After Smooth First Year, Kamenetz Hits Rough Road

After a relatively quiet first year in office, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has found himself in conflict with other state and county elected officials and labor unions.

The recent conflicts over legislation in Annapolis and in Towson have prompted complaints that Kamenetz has been difficult to work with, unwilling to compromise and arrogant.

Former Councilman Bryan McIntire served with Kamenetz for 16 years on the Baltimore County Council. The Timonium Republican said problems between the Democratic county executive and others have been personality-driven.

“(Kamenetz) is the kind of person who has to have his own way at any cost,” said McIntire. “That’s his nature and he can’t change his nature anymore than you or I can change ours.”

For a time during the 90-day General Assembly session that ended earlier this month, the county’s delegates and senators appeared to be getting along fine with Kamenetz—with many of the county executive’s bills moving quickly through the legislative process.

But two controversial bills—one related to county pensions for former state employees and another to change how county school board members are selected—derailed that good will. Many legislators began to openly criticize Kamenetz and worked in the last days of the General Assembly session in Annapolis to kill bills the county executive had favored.

Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Perry Hall Democrat, said she and others in her delegation do get along with Kamenetz. She blamed most of the discord in the last three months on the debate over the school board bill.

“I know that that irritated some of the members,” Klausmeier said.

In Towson, the second year county executive is being challenged by a freshmen-led County Council that has said Kamenetz is retaliating against them because they voted against another pension bill requested by his administration.

Meanwhile, labor union leaders were accusing Kamenetz of bullying them in negotiations.

Supporters, however, tell a different story. They say Kamenetz is focused on the fiscal well-being of the county. Others downplay the problems as minor bumps in the road.

Former County Executive Donald Hutchinson, who also served in the House of Delegates and state Senate, said conflict between a county executive and his delegation is almost inevitable.

“There’s always a rocky road, always people who think they know better than you,” said Hutchinson, who served as county executive from 1978 to 1986. “That’s all part of the dynamic.

“I’ve met every county executive,” said Hutchinson. “I don’t remember an executive who didn’t have a confrontation at one time or another with his delegation.”

“He’s Fighting With Us.”

Kamenetz has said there were no problems at all on the final night of the General Assembly session and that he “gets along” with the delegation.

But legislators, including those who represent the same neighborhoods as Kamenetz did when he was on the council, have a different opinion.

“I don’t know how he can say we’re getting along when he’s fighting with us,” said Del. Dan Morhiam, a Democrat who represents the 11th Legislative District that covers Pikesville, Owings Mills and part of Timonium.

Don Mohler, Kamenetz’s chief of staff, said reports of poor relationships are overblown.

“I reject that notion,” said Mohler. “It’s a mischaracterization to suggest that (Kamenetz) has difficult relationships.

“The county executive has a number of very positive relationships with members, including the chairs of the House and Senate delegations,” Mohler said, adding that the session was a success for the county.

“You can look at the glass as half empty or you can look at the glass as half full,” Mohler said. “The county passed important liquor license reform legislation and brought home near record-breaking money for school construction and renovation.”

Mohler said efforts to pass the liquor license bill show the county executive is willing to compromise.

“You talk about collaboration, there’s an example,” said Mohler. “We got ground breaking liquor license reform because all parties rolled up their sleeves and worked together.”

Kamenetz “Had Options And He Used Every One Of Them”

Kamenetz entered his second Maryland General Assembly session with a modest agenda and a plea to state delegates and senators from the county to work together in the best interest of the county.

“He had his agenda and on the things we agreed with, everything went well,” said Klausmeier, chair of the county’s eight-member delegation to the state Senate.

The relationship between Kamenetz and legislators who supported the bill creating a partially-elected, partially-appointed school board soured when the county executive personally took a hand in defeating the bill—first in a Senate Committee then in the final days of the session in a House committee.

“I tried to smooth things over with members of the delegation, but (Kamenetz) is the man and had options and he used every one of them,” said Klausmeier.

Legislators had options, too.

Kamenetz pressed his position with Del. Sheila Hixson, the powerful chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Hixson held a compromise school board bill in her committee until the last half hour of the 2012 session.

In the last weekend of the session, senators and delegates who favored changing the school board took action. Sen. Bobby Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat, started holding up bills Kamenetz wanted passed.

Del. Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, did the same thing in the House.

“The essence of leadership is the art of compromise and working together,” said Zirkin. “It’s easy to kill a bill. It doesn’t take any political skill or muscle. There was a lot of difference of opinion on the school board issue and how to move forward. The county executive didn’t care about anybody’s opinion. His only desire was to kill the bill.”

Zirkin endorsed Kamenetz for county executive in 2010.

“It seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” Zirkin said.

Mohler said the county executive’s strong opposition should have “come as no surprise” to Zirkin and others.

“He was always on the record in opposition to an elected school board,” said Mohler, citing concerns about diversity on the board and the hiring of Dallas Dance, the new Baltimore County Public Schools superintendent.

“There was no middle ground on this issue,” said Mohler. “To make a judgment that the county executive won’t compromise based on this one issue is unfair. There was no margin for compromise. You’re either for an elected school board or you’re not.”

Kamenetz “Chose A Different Path”

Del. Steve Lafferty, a Towson Democrat and vice chairman of the county’s delegation to the House, said Kamenetz’s stand on the school board issue wasn’t a surprise. Many delegates, he said, were bothered when the county executive “came in the back door and killed it.”

Kamenetz personally spoke against the bill in the Senate and wrote a letter to Hixson opposing the bill. Hixson cited Kamenetz’s opposition as the primary reason she held it in her committee in the final days of the session.

“You fight the fight in the delegation and when it’s over, if you lose, you either accede to that or stay silent,” said Lafferty. “He chose a different path. He only heard one argument and that was his.”

Dels. John Cluster and Wade Kach expressed similar concerns and said Kamenetz promised to remain neutral on legislation they were proposing. Both said the county later opposed their bills without warning.

“Kamenetz and his staff told us one thing and did another,” said Cluster, a Parkville Republican.

Cluster sponsored a bill that would require the Baltimore County Revenue Authority to adopt the county’s ethics laws. He said the county worked against the bill after saying they would remain neutral on it.

“I don’t want to be too harsh, but I don’t think he was completely honest with me,” Cluster said.

Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he had a similar experience with his bill that would have allowed volunteers to work at the county’s animal shelter. The county later killed the bill by telling the committee it would cost nearly $1 million to implement the program.

“I was told the county would be neutral on the bill and I get there and there’s a $750,000 fiscal note based on nothing,” Kach said.

Mohler said Kach and Cluster were incorrect.

“The county executive adamantly rejects the notion that he said he would not get involved in the animal shelter bill,” Mohler said. “The county executive made it clear to Del. Kach that he didn’t think it was appropriate for a state delegate to insert himself into the day-to-day operations of the county.”

Mohler added that he did not believe Kamenetz ever promised to remain neutral on the Revenue Authority ethics bill sponsored by Cluster.

Kamenetz, however, in an interview with Patch the day before the session began, said he would likely not take a position on the bill.

Sending A Message

Despite a compromise between county senators and delegates on a partially-elected school board, Kamenetz still worked to keep the bill bottled up in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“He was flexing his muscles down here trying to see how much he had down here,” Cluster said. “It’s a small community. It didn’t take much for word to get around.”

The frustration of the legislators peaked on the last Saturday afternoon of the session.

Zirkin acted first, delaying a vote on a bill that would allow the county to consolidate some functions of the school system into existing county operations. Kamenetz said the bill would ultimately save the county money.

Zirkin delayed it two more times. He also prepared more than a dozen amendments for the bill in an attempt to be a one-man filibuster.

Kach, working in the House, delayed a vote on a parking bill Kamenetz wanted.

Both bills were part of the county executive’s legislative priority list.

And Del. Eric Bromwell, a Perry Hall Democrat, focused attention on the defeated animal shelter bill by introducing a bill that contained an intentional drafting error. In explaining why he was introducing the bill in the last two days of the session, Bromwell used his time to publicly criticize Kamenetz’s actions.

“The Baltimore County administration later came into the standing committee and claimed it was going to cost $750,000—which it does not—and was able to defeat the bill in the standing committee,” said Bromwell.

“I’d like to point out that if the administration, ours or any other, comes down here and does that, it might not be the best idea,” said Bromwell, who then pointed out some drafting errors in the bill and asked the House to oppose its formal introduction.

Lafferty said the delegation was definitely expressing its frustrations in the final days.

“Messages like that get sent all the time,” Lafferty said.

Klausmeier said the results would have been different had the school board bill not been in play.

“That bill was a lightning rod,” Klausmeier said of the school board bill. “We never had anything like that that was controversial.”

Klausmeier said County Executive Jim Smith also opposed changes to the school board but the issue never was a problem “because he always had the votes in delegation to stop it.”

“I don’t know what would have happened if this had happened when Jim Smith was county executive,” Klausmeier said.

Pension Bills Create Rift With Council, Unions

Tension has also arisen between Kamenetz and some unions. Ongoing contract negotiations with some unions, an arbitration loss to the union that represents police officers and two pension bills have resulted in some labor groups criticizing Kamenetz’s approach.

“There’s just a lack of connection between this executive and the leadership of this organization,” said Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4. “We are not unwilling to compromise. We are not unwilling to negotiate.”

The county recently lost a binding arbitration decision to the police union. The decision resulted in a one-year continuation of the current contract even as a number of unions have reached multi-year agreements with the county.

Weston said the group has been willing to work out those agreements in the past.

“When you have an open dialogue and exchange of positions and can furnish supporting documentation, you can get a multi-year agreement,” Weston said.

Other union leaders say the problems others have with Kamenetz stem from an unwillingness to work with the new county executive.

“Some groups are cooperative and understanding and some are not,” said Michael Day, president of the Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters. “When you work with them, they’re more than cooperative and are straight shooters.

“If you work against them, it’s a more difficult road to walk,” Day said. “These are strange, strange times and Baltimore County is doing everything it can to avoid hurting employees.

“I haven’t had a problem,” Day said.

But Day once had his own issues with Kamenetz, who in 2010, helped pass a county law that, had it stayed in effect, would have prohibited Day from negotiating with the county on behalf of the union because of two 1995 misdemeanor convictions related to a pyramid investment scheme.

Day supported Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, Kamenetz’s colleague and rival in the Democratic primary for county executive that year.

Day said the 2010 law, repealed after Kamenetz won the primary election, is so much water under the bridge.

“It was 2010, an election year. Someone won and someone lost.  At what point do you lay something down for crying out loud. It doesn’t serve any person to harbor a grudge.  When the election was over, it was over.”

Council Cries Foul Over Retaliation

Some members of the County Council are feeling the fallout of the pension issue after voting last month to table a bill that would disallow the use of overtime in calculating final pension benefits for some employees.

Four council members, including Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Resiterstown Democrat who succeeded Kamenetz on the council, voted to table the bill. Almond and others now claim they are the targets of retaliation by Kamenetz.

Almond said the council doesn’t plan to vote based on what the county executive wants.

“You respect us, you talk to us and we’ll work with you,” Almond said in a recent interview.

During that same interview, Almond said trust between the county executive and County Council had diminished.

Mohler called the problems between the council and Kamenetz “bumps in the road” and downplayed Almond’s comments.

“I think (Almond) regrets her choice of words,” Mohler said. “It’s simply not accurate to characterize the county executive as having poor relationships with the council or the House or Senate delegations.”

Making the Transition

Kamenetz is not the first county executive to butt heads with state legislators, the council or labor unions.

But some said they were surprised at the tone of the last few months after a relatively quiet first year of working with Kamenetz, who frequently touts his extensive experience in county government, with 16 years on the County Council.

Harford County Executive David Craig said the transition to being the executive after being a legislator can be difficult.

“You’re always a target and every time you make a decision you’re growing your base of enemies,” said Craig, a Republican who served both in the Senate and as mayor of Havre de Grace.

The fact that the most stinging criticism of Kamenetz is coming from members of Kamenetz’s own party is not surprising to Craig.

“It’s not about party,” said Craig. “It’s about understanding their roles.”

Hutchinson said when he disagreed with state legislators in his time as county executive he was always “confident I could mend the relationship in the future.”

But Hutchinson said continuing bad relationships with the state legislators could have its costs.

“Ted Venetoulis was a pretty good county executive but his delegation was angry with him for the entire four years he was county executive,” said Hutchinson. “As a result, when he ran for governor, no legislator outside his own district helped him run because they were so angry with him.”

Hutchinson said the power of the county executive’s office can go a long way toward bringing about a reconciliation.

“The Baltimore County Executive has extensive powers—the power of patronage and projects,” said Hutchinson. “It’s the strongest county executive in the country—not just in Maryland, but in the entire country. No one has the power the Baltimore County executive has. No one.”

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