes, as well as the creation of a dedicated watchdog office and an avenue for political candidates to opt for public financing.

John Olszewski Jr. announced his reform proposals today at the Baltimore County Historic Courthouse in Towson. In the package are new rules barring certain county officials from lobbying for one year after they leave office, requiring the publication of all lobbyist registrations online for the public to see and defining lobbyist the same way in the executive and legislative branches (they are, surprisingly, slightly different).

He’s also proposing a county charter amendment that would allow candidates for county executive and council seats to receive public financing for campaigns, as well as a bill to create Baltimore County’s own Office of Ethics and Accountability to “audit, inspect, evaluate and investigate government operations” to expose fraud, waste and abuse.

Similarly to Baltimore City’s Office of the Inspector General, the office would be made independent of the county executive and county council to ensure “autonomy necessary to root out any problems,” he said.

All of the proposals are due to go before the Baltimore County Council in February. If approved, the Citizens Election Fund proposal would still need to be approved via ballot referendum in 2020, he said. The “Citizens Election Fund” would provide matching funds for donations, though Olszewski couldn’t yet provide specifics on how much. He said those details would be fleshed out if/after voters approve the charter amendment.

Joining Olszewski were Common Cause Maryland executive director Damon Effingham and Baltimore County Council members Julian Jones, Wade Kach and Izzy Patoka.

Effingham, whose organization advocates for more transparency and accountability in government, said adding a public-financing option for elections would put Baltimore County on par with Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City, whose voters approved Question H (not set to take effect until 2024) in November 2018.

On a phone call after the presser, Effingham added that while advocacy or some type of scandal often prompt changes like this, Olszewski’s administration has taken these proposals on of its own accord. “Tackling these kinds of things without those impetuses just shows a level of responsibility and care for the care of infrastructure of democracy,” he said.

Olszewski said boosting government accountability is a bipartisan issue, evidenced by the presence of Democratic and Republican council legislators who joined him for the presser.

Jones, whose district includes Owings Mills, Randallstown and Woodlawn, said increased transparency is “wanted and needed in the community.” Wade Kach, a Republican whose district runs from Lutherville-Timonium up to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, said the public financing option in particular would help mitigate residents’ concerns about special interests influencing who’s elected and making decisions.

“This is what’s called good government,” Kach said.

“Pay to play” politics was a particular sticking point during the Baltimore County executive race. As The Sun reported last April, Olszewski’s competitors, Vicki Almond and James Brochin, traded barbs over past donations that each had received, respectively, from developers and gun-rights interests.

On the topic of fraud, waste and power-abuse cases, the county executive said he personally hasn’t seen any, though he’s heard stories about past employees who were concerned about coming forward “for fear of retribution.”

“The only way to actually find them and root them out is to have a mechanism in place to do so,” he said.

Ethan McLeod
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