In Baltimore County, Limiting Thinking

… Our view: Frustration with council’s pension-loving incumbents of the past is understandable, but proposed term limits would yield little benefit for future …

4:17 PM EST, January 17, 2012

Just on their handling of council members’ pensions alone, few legislative bodies in Maryland have shown themselves more richly in need of term limits than the Baltimore County Council. Councilman David Marks’ recent announcement that he is introducing legislation that would cap council members to no more than three terms in office is completely understandable.

After all, one of the attractions of term limits is to promote citizen legislators and discourage career politicians. Towson has seen its share of the latter, and that probably contributed to its excessively generous pension program for council members, one that allowed particularly lucrative arrangements for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former councilmen Stephen G. Samuel Moxley and Vincent J. Gardina.

But just as two wrongs don’t make a right, Baltimore County ought to reject term limits as a “solution” that merely creates new problems. Every four years, county residents have at their fingertips the best possible way to redress wrongs — voting the offenders out of office.

Term limits on legislative bodies historically do little good while facilitating much political mischief. By denying voters the opportunity to return to office the candidates of their choice, the law restricts the democratic process — hardly the best step toward fairness and equity.

Certainly, there’s no guarantee that a newcomer is any better, more honest, or more qualified to hold a council seat than an incumbent. The only certainty is that they will be less experienced — and that is the crux of the problem.

In Towson, the county executive wields much authority in county government. The less experienced the county council, the more likely the county executive will dominate the decision-making process. It is the advantage of knowledge — and that takes time to acquire. Thus, term limits shift more power into the hands of the executive.

But term limits also benefit those lobbyists and deep-pocketed interests (corporations, employee unions, developers, government contractors and the like) that have a stake in government. They are not term limited, and so they may know the ins and outs of government far better than the neophyte lawmakers they are seeking to persuade.

One can appreciate, however, where Mr. Marks is coming from. The last council lost much credibility on its reputation for looking out for its own. And the galvanizing issue was the pension windfall of veteran councilman Mr. Gardina, who retired after five terms with a pension amounting to 100 percent of his annual council salary.

With retirement pay like that, why bother staying in office? But wait, it got better. Before leaving office in 2010, the outgoing incumbents helped pass a change to pension law that allowed Mr. Moxley and Mr. Gardina to take top jobs in the Kamenetz administration while banking their council pensions for a lump-sum payout of at least $160,000 each. (Mr. Kamenetz gets the best deal of all, a lump sum payout of $328,000 and an annual pension of $101,000 if he serves two terms.)

That provision (included in a bill that actually diminished pension benefits for other county workers) wasn’t widely publicized until recently. But the lucrative pensions did become an election issue in 2010. Republicans criticized Democrats for them — and for the modesty of the fix they enacted.

But the issue didn’t seem to gain much traction with voters who elected Mr. Kamenetz to the county’s top office by a robust margin. Will it in 2014? That should be for the voters to decide.

Mr. Marks is a Republican, and members of his party have perennially been in the minority on the Baltimore County Council. The GOP is on the outside looking in, and anyone can appreciate how irritating that can be.

But there are better ways to level the playing field. Public financing of political campaigns to ensure that newcomers aren’t “shouted down” by well-funded incumbents is one — and it has been used successfully in places as diverse as Arizona and New York City.

Another would be to put in place stronger ethics requirements so that council members, regardless of how experienced they might be, would be less able to enrich themselves while in office. Sadly, Mr. Marks and his fellow council members — all but two of them in their first term — recently voted unanimously to reject a host of new council ethics requirements proposed by Mr. Kamenetz, proving that one doesn’t have to be an unrepentant long-term incumbent to act like one.

Copyright © 2012, The Baltimore Sun

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