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Baltimore County Council argues, then votes to postpone vote on work session time change

The Baltimore County Council voted five-to-two on Monday to postpone a vote on a resolution that seeks to change the council’s work session time in order to allow for more public participation.

Councilmen Wade Kach, Izzy Patoka and David Marks sponsored the resolution which aims to change the starting time for the council’s work sessions from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm.

During Monday’s meeting, council members approved an amendment to the original resolution that would change the time to 4:00 pm instead of 6:00 pm, but Councilman Julian Jones asked members to postpone the vote so that the council had more time to deliberate.  Jones said two weeks wasn’t enough to do so, although he strongly expressed his opposition to any time change at all.

Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, was most vocal about his disapproval of the time change, stating that it was “political.”  He accused some of his fellow council members of wanting to create the “appearance of openness and transparency” when the public has other opportunities to engage with council members through email, through testifying during legislative sessions or by requesting one-on-one meetings with council members.

Jones said that the majority of what the council does is of no interest to the public. He said, “Ninety percent of what we do, don’t involve them…”  He said that most people are not interested in what the council is doing, stating, “People are busy, they trust their elected leaders.” He said that most of what the council does is “approve contracts and spending in the government,” which he indicated was not interesting to most of the public.

The mostly biweekly Tuesday afternoon work sessions involve discussion and a chance for the public to weigh-in on issues often just one week before the council votes on them during its following Monday night legislative sessions.

Councilman Kach, a Republican who represents the Hereford Zone to Lutherville areas, said last month of the resolution. “Over my five years serving on the County Council, I have heard serious concerns from many constituents and County residents regarding the scheduling of Council work sessions at 2 p.m. Residents with daytime jobs are not able to take time off of work to come to Towson to testify on matters that would directly impact them.”

But Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, pointed out on Monday that only five people attended the night’s meeting, excluding county employees, security and the press.

She said that she had not heard from any of her constituents that the current 2:00 pm meeting time was a problem. And she said that her elderly constituents would not want to drive at night.

Bevins said that any change would amount to council members wanting to change the terms of their employment instead of accepting their council responsibilities, which included knowing when each would have to attend the work sessions before they were elected to serve on the council.  She called the resolution “self serving.”

“Why you work hard to get to a job and now you get here and now you want to change everything,” Bevins said.  “We have to be considerate of our constituencies… I find it very odd that two council districts think this is a priority and others don’t.”

Councilman Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said in a statement announcing the resolution last month, “An open, transparent government is an accountable government. The residents of Baltimore County deserve to have their voice heard in their local government, and we have a responsibility to ensure we are providing as many opportunities for public input as possible. By moving work sessions to the evening, more working families and individuals can participate in this important process.”

On Monday, Patoka asked his fellow council members to be civil and not question the motives of members who wished to change the meeting time.

He said that he was in favor of changing the meeting to a time that would permit the public to engage with him in person during the work sessions and to make feelings known. He said Monday’s meeting was not a fair “snapshot” of meeting attendance.

Although he voted in favor of the amendment that would change the time to 4:00 pm as a compromise with council members, he said that 6:00 pm is the “optimal time…”

“It’s great for transparency,” Patoka said.  “They elected us to interact with our constituents and I feel that 6:00 pm is a good time.”

Even Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, a Democrat, campaigned on the change from afternoon to evening, saying on the campaign trail in 2017 and 2018 that he thought the work sessions should be moved in order to provide the public more of an opportunity to participate in the meetings for a more open and transparent government.

On Monday, Olszewski stood behind his words, telling The Gunpowder Gazette through his spokesperson, “A transparent, accessible, and connected government is an effective government, and our administration has already taken significant strides to open our government like never before. I have long championed this issue and I’m pleased to see the County Council is actively considering this reform.”

But Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, was in agreement with council members Jones and Bevins, joining them in their opposition.

Crandell also questioned the motives of some of the council members. “We are going to change what we have been doing for more than a decade… I am wondering what the real reason is,” he said. “I don’t think that what this is about is transparency…”

He said that, like Bevins, not one constituent reached out to him to suggest a time change.  He said that he likes the balance between the afternoon work sessions and the evening legislative sessions which are held at 6:00 pm.

“This is a solution looking for a problem,” Crandell said.  What are we fixing?  There is not a problem to fix…”

Along with Oella Democrat, Tom Quirk, Councilmen Marks, Kach and Patoka voted on Monday for the amendment to change the meeting time to 4:00 pm as a compromise with council members.  All but Kach and Patoka ultimately voted to postpone the vote which the council will consider at 6:00 pm on Monday, Feb. 18 during its next legislative session.
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