Democratic nominees for City Council said this week they had been unaware of President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s request to the Board of Estimates to solicit donations from businesses and others for an “appreciation party,” ethics training and other activities for incoming and outgoing Council members.
After The Brew wrote about Young’s exception from Baltimore’s Ethics Code prohibition on solicitation of private gifts by a public official, some have criticized his fundraising strategy as inappropriate.
“The irony of getting an exception to fundraise from donors who may have business before the City Council to provide an ethics training is pretty rich,” said Marceline White, commenting online.
Incumbents and nominees, meanwhile, who are still campaigning ahead of the November General Election, said they had no knowledge of the Council transition activities that Young planned or how they were to be funded.
“I learned about it through your story,” said Zeke Cohen, the 1st District Democratic nominee, reached by phone today.
Councilman Bill Henry said he also had never heard of Young’s plans for a privately funded “appreciation party” and other activities.
After the Board of Estimate’s action on Wednesday (Young, the board president, abstained from the vote), some nominees quickly signaled their disapproval of the privately-funded activities.
“This is the first I’ve heard of any of this,” said 3rd District Democratic nominee Ryan Dorsey, commenting on Facebook. “I am in no need of – and am in no way interested in – anything which requires a waiving of ethical standards.”
Cohen, meanwhile, declined to comment when asked whether he is troubled by Young’s approach to paying for social events, training and related activities for incoming Council members.
“At this point, I’m really focused on my race,” Cohen said. “This is not a shoo-in for me.”
Kristerfer Burnett, 8th District Democratic nominee, also said he hadn’t known about Young’s plans and declined to comment.
“I’m solely focused on the upcoming General Election on November 8th, and am working incredibly hard to get the word out to voters throughout the 8th District about my candidacy to serve on City Council,” Burnett said.
Green Party District 3 nominee Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis said he also was not informed about Young’s transition plans. He said he wasn’t surprised, in Democrat-dominated Baltimore, to be left out.
“The impression the media gives is that these races are over and the Democratic nominees are sure to be the winners,” Spiliades said. “But some, like the 3rd District race, are not over. . . The feeling on the ground is different.”
Young’s request for an ethics rules exception for transition activities that include ethics training, Spiliades said, “is just so ironic.”
“He’s bringing in these new Council people and waiving ethics codes to, in effect, bring ’em into the fold,” Spiliades said.
Other nominees contacted have not yet replied to our queries.
Young: Saving Taxpayers Money
As the story generated mostly negative reaction online, Young took to social media to respond, reiterating a point his spokesman made in Wednesday’s story – that his intent was to save taxpayer dollars.
“Baltimore City is hardly a wealthy municipality,” he wrote. “The solicitation application is a way to allow us to transparently and legally accept in-kind donations to help offset the use of taxpayer dollars associated with the Council’s transition.”
Speaking with The Brew earlier this week, Young’s spokesman said the donations, both cash and in-kind, are not expected to exceed $10,000.
Davis said the activities will include “an appreciation party celebrating the many years of service” of exiting Council members and an ethics session, training materials and at least one luncheon for new members.
On Facebook yesterday, Young described the plans somewhat differently, saying that most of the money would go towards the in-kind donation of meeting space for ethics training seminars.
“City Hall, while beautifully-designed and historically significant, is not really the best location to host training sessions,” Young wrote.
“Why Not Use City Hall?”
Some critics found that assertion, and the whole idea of funding transition activities privately, questionable.
“We don’t have a Baltimore City venue where the transition training can be held? Why does it need to be at a university/college which would require an in-kind contribution,” said Nina Therese Kasniunas, an associate professor of political science and international relations at Goucher College.
“There isn’t space at the War Memorial? There isn’t space in 100 Holliday Street? Enoch Pratt?” Kasniunas said.
Kasniunas, who comments frequently on state and city politics, also questioned the celebration plans. “Citizens like myself are suspect of any donations from corporate or other entities to be used in this manner,” she said.
Councilman Henry said it was hard to judge Young’s transition celebration plans until he acted on them. “It sounds like what he got permission for was very broad,” he said.
Henry said post-election training sessions for a newly seated Council have been held outside of City Hall in the past, but he added that he was not aware of any private fundraising to pay for them.
Kasniunas, along with some other observers, faulted The Brew for using a photo in its story that is a group shot of the 15 Democratic nominees, seven of whom are incumbents. Posing together with them were Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh and Comptroller nominee Joan Pratt.
The “Unity Ticket” campaign photo was shot by Mark Dennis, the mayor’s photographer, on September 12.
Reporters — coming out of City Hall after the Council’s second-reader vote to advance the Port Covington tax increment financing legislation — pulled out cellphones and snapped the 15 council nominees, assembled by Dennis with Pratt and Pugh.
None of the nominees, Kasniunas pointed out, appear to have been told anything by Young about his fundraising strategy for the transition celebrations and ethics training.
“I don’t blame the nominees who have yet to join the City Council. But I do hope that if they are elected, they are the first to raise questions about how citizens might view this,” Kasniunas said.
“Elected officials should be sensitive to what citizens are thinking because many of them think we got a raw deal with how Port Covington was handled, in addition to other issues.”