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March 11, 2011

BaltCo revenue panel agrees to more notice

The Baltimore County Revenue Authority board has agreed to start posting meetings in advance on its website and to begin checking the cost of buying space for such notices in local newspapers.

Donald P. Hutchinson, chairman of the five-member authority board, said at the Thursday morning session that he had not received anything official about the complaints that were mailed Wednesday to the Maryland Attorney General. He said he knew they claimed that the authority gave insufficient notice of regular meetings, did not give enough notice when the Feb. 24 session was postponed because of his absence, and acted improperly when the board went into closed session in January to discuss terms of an agreement with the developers of the Towson Circle III project.

His comments came a day after the news site Patch.com filed three open meetings complaints against the authority

Board members took up several discussions about handling information and public access on Thursday, and at one point two members got into a heated exchange over a proposed change of policy on contacts between board members and authority employees.

The board agreed to address the complaint about posting meetings, which up until now has only been done with a typed notice taped to the receptionist's desk in the authority office in Towson. The board agreed that meetings and agendas will be posted on the agency's Web site about a week in advance.

Hutchinson apologized for the short notice of the meeting postponement last month, but said he underestimated how much time it would take him to recover from surgery and get back to work.

As it did in January, the board voted once more to go into closed session to talk about the extension of their agreement with Heritage Properties, Inc. and the Cordish Company, who plan to build Towson Circle III, a complex on East Joppa Road including a movie theater, stores, offices, restaurants and an underground parking garage.

The authority is putting up $12 million and the county is contributing another $6 million for the garage, which would be built by the developers and taken over by the authority after a certain portion of the complex is occupied. The agreement -- being extended after the developer missed the first deadline to start construction by the end of 2009 -- spells out such particulars as when the developer has to start construction and the terms under which the authority assumes ownership of the garage.

The authority runs parking garages and metered parking, five public golf courses and the Reisterstown Sportsplex in Reisterstown Regional Park.

Member Leslie M. Pittler was the sole vote against closing the session to discuss Towson Circle III.

"We have $18 million of public money involved," Pittler said. "The public interest outweighs having a closed session on an extension agreement."

The board followed the advice of lawyer Richard Lehmann, who said the discussions with the developer were "sensitive" and an open forum could "compromise our negotiating position."

Pittler also was the lone objection to a policy change proposed by Authority Chief Executive William L. "Lynnie" Cook on board member contacts with authority employees. Cook wrote a memo to board members with instructions to run all requests for information through him, rather than talking directly to employees.

Pittler and Merreen Kelly argued about that, as Pittler objected to the memo on grounds that under Maryland law, corporate board members have a "duty" to get information from employees. He said he regularly talks with employees, especially those who work at the five golf courses the authority runs.

Kelly said that he thought employees felt "pressured when they're constantly bombarded with questions from members of the board. I will not put employees in that position." Addressing Pittler, he said "you have no empathy" for employees.

"Don't accuse me of whether I have empathy or not," Pittler said, leaning across the table. "Keep your personal remarks to yourself."

Pittler and board member Bonnie Phipps ultimately agreed to work on a policy governing contacts with employees and to present their draft to the board for further work.

The board postponed until the next meeting a discussion of policy on when to authority documents become public, and decided not to release a memo on the subject prepared by lawyer Patrick K. Arey. Hutchinson said the discussion would be postponed because Arey is ill.

Hutchinson said Arey advised that his memo be kept private because it involved legal advice. Pittler said he disagreed, as that would mean any information discussed with a lawyer could be kept from the public.

-Arthur Hirsch

Posted by Andy Rosen at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)
        

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Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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