Laslo Boyd: Fireworks at the Board of Public Works

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Maryland’s Board of Public Works, composed of the Governor, Comptroller and State Treasurer, is one of the most powerful if not necessarily best-known agencies of government.   The BPW has the final authority on all state contracts, major procurement decisions, and budget authority when the Maryland General Assembly is not in session.

For those who follow state government closely, it’s a particularly good vantage point for tracking what’s on the current Governor’s mind as well as identifying potentially news worthy issues.  For example, since the start of 2015, Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot have both used the BPW as a forum to express displeasure with the way some state agencies carry out their procurement activities. 

Over the years, it’s also been a platform for its members to opine on a variety of issues, not always limited to those on the formal agenda.  It’s been a particularly inviting venue for Comptroller Franchot who does not normally get the same level of media attention that the Governor does. 

Franchot, who started his first term in the office sounding very much like a candidate for governor, may have given up on that aspiration, but continues to see his role as broader than just that of chief state tax collector.  On the one hand, he used his BPW position to criticize the state referendum on expanding of gaming, a stance that could be construed as falling within a broad definition of his responsibilities.  His very public intervention in Towson University’s decision to drop intercollegiate baseball was at another extreme, inappropriate by any assessment of the job of Comptroller.

Franchot’s more recent pronouncements at BPW meetings have focused on what might be seen by some as local Baltimore County issues.  Franchot for his part describes his involvement as standing up for the politically less well connected.  Whichever explanation you use, the Comptroller has had a series of highly charged encounters with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The first barrage was an all-out attack on the failure of the County to have all of its schools air-conditioned.   Franchot won the support of Governor Hogan for his position that he describes as a long-standing concern.  Kamenetz has responded that he is in the process of addressing an issue that had been neglected by his predecessors and that he has a fiscally responsible plan in place to have all schools air-conditioned over the next few years.   The Baltimore County Executive has invited the State to increase its financial support in order to accelerate the timing of additional air conditioning in the schools.

As the weather has gotten cooler, so has the temperature of this debate. 

What happened at last week’s meeting of the Board is either really curious or a logical follow-up to the earlier slap at Kamenetz.  Baltimore County came to the BPW meeting seeking approval of a development project in the Dundalk area.  The issue was before the Board because the building to be redeveloped had once been a public school.  When it was turned over to the County years ago, there was a provision requiring State approval if the property were ever sold.

Franchot, with support from Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford sitting in for Hogan, held up the project on the grounds that there was community opposition, including from all of the newly elected Republican legislators from the area.   Where Franchot cites opponents who claim that they had no opportunity to provide input into the project, County officials point to a large number of meetings and modifications made in response to community requests.

Or, if you prefer, you can look at the substance of the redevelopment of a very old building in terrible shape with no prospect of continued usage.  Baltimore County is, or was until the Comptroller stepped in, in the process of creating over 500 permanent jobs, over 1500 construction jobs, a new community center, a new police precinct, and retail space that includes a number of well-known national chains.  When the project was delayed last week, those retailers—Chipotle, Chick-fil-a, Five Guys and Panera Bread—agreed to go public with their commitments.   And finally, there will be a John Hopkins medical center and office building.

And, if that weren’t enough, the project is being done with no public dollars.   The RFP process, started in 2013, involves the sale of the property to a private developer.  The proceeds of the sale will be used for the two public facilities.

You might have thought that Governor Hogan and his Secretary of Commerce, Mike Gill, would have rushed to embrace this project as a great demonstration that “Maryland is Now Open for Business.”  Kamenetz, on a talk radio program, wondered if the tag line includes Dundalk.

Since Hogan didn’t personally vote on the project, he can easily rectify the error made by Rutherford and even cite the support, if indeed it is there, of Secretary Gill.  Not to do that promptly would be missing a huge opportunity.

Franchot’s position is less clear.  His ongoing fight, or fights, with Kamenetz looks more like an effort to get attention than a matter of high principle.   What exactly would satisfy him that the community had been given an adequate voice in the process? 

Or is he worried that the Baltimore County Executive, termed out in 2018, will run for Comptroller?  He has certainly established a record of fiscal responsibility that would make him a viable candidate for the job.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.