Ethics office, police pay raises, increasing recycling approved in a marathon day for Prince George’s County Council

November 20, 2012

Plans for an expanded ethics office, more farmers markets and increased recyclingwere among more than two dozen issues addressed Tuesday as the Prince George’s County Council held its annual end-of-session marathon before quitting for the year.

Most of the bills, which also included pay raises for police and a crackdown on loitering, went through Tuesday with little debate. The ethics bill, a key goal of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), was approved unanimously.

The bill expands the ethics office’s responsibilities, beefs up its staff and creates a tipline for whistleblowers. It does not include an independent inspector general as some had urged and Baker had originally promised. The budget for the office will be about $375,000. Baker said he would look for an expert such as a former prosecutor or judge to head the expanded office.

The vote came two years after a widespread corruption scandal under Baker’s predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), erupted into public view with the arrests of Johnson and his wife, then-County Council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville).

The expanded ethics office was approved even though David VanDyke, head of the council’s audits and investigations office, and council administrator Robert J. Williams Jr. had raised concerns about cost.

“We were able to work out our differences,” council Chair Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) said.

The farmers market bill, sought by Baker, would begin to unravel the complex regulatory scheme that farmers markets say have discouraged their expansion in Prince George’s. The bill would make it easier for the markets to set up shop in the county by allowing them on private as well as public property, as long as they have the proper permits.

Previously, the markets could locate only on publicly owned property. Baker’s administration, which has been trying to offset the recent closings of Giant and Safeway grocery stores, has sought to attract new vendors and locate them in areas of the county where residents lack easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Environmental issues took up a substantial part of the agenda. The recycling bill, introduced by council members Eric Olson (D-College Park) and Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel), would bring the county closer to the practices of many of its neighbors, where extensive recycling has been in place for two decades.

Prince George’s, which has not updated its recycling policies since the 1990s, will require recycling in all county-owned or occupied facilities, and would use financial incentives to encourage more recycling in apartment buildings, where recycling is not now mandated.

The county’s goal for recycling would increase to 60 percent of trash by 2020. The state is requiring 55 percent by 2020, and the county’s recycling rate is now about 42 percent.

Lehman also successfully sponsored a bill that would expand a property tax credit of up to $100,000 for users of geothermal or solar energy devices to includes those who lease them. Owners already are provided a tax credit.

And Olson also won approval of a bill that would require the county to create a set of detailed guidelines for “green streets,” to improve storm water management, promote pedestrian and cyclist safety, and increase walk-ability of communities.

The council also approved a bill to increase fines for loitering after police issue a warning. The bill, introduced by council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), would increase fines from the current $100 to as much as $1,000.

Council member Obie Patterson D-Fort Washington) asked whether the bill might lead to overzealous policing, but ultimately voted for the measure.

Harrison also expressed concern. “Not all children, just because they are standing in a group are out to commit crimes or out to harass people,” she said before voting for the bill.

The longest debate of the day was about feral cats that have been marked with an incision in the earlobe to show that they have been vaccinated and neutered. Animal rights activists have complained for several years that the county’s animal control facility was euthanizing feral cats, but the bill would instead require the agency to trap, examine and release the cats if they are found to possess the telltale ear marking.

“I had no idea when I entered the fray back in the spring that this legislation would be so emotional for people,” said Lehman, the bill’s chief sponsor. “The cats are not a threat to human health,” she said. The bill passed 7 to 1, with only council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) voting no. Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) was out of the room when the vote was taken.

The council, without fanfare, also approved funds to pay for an $8 million pay increase for county police that had been ordered in September by an arbitrator.

Tuesday’s actions came a few weeks after the council approved a bill that will require all county residences by July 2013 to have carbon monoxide detectors. Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said the fire department is continuing its practice of providing the detectors without cost to any resident who wants one.

The council also two weeks ago approved a ban, effective in January, on novelty cigarette lighters, which Bashoor said were especially dangerous because they ignite more quickly than other lighters. Efforts to get the state to ban them have been unsuccessful.

“So we are doing it ourselves,” Bashoor said.

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