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Police Conduct and Local Government Liability Major Issues of 2015 Session

An April 23rd Capital News Service article summarized the outcomes of the numerous legislation introduced during the 2015 Session to address police conduct, local government liability,  The issue of police conduct was especially sensitive during the Session in the wake of police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.  From the article:

House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said more than 400 witnesses came to Annapolis to testify on more than a dozen law enforcement bills.

“It is very concerning, the allegations made by many community members from across the state,” she said.

In response, legislators passed several bills aimed at protecting citizens from police misconduct, though they stopped short of a few measures critics said would exert too much control over law enforcement agencies, such as a bill to amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The article noted that the General Assembly passed bills that increased reporting requirements for deaths involving police actions and shift the burden of proof onto the government to show that personal property is associated with the drug trade before taking the property through civil forfeiture. Legislation also passed allowing law enforcement officers to record audio as well as video through a body camera.  Under existing law, police could not record audio on a body camera without first getting the consent of those being recorded.  Governor Larry Hogan has indicated he will sign both the reporting and body camera bills.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the General Assembly increased the liability limits for local governments under the Local Government Tort Claims Act from $200,000 to $400,000 for a single claim and from $500,000 to $800,000 for all claims arising from a single incident.  Similar increases were also applied to the State’s liability caps under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.   From the article:

Those initiatives were propelled in part by the story of Estela Espina, who received the legal maximum of $400,000 after a Prince George’s County police officer fatally shot her husband; some legislators said she should have been awarded more, citing a jury’s $11.5 million verdict.

Critics say increased liability for local governments, from $200,000 per single claim with a $500,000 maximum per incident to $400,000 and $800,000, respectively, would prompt cities and counties to stop offering certain services for fear of expensive cases.

“We basically undermine the public service” with the tort reform bills, said state Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, during a debate on the Senate floor April 9.

Another area that the General Assembly examined but did not take action on was reforming the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which ostensibly provides process protections for law enforcement officers accused of misconduct but which MACo believes often prevents law enforcement agencies from properly disciplining or removing officers who are “bad actors.”  The reform effort was led by Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and will likely continue in light of the recent death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Gray’s death is under investigation by both the City and the federal Justice Department.

[Rawlings-Blake], whose administration requested two officer misconduct bills during the legislative session, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that she is “determined to make sure that we have a full investigation and we follow all of the rules and procedures, so if there is a finding of wrongdoing that we have done everything possible … so we can hold those individuals accountable.”

She also said that “because of our (state) Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, we have yet to fully engage those officers” involved with Gray’s death.

Neither of the Mayor’s proposed bills passed.  The article also covered several other key areas of debate, including the passage of enhanced shielding and expungement laws (the Maryland Second Chance Act) and the repeal of mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of certain drug crimes.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, head of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the state is shifting from harsh punishments toward restorative justice.

“To have criminal records (for minor, nonviolent offenses) that last for the rest of your life, first of all, I think is unfair, but more importantly doesn’t work when you keep somebody from getting a job or housing or education,” Zirkin said. …

But critics say the measures would help drug dealers and repeat offenders. [Del. John Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County] said the Second Chance Act started out offering to shield “one crime, one time,” but became too far-reaching.

“What it turned into was you can shield as many records as you can on this bill in one jurisdiction,” Cluster said. “It puts a burden on the business owner because he just can’t check (employees’ criminal records) now.”

Frederick Grapples with Tricky Historic Property Issue

In a recent Kojo Nnamdi Show interview, Frederick Council Member Billy Shreve discusses the property battle between Frederick County residents and a group backed by the church of Scientology over the future use of a presidential fishing retreat.

The 40-acre retreat site called Trout Run has been purchased by the group and they hope to turn the site into a drug treatment facility. Residents and council members of Frederick County are trying to hold up the process with zoning laws citing that this property is historic. The broadcast discusses how far local government should go in interpreting how historic property is used.

Listen to the broadcast here.

Hogan Commits to Spending $2 Million for Heroin Treatment

Governor Hogan has committed to spending the $2 million set aside by the General Assembly for heroin treatment. As reported in The Baltimore Sun:

The governor campaigned on addressing Maryland’s growing crisis of heroin deaths. In a wide-ranging interview with a regional press association Thursday, he said he would spend the sum set aside by lawmakers for heroin treatment.

“It’s an emergency facing our state,” said Hogan, a Republican. “It’s tearing apart families and communities.”

As previously reported on Conduit Street, Governor Hogan had included an additional $2 million in general funds to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in his second supplemental budget for FY16 to be used to expand substance abuse treatment programs for individuals addicted to heroin. Although that supplemental budget was rejected, the General Assembly restricted $2 million to be used for treatment purposes and the Governor retained the authority to restore the funding through a budget amendment.

For more information read the full article in The Baltimore Sun.

Previous coverage:

$2 Million Supplemental Heroin Funding Still in Limbo

Governor Provides Additional $2 Million in Supplemental Budget for Heroin Treatment





Queen Anne’s Commissioner Comfort to be Named MTA Administrator

Vice President of the Queen Anne’s County Board of Commissioners Paul Comfort is set to be named the Maryland Transit Authority’s new Administrator on Friday, April 24. Comfort will start his new position on May 11.

Paul Comfort
Paul Comfort, Courtesy of Maryland State Archives

According to the Baltimore Sun, Comfort

…has overseen public transit operations in Queen Anne’s County and previously worked as the assistant project manager and director of operations for MV Transportation, which operates paratransit services for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

During Comfort’s interview, [State Transportation Secretary Pete] Rahn said, he expressed “an emphasis on customer service,” something the agency needs to improve on — particularly when it comes to its long-overdue overhaul of its bus network.

The MTA also has struggled to boost ridership in recent years and failed for a decade to meet a state-mandated requirement that it fund 35 percent of its operating budget through fare revenue.

Comfort’s job “is not going to be easy,” Rahn said — in part because Rahn said he expects to see improvements quickly.

“His hands are going to be full,” Rahn said, “but I think he can do it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be assuming these responsibilities.”

Comfort, a former president of the Transportation Association of Maryland, said he is “very excited” to take on the job, which he said is a good fit for his career in “public transit and government management.”

Visit the Baltimore Sun online to read the full article.

MACo, MML Request Veto of Bill Restricting Medical Insurance Market

MACo joined the Maryland Municipal League and the Local Government Insurance Trust to request the Governor’s veto of a bill recently passed by the Maryland General Assembly.

HB 552/SB 703, Health Insurance – Medical Stop-Loss Insurance – Small Employers, makes several changes to laws regulating the medical self-insurance market. In part, the bill increases the minimum attachment point for medical stop-loss insurance policies, creating potential cost increases for small businesses and small local governments who self-insure.

MACo opposed the legislation, noting its unnecessary application to local government and its negative effect on the Maryland Local Government Health Cooperative, advocating for a local government exemption. While the final version of the bill included amendments protecting all existing members of the Cooperative from cost increases, MACo and MML continued to oppose the legislation and are now urging the Governor’s veto.

As described in the letter sent by MACo and MML, among the concerns with this legislation is the effect it will have on the Maryland Local Government Health Cooperative,

In particular, House Bill 552 – Health Insurance – Medical Stop-Loss Insurance – Small Employers will have a detrimental impact on the Maryland Local Government Health Cooperative, an insurance pool that allows small counties and towns to self-insure their health insurance. Through the Cooperative, counties and towns provide effective health coverage for employees while realizing lower employer premiums. We are seeking to grow this pool to extend its benefits to more members and increase its health and viability.

For more information, read the full letter and our previous posts on Conduit Street, Senate Concurs with Bill Restricting Medical Stop-loss Insurance MarketBill Could Raise County Government, Small Business Health Insurance Costs.

Court of Appeals Limits Standing For Rezoning Ordinance Challenges

An April 22 Daily Record article discussed the holdings in a pair of recent Maryland Court of Appeals decisions (Anne Arundel County v. Bell and Anne Arundel County v. Harwood Civic Association) that limit the standing of persons seeking to challenge a local government’s rezoning ordinance. The Court held that in order to have standing to challenge a rezoning ordinance, a property owner must be a taxpayer who has suffered a financial loss or increased taxes due to the new ordinance. From the article:

The Court of Appeals, in its 4-3 decision, blocked a challenge from property owners to an Anne Arundel County ordinance converting open fields to mixed-use residential zoning. The court said the owners’ concerns about traffic and environmental decay were insufficient to give them standing to sue.

In its ruling, the high court declined to extend to zoning-ordinance challenges the standing it has permitted property owners opposing administrative land-use decisions made by county zoning boards. The court noted that land-use decisions are executive functions, whereas ordinances are legislative acts subject to stricter standing requirements for property owners.

Granting “property-owner standing” in rezoning-ordinance cases would enable people to sue counties based on claims of being aggrieved by the new law because their property is near the rezoned district, the court said Tuesday.

“Hypothetically, thousands of plaintiffs with the benefit of property-owner standing could have standing to challenge comprehensive zoning legislation,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the majority.

“This would be unworkable entirely. This court has been reticent in the extreme to construe standing doctrines so broadly…. “

Arundel County also expressed satisfaction with the outcome in the article:

Prior decisions have held that property owners have standing to sue if their property was rezoned via ordinance, leaving unanswered whether everyone in the neighborhood could also sue, said attorney Gregory J. Swain, of the Anne Arundel County Office of Law.

The high court’s decision “gives clarity” to the standing issue and “provides guideline for the future,” Swain said Wednesday.

“The real danger was having just lots of these lawsuits,” he added. “We are happy that the court tightened it up the way they did.”

California Padre Dam Demonstration Facility Looks to Recycle Wastewater Into Drinking Water

An April 22 Sustainable City Network article reported on the efforts of the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, located in San Diego’s east county in California, to recycle wastewater into drinkable water.  If fully implemented, the water recycling facility could increase the region’s practical water supply by 20 percent. The article explored the technical process used by the Water District in building and purifying wastewater:

The Padre Dam Advanced Water Purification Demonstration Facility in Santee, Calif., is expected to produce approximately 100,000 gallons of purified water every day, but it won’t be put into the drinking water system just yet.

“The demonstration facility is treating water to prove to California regulators that Padre Dam has the ability to produce and treat this kind of water,” said Melissa McChesney, the dam’s communications officer, adding that the facility will do this using a four-step process that includes free chlorine disinfection, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation.

The fourth step should give the facility additional credits for removing more constituents from the water, with the goal of shortening the environmental buffer time – or the amount of time the treated water needs to sit in the Padre Dam aquifer before being reused as potable water.

The article also noted the importance of public outreach for such a project:

“This is just as much an engineering project as it is a communication project,” said Albert Lau, Padre Dam director of Engineering. “We have to communicate to the general public about the technology and about the benefit of reusing that water. Once we explain to them and educate them about the process, they get excited about it.”

While the Padre Dam Demonstration Facility is in response to California’s ongoing severe droughts and water-poor desert location of Santee, such facilities are likely to become increasingly common throughout the United States as other states, including Maryland, begin to stress or fully allocate existing water supplies.

As other regions of the United States continue to struggle with drought conditions, Lau said projects like the one at Padre Dam will likely become more common. …

“I suspect we’ll probably get more interest from folks out of state,” he said, adding that tours of the demonstration facility are filling up quickly.

The prospect of being able to both conserve water and provide a more reliable supply are two of the most exciting aspects of the new project, McChesney added.

“We’ve never had an opportunity to provide a local water supply for our customers, and to be able to provide that reliability is fantastic,” she said.


Anne Arundel Community College Survey Focuses on Substance Abuse Issues

Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues released a survey which focused in part on substance abuse issues and yielded some particular insight into heroin use. The Center surveyed 387 residents between March 30 and April 2, 2015. As announced in the Center’s Press Release:

A distinctive part of the spring 2015 survey focused on substance abuse. Respondents were most likely to know a “friend or family member” with alcoholism (31 percent), followed by a “dependence on marijuana” (18 percent), “dependence on prescription pain killers (16 percent), “heroin consumption or overdose” (11 percent) and a “dependence on cocaine” (6percent).

In terms of treatment options for those with heroin dependencies, the most favored was “expanded treatment options for those who are insured” (80 percent) and “increased government funding for in-patient treatment clinics” (61 percent). Respondents were more likely to favor “increased jail sentences” for heroin distributors (84 percent) rather than those “convicted of heroin possession” (39 percent).

The Capital Gazette took note of survey responses for methadone clinics.  In an editorial, the paper offers reasoning for the responses and for the role of methadone clinics given the amount of people with untreated heroin addiction in the community:

 Creating more clinics that distribute methadone got only plurality support: 44 percent in favor vs. 39 percent opposed. That may reflect the debate over the abortive attempt to put such a clinic at a busy crossroads in a residential neighborhood in Pasadena. Or it may be an indication of general ambivalence about methadone therapy that its advocates haven’t yet overcome.

Those advocates will have to try harder to explain that while methadone does indeed replace one drug addiction with another, it’s an addiction to a substance that does not provide a high and allows its clients to function more or less normally. Having a methadone clinic is vastly better for a community than having a lot of untreated heroin addicts there.

For more information:


Baltimore City Sustainability Commission Recommends “Smart Cans” & Developer Trash Plans To Combat Litter

An April 21 Baltimore Brew article reported that Baltimore City’s Sustainability Commission has developed a series of recommendations to address the City’s challenging litter and trash problem. The recommendations include:

  1. Increasing the number of “smart cans” given to residents;
  2. Increasing the number of “corner cans” on public streets;
  3. Require developers to create a trash plan for building sites that must be submitted for approval to the City’s planning department;
  4. Creating a “Clean Up Baltimore” Peer-to-Peer Network;
  5. Launching a new anti-littering media campaign on social media, buses, and trash cans;
  6. Supporting statewide legislation to create a bottle deposit program; and
  7. Developing a stronger litter, trash and dumping code enforcement process for the City.

From the article:

Currently operating in two Inner City neighborhoods, the [smart can] program gives residents a sturdy city-owned trash can, equipped with an attached lid and wheels to make it easy to move. The purpose of the cans is to reduce garbage and rat problems in communities where residents don’t use trash cans or can lids or don’t use them efficiently.

The new cans are equipped with a chip that the city can use to determine where the can belongs. Taking a can from a property is considered theft and may be subject to law enforcement action. …

Corner cans are somewhat controversial in Baltimore because the traditional municipal wide-mouthed trash receptacles are subject to misuse by those who stuff them with bags of household garbage.

Better designed narrow-rimed cans are less prone to abuse, and more efficient, but are also more expensive to purchase. …

Another proposal the commission supports is requiring developers to provide a trash plan for approval at site review meetings with the city Planning Department.

Maryland Reporter Summarizes Final Fate of Proposed Environmental Taxes in 2015 Session

An April 21 article summarized the final fate of new taxes and fees, mainly in the environmental area, considered by the Maryland General Assembly during the 2015 Session:

Chicken Tax

The “Chicken Tax,” or “Bay Equity Tax,” proposed a five-cent fee on every chicken provided by poultry owners to farmers in the state, totaling an estimated $15 million annually. As proposed, the bill would have shifted bay restoration funding and resulted in a spending cut to cover crops and increased funding for septic upgrades. …

However, the House Environment and Transportation committee gave the bill an unfavorable report and it was withdrawn. …

Bag Tax

The “Bag Tax,” or the “Community Cleanup and Greening Act of 2015,” would ban plastic bags on “most retailers” statewide, with a 10-cent fee put on the sale of paper bags.

“It’s an elegantly simple idea…Over 180 municipalities around the country already do this,” said bill sponsor Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore City. “They recognize that we are spending millions in clean up costs, cleaning up litter all over our streets, our waterways and our playgrounds.” …

[The legislation] received an unfavorable report by the House Environment and Transportation committee. …

[Bottle Tax]

Also being held back by the Environment and Transportation committee was the “Bottle Tax,” or the “Maryland Redeemable Beverage Container and Litter Reduction Program,” which would create a committee to regulate a 5-cent tax on bottled beverages that could be redeemed if the bottle was returned.

Rain Tax, is it truly a repeal?

Also on the governor’s desk is the repeal of the 2012 Stormwater Remediation Fee, or more publicly known as the “rain-tax.”

“This bill is not perfect, but it does change ‘you shall charge a tax’ to ‘you may charge a tax’,” [Delegate and House Minority Whip Kathy] Szeliga said.

The Bottle Tax legislation was sent to summer study by the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. Lierman indicated that she plans to reintroduce the Bag Tax legislation next year.

The article also covered the failure of proposed $1 a pack increase on cigarettes (tobacco tax) and the passage of legislation modifying how the hotel tax applies to online travel sites.