Bill would end 'pay to play' in Prince George's County

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By Miranda S. Spivack
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 12:49 AM

The Prince George's County House delegation put the final touches on an ethics bill Wednesday meant to send a signal that the county is no longer a place where businesses must "pay to play."

The measure, approved unanimously and headed for likely passage in the full General Assembly, would limit the County Council's ability to delay development deals, ban credit cards for county employees and strengthen the county's ethics commission.

"We have an opportunity with a blank canvas to change the perception of Prince George's County," said the delegation chairman, Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George's).

Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George's), who chaired the panel that brought the bill to the full delegation, said the measure offers developers and residents a firm timetable for council review, makes the process more open to scrutiny and maintains opportunities for residents and the council to press developers for community amenities and legitimate concessions.

The bill stems in part from longtime complaints that past councils have operated secretively, threatening developers that their plans would be held up indefinitely unless they offered concessions or hired an associate of a council member.

Current council members said they were being unfairly blamed for past problems and lobbied intensely to revamp an early proposal from County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to strip the council of oversight of development plans.

Baker said Wednesday that the bill, which represents a compromise with the council, is "one piece of the puzzle." He said he hopes the rest will fall into place with work by an ethics review panel he appointed and by an upcoming bill in the House delegation to limit developer contributions to political slates.

The county's Senate delegation has approved the ethics and slates bills.

Some House delegation members who voted for Wednesday's bill said it did not go far enough. "We will be watching," said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's).

"We would not hesitate to revisit this," said Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George's).

The bill would:

l Give the council up to 205 days to review and alter decisions by the county's planning commission, whose five members are appointed by the county executive. The measure would require the council to publicly explain its reasons for seeking review.

l Require the five-member county ethics commission to install a full-time executive director and meet at least twice a year.

l Ban credit cards for county employees, something the council instituted several years ago after a report by The Washington Post found that several council members had billed thousands of dollars in personal expenses to the county. Baker's administration also has restricted their use.

Before the vote, Democratic Dels. Jolene Ivey and Barbara A. Frush offered tougher language that more closely mirrored Baker's original plan, stripping the council of all development review powers. Several delegates said they wanted to give the council a chance to try a new system, and Ivey and Frush relented. But both said they had reservations about the bill approved Wednesday.

The bill approved Wednesday would affect only Prince George's and is expected to be approved by the full General Assembly. Local bills usually are given great deference by the full body.

"I want you to be proud of what the Prince George's council has done and continues to do, because we won't let you down," council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) told the House delegation after the vote.


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