Photo: Johnny Olszewski Sr., former Baltimore County Council member and current lobbyist.
When Johnny Olszewski Sr. found a snag in an Essex-based development project for one of his client’s last fall, he turned to the Baltimore County School Board to help his client out, says a school board member.
The former Baltimore County Council member, current Blue Ocean Realty development lobbyist and father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., did not appear to get the help from the school board, but nonetheless asked some of its members to support an idea which could make a difficult housing project viable.
The problem is that housing projects come with children and children attend schools. And when a school is at – or nearing – overcapacity, it presents a problem for developers.
Johnny Olszewski Sr.’s solution?
According to one member of the school board: simply rezone the development or create a new satellite school zone for Middleborough or Deep Creek elementary schools to alleviate possible overcrowding caused by the new development.
A move that could subvert a process usually done through an extensive regional boundary study that sometimes results in consternation when students are asked to relocate from their area schools. A move that would impact families, children and require an entire redistricting process. But a move that would potentially benefit Olszewski Sr. and his client.
But the senior Olszewski told The Gunpowder Gazette through an email on Saturday that he did not contact school board members for that purpose. “Please allow me to stop you here,” he said. “I have no lobbying matters pending before the Baltimore County School Board, neither for Blue Ocean or any other citizen or client.”
He said, “I reached out to some board members seeking information about problems with school overcrowding in Baltimore County Schools and the process involved to balance out that overcrowding problem.”
Limited Liability Company.
In July, and as reported last year, The Gunpowder Gazette reached out to the Baltimore County Council after learning that Olszewski Sr. was a state-registered lobbyist for Towson-based real estate developer, Blue Ocean Realty, through his company, OK Strategies, LLC, which Olszewski Sr. registered one month after his son took office, state records show.
Through his company, Olszewski Sr. is also registered on the state’s lobbyist list for work he does for the Maryland Tax Sale Participants Association and Summit Ridge Energy.
While Olszewski Sr. said that he is not lobbying Baltimore County government, Blue Ocean Realty’s attorney, Tim Kotroco is. And Kotroco was originally listed as the resident agent for OK Strategies, records show. Olszewski Sr. reassigned the agent status to himself in August.
In a report published by The Baltimore Sun on Friday, Olszewski Sr. said he no longer has a business relationship with Kotroco who has been working with the county on the Middle River Depot redevelopment project.
Requests for emails from the Baltimore County Council and the Baltimore County School Board.
Along with Kotroco, email records show that Blue Ocean Realty president, Jonathan Erhenfeld, has also worked directly with the county on general development plans slated for the Essex area.
Ehrenfeld reached out directly to Councilman Todd Crandell, other county employees and several businesses, who all met last April for a stakeholder meeting to discuss future projects in the county, emails, obtained through a record request, show.
Crandell, a Republican, represents the county’s seventh district, which includes Dundalk — and Essex — where the Middlebrough and Deep Creek schools are located.
After obtaining the emails, a subsequent request for the Blue Ocean’s applications for building permits around the county followed. As of Friday, and seven months after first requesting the records, the county says the request is being handled.
Through another records request, this time of Baltimore County Public Schools, it was discovered that the senior Olszewski reached out to the school board in November.
But the conversation with board members did not begin all that directly, the records showed.
For one, it was unclear to some board members that it was Johnny Olszewski Sr. who reached out – and not the county executive – who asked for phone conversation in the first place.
Using an old campaign email address – with the county executive’s campaign slogan “Go Johnny O” – The Gunpowder Gazette was told that some board members were confused and thought it was the county executive who reached out to talk for a benign purpose.
Instead, to their surprise, it was Olszewski Sr. on the other end of the line.
In an email, obtained through a public records request, Olszewski Sr. also wrote to school board member, Lily Rowe.
Rowe, who represents the sixth council district, said she was one of the board members who was initially confused by which of the two Olszewskis contacted her.
But when contacted about the emails, Rowe told The Gunpowder Gazette on Saturday that the county executive had nothing to do with the interaction or the development. She underscored that it was his father who reached out to talk to her and others. In fact, she said that she was surprised to hear Olszewski Sr. on the other end of phone.
The county executive is not his father.
But of County Executive Olszewski, Rowe was clear, “The county executive does not interfere with the work of the board, but has been supportive of its autonomy as a newly partially elected school board.” She said, “He supports us with information when we ask, but does not attempt to influence the board’s decisions.”
“He is transparent,” Rowe said.
The county executive’s office did not respond to a late Friday afternoon request inquiring whether it was a conflict for his father to have purportedly lobbied school board members on behalf of one of his father’s clients.
But Olszewski Sr. said there is a difference between lobbying the Baltimore County School Board versus Baltimore County government which would be a conflict. “I was wondering the same thing,” he wrote in a response to The Gunpowder Gazette.
“So, in order to be on solid legal footing, I reached out to the Baltimore County Ethics Commission for a formal opinion as to whether there is a difference between the County School Board and the County Government,” Olszewski Sr. said. “The Ethics Commission responded, in writing that there is a clear and legal difference between the two and that it would be entirely permissible for me to lobby the School Board, if and when I ever decide to do so. I always knew that was the case, but I wanted to have a formal opinion to support my understanding…”
He did not address a question regarding board members’ confusion that he was not the county executive when he first reached out.
But when it came to contacting the Baltimore County School Board in November, some school board members felt he crossed a line. And in at least one case, Board Member Rowe, records show, referred the matter to Superintendent Darryl Williams and sent Olszewski Sr. the school board’s policies on redistricting and school zoning issues in response to the call.
Councilman Crandell was not immediately available to answer questions surrounding Olszewski Sr.’s purported involvement with housing developments in his area or any possible requests to rezone schools which would could potentially benefit developers.
Correction: 2/18/2020: An earlier version of this story indicated inaccurately that Blue Ocean purchased Martin State Airport, when in fact it was the former Martin State “Aircraft” manufacturing plant, also known as Middle River Depot. We sincerely regret the error and have updated the story.