MACo Argues for County Choice on Using Synthetic Turf

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp testified in opposition to legislation against the use of synthetic turf fields before the House Appropriations Committee on February 8, 2018. The bill, HB 505, was sponsored by Delegate Aruna Miller.

HB 505 would require the state or local unit that is constructing a playground or athletic field to give a preference, to the maximum extent practicable, to natural surface materials if state funds are involved. The bill would also prohibit the use of state funds to build a new or replacement playground or athletic field with a synthetic surface.

Knapp cited the many benefits that synthetic turf fields can provide, their importance to county recreational programs, and the lack of research conclusively showing that the fields pose a health or safety risk. From MACo’s testimony:

Artificial and synthetic turf fields provide many recreational benefits over regular turf. The Maryland Association of County Park and Recreation Administrators (MACPRA) conservatively estimates that more than 3.5 million individuals play on artificial or synthetic turf fields in Maryland every year. They further report that research has shown that the fields do not increase the risk of injuries or cause other health concerns. The fields reduce exposure to pesticides and herbicides and allow for greater use than regular turf fields.

Restricting or discouraging the use of synthetic and turf fields would place an unnecessary hardship on already limited local funds. The General Assembly has considered and rejected synthetic turf bans or prohibitions nearly every year for the last five or six years.

MACo fully supports ongoing research into the safety of synthetic turf fields. As the bill’s fiscal note indicates, there is a comprehensive and ongoing multi-agency federal research action plan (FRAP) that is studying the potential health effects of the fields. Announced in January of 2016, the FRAP includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It would be premature to consider any action regarding the use of POS or other state funding for synthetic turf fields while this research is underway.

MACPRA President and Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks Director Rick Anthony joined Knapp in opposing the bill. Anthony testified that county parks and recreation departments are professionally run and track issues regarding both natural turf and synthetic turf fields closely and that counties should be allowed to choose which fields work best for them. Both Knapp and Anthony stated that if the federal research conclusively shows that synthetic turf fields pose a health threat, counties would obviously respond.

The Maryland Sierra Club, State Healthy Playing Fields Coalition, Montgomery County Civic Federation, Montgomery County Green Democrats, and the Patient Consumer Public Health Coalition testified in support of the bill.

SB 763 is the cross-file to HB 505 and is set to be heard by Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on March 7.

Useful Links

HB 505 of 2018

MACo Testimony on HB 505

Delegate Aruna Miller Webpage

WTOP News Article on HB 505 Hearing (2018-02-10)

Bill Would Protect Personal Contact Information Used for Government News or Alerts

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp testified in support of emergency legislation that would protect an individual’s personal contact information that is used to provide official government news or emergency alerts from disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on February 21, 2018. The bill (SB 477) was sponsored by Senator Cheryl Kagan and is a Maryland Municipal League Legislative Priority. The bill is also a component of MACo’s larger PIA Legislative Initiative that also addresses the release of personal surveillance video and a person’s social security number and date of birth.

In his testimony, Knapp expressed concerns that allowing disclosure of personal contact information under the PIA  could actually lead to a chilling effect on people seeking out information about government activities or receiving alerts. Knapp also focused on the narrow scope of the bill’s restriction on disclosure:

It is a fundamental principle of both the State and local governments in Maryland that public information be easily available to residents and other interested parties. A primary method of providing such information is through official newsletters and emergency alert notices. Whether through mailings, email, or text messages, individuals can receive information about government activities or emergency events.

However, under the PIA, anyone can request a person’s contact information contained in these distribution lists and the State or local governments are generally required to provide them….Disclosure of personal contact information has led to people being spammed with unwanted commercial or political communications.

This also creates a disincentive for people to use government subscription services and erodes the public’s trust in our institutions. Ironically, many private companies have stronger protections in place about disclosing customer information than Maryland’s governments do for their own residents.

The bill only applies to personal contact information used solely for the passive distribution of official news or emergency alerts. It does not apply to personal contact information provided as part of an “active” engagement with a government agency or official.

For example, an individual’s contact information remains subject to PIA disclosure when the individual: (1) sends a letter providing comments on a proposed ordinance or regulation; (2) requests government action on an issue, such as fixing a pothole; (3) signs up to speak at a public hearing or meeting; or (4) submits a PIA request. The bill also still allows disclosure of aggregate subscriber data – just not the release of personal contact information.

Carroll County Attorney Timothy Burke joined Knapp in supporting the bill and recounted a recent legal challenge that required the  County to turn over contact information for all subscribers to the County Commissioners’ official newsletter. Several Maryland Municipal League representatives and municipal officials were on hand to support their priority. Common Cause of Maryland and the Maryland/Delaware/District of Columbia Press Association also testified in support of the bill. No one testified in opposition.

HB 677 is the cross-file to SB 477 and will be heard by the House Health and Government Operations Committee on February 21.

Useful Links

SB 477 of 2018

MACo Testimony on SB 477

Senator Cheryl Kagan Webpage

Conduit Street Article on MACo’s 2018 Legislative Initiatives

 

County Ag Preservation Bill Increases Acquisition Ability, Lessens Administrative Burdens

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp testified in support of a bill providing greater flexibility to county agricultural preservation programs before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on February 14, 2018. The bill (HB 620) was sponsored by Delegate Eric Luedtke.

HB 620 provides that the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) may recertify a county agricultural
preservation program for 5 years, instead of 3 years under current law, if they determine that the county program is consistently effective in the achievement of preservation goals. The bill also
extends from 3 years to 6 years the amount of time that a county may spend agriculture transfer tax revenue before the county must remit the money to the Comptroller.

Knapp noted that the bill provided both administrative benefits as well as increasing the ability of a county program to complete worthy preservation projects. From MACo’s testimony:

Assembling projects for preservation under a county agricultural program can be both complex and time-consuming, especially when the project involves multiple properties. Extending the
current remittance time period from 3 to 6 years allows counties additional time to manage more complex projects or accumulate enough funds to afford a purchase that would otherwise be
beyond the local program’s reach. As the bill’s fiscal note states, there is minimal impact on MALPF.

Likewise, extending the time period from 3 years to 5 years for the recertification of county agricultural preservation programs that have proven to be consistently effective lessens an
administrative burden on the county programs, as well as MDP and MALPF. It can also limit uncertainty for well-performing programs regarding the recertification process. The bill does not
alter any recertification criteria and MDP and MALPF may still choose to recertify a program for just 3 years.

The Maryland Farm Bureau, Partners for Open Space, and the Montgomery Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board also testified in support of the bill. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation offered an amendment that would allow MDP and MALPF to review a program that has been granted a 5-year recertification after just 3 years if there is a material change in the county’s land use ordinance that would increase development in targeted agricultural preservation areas. No one testified in opposition to the bill.

There is no Senate cross-file to HB 620.

Useful Links

HB 620 of 2018

MACo Testimony on HB 620

Delegate Eric Luedtke Webpage

MACo Resists Septic Bill’s Proposed Funding Shift to Cover Crops

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp offered amendments to an Administration bill on septic systems before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on February 13, 2018. The amendments would cancel a proposed shift in funding from the septic system account within the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) to the cover crop program.

In MACo’s written testimony, Knapp briefly addressed each of the bill’s components:

SB 314 has three primary components. First, the bill exempts a septic system owner from paying the BRF if: (1) the owner has a [best available technology nitrogen removal (BAT)] septic system; and (2) the owner did not receive a state or federal grant or income tax subtraction modification for installing the BAT septic system. The exemption could apply to about 3,800 BAT systems, resulting in an annual decrease of $230,000 in BRF fees. MACo has no issue with this provision given the relatively small fiscal cost and equity principles involved.

Second, the bill would allow BRF septic system account money to be used by eligible homeowners for the reasonable cost of pumping out a septic system once every 5 years. In order to be eligible, the homeowner must reside in a local jurisdiction that has developed a “septic stewardship plan.” MACo supports the potential flexibility this voluntary program could provide. It is MACo’s understanding that counties would be able to continue to prioritize connecting failing septic systems to public sewer and upgrading systems to BAT over pumpouts.

Finally, the bill would alter the funding distribution ratios between septic systems and cover crops. The bill would change the current 60% septic system/40% cover crop allocation to a 50/50 split. MACo is opposed to this change, as it would reduce available BRF septic system monies by $2.97 million annually. The BRF septic system account is one of the only State funding sources to address the needs of the septic system sector and this funding should not be reduced. Consequently, MACo supports an amendment to delete the bill’s proposed 50/50 split and retain the 60/40 allocation under current law.

Governor Larry Hogan’s Deputy Legislative Officer Mathew Palmer and Maryland Secretary of the Environment Benjamin Grumbles testified in support of the bill. The Maryland Realtor’s Association supported the bill with the same amendment as MACo. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clean Water Action, and the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association (MOWPA) all opposed the bill.

Most members of the Committee did not appear receptive to the bill.

HB 361 is the cross-file of SB 314 and is set to be heard on February 23 by the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Useful Links

SB 314 of 2018

MACo Testimony on SB 314

Governor Larry Hogan Webpage

High Tide Documentary Looks at the Watery Future of Dorchester County

Bay Journal blog post (2018-02-08) announced the release of a new documentary that details the challenge Dorchester County faces from land subsidence, erosion, and sea level rise. The documentary, titled “High Tide in Dorchester,” highlights the thousands of acres of land in the county that are now submerged in just the last few decades, saltwater intrusion that is killing trees and threatening the Blackwater Wildlife refuge, how the loos of land is threatening both homes and cemeteries. The documentary was produced by Bay Journal photographer Tom Horton, Dave Harp, and Sandy Cannon-Brown.

From the blog post:

High Tide starts with the image that inspired it: Horton standing waist-deep in water — in what was once a field outside his father’s hunting cabin on the Honga River, where he played baseball as a child. That field is long gone, as are thousands of acres of land that have been lost in recent decades to a mixture of rising seas, erosion and high tides across the county. …

Though the numbers are startling — projections suggest that half of the remaining land in Maryland’s fourth-largest county will be underwater in a century — the scenes portrayed across the screen lend them gravitas. …

“You hear [local] people say, ‘I don’t know if the sea level is coming up, but I know we’ve got tide on the land more than we used to,’” [Horton] said. “A lot of times we’re saying the same thing in different languages.”

The article stated that there will be preview screening of the film open to the public on February 21 at 7:00 pm at Salisbury University in Wicomico County. The official debut of the documentary will be on March 22 at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC.

Useful Links

“High Tide in Dorchester Website

“High Tide in Dorchester” (16-minute Vimeo Version)

MACo Works With Bill Sponsor on Local Ethics Commission Legislation Amendments

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp offered sponsor-friendly amendments to local ethics commission legislation before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on February 8, 2018. SB 474, sponsored by Senator Joanne Benson, would would require a local ethics commission (or the appropriate entity) to meet at least three times a year
and file an annual report with the local governing body and members of the General Assembly who represent that jurisdiction. The reports must provide an overview of the local ethics law and the
activities of the local ethics commission.

From MACo’s testimony:

MACo believes the annual reporting requirements further local government transparency and openness and would not place an undue fiscal or administrative strain on the local ethics commission. However, MACo would offer an amendment to require the ethics commission to meet at least once a year instead of three times a year.

Unless a jurisdiction is facing an ethics issues or considering changing its ethics laws, there may be no need for a local commission to meet more than once a year. Requiring additional meetings that may not be required is both inefficient and wasteful. MACo has worked with the bill’s sponsor and believes the sponsor is supportive of this amendment.

Senator Benson indicated her support for the amendment, offering the language as a sponsor amendment. Maryland Municipal League Governmental Relations Director Candace Donoho also testified in support of the amendment but noted some reservations with the bill’s reporting requirement.

There is no House cross-file to SB 474.

Useful Links

SB 474 of 2018

MACo Testimony on SB 474

Senator Joanne Benson Webpage

MACo Seeks Emergency Exception Amendment to Mosquito Spraying Legislation

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp offered amendments to legislation on mosquito spraying before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on February 7, 2018. HB 400, sponsored by Delegate James (Jimmy) Tarlau, would require the State, a county, or a bi-county agency to provide at least 24 hours notice to a municipality before spraying for mosquitoes within the boundaries of the municipality. The State, county, or bi-county agency must provide the municipality the location of spraying and the planned date and time of the spraying.

From MACo’s testimony:

MACo supports the bill’s 24-hour notice requirement and believes this is current practice for most counties when conducting routine spraying. However, MACo is requesting an amendment that would waive the 24-hour notice when the State or a county or bi-county agency needs to move rapidly to control an outbreak of a virus, contagion, or similar public health threat. A government should not have to wait 24 hours before addressing a potential Zika Virus or West Nile Virus outbreak. In such a circumstance, the State, county, or bi-county agency should provide notice to the municipality as soon as practicable.

Committee Chair Kumar Barve asked Tarlau if the MACo amendment was fine and Tarlau responded that he was okay with the amendment.

There is no Senate cross-file to HB 400.

Useful Links

HB 400 of 2018

MACo Testimony on HB 400

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau Webpage

Senate JPR Committee Kills Comparative Fault Legislation

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted unfavorably on legislation that would have created a comparative liability standard for pedestrians and bicyclists who were suing vehicle drivers on February 8, 2018. MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp joined with numerous other governmental, business representatives, and defense groups in opposing the bill.

SB 465, sponsored by Senator Susan Lee, would establish a comparative fault standard in civil actions involving a plaintiff who was a pedestrian or driving a nonmotorized vehicle, such as a bicycle, and a defendant who was driving a motor vehicle at the time of the accident. The bill is based on a recommendation from the Task Force to Study Bicycle Safety in Maryland.

From MACo’s testimony:

The bill would upset Maryland’s long-established and carefully constructed contributory negligence system – a system that has been reaffirmed by the Maryland General Assembly approximately 40 times since 1966. Maryland’s adherence to a contributory negligence standard is a sensible public policy that promotes responsible citizen behavior and provides a clear legal standard for jury
consideration.

Maryland’s successful contributory negligence system is built around several critical statutory and case law “support structures.” These supports are inextricably linked with contributory negligence principles and must be addressed as part of any move away from contributory negligence and toward comparative fault. They include: (1) joint and several liability; (2) the “last clear chance” exception; and (3) laws relating to seatbelts.

Knapp was joined by Maryland Municipal League Governmental Relations and Research Manager Bill Jorch and Skip Cornbrooks, representing the Local Government Insurance Trust. Bill supporters included Bike Maryland and other bicyclist associations.

There is no House cross-file to SB 465.

Useful Links

SB 465 of 2018

MACo Testimony on SB 465

Senator Susan Lee Webpage

Documentary Looks At Baltimore Harbor Clean Up Challenges

Bay Journal article (2018-02-05) previewed a documentary on the condition and clean up efforts for Baltimore City’s Harbor. The documentary was put together by a group of students from American University.

“Healing Baltimore’s Harbor: A Pipe Dream” begs the question of whether it’s do-able. Their answer, after interviewing me and others:  Yes, but it’s going to take a lot of work.

The documentary is scheduled to air on Maryland Public Television at 5:31 a and 4:30 pm on Saturday, February 10.

Useful Links

Healing Baltimore’s Harbor: A Pipe Dream Website

Maryland Public Television Website

Future May be Bright for Renewable Energy Legislation

Maryland Matters article (2018-02-05) postulated that the future appears bright for the passage of legislation that would increase the State’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and create incentives for clean energy jobs.

“This is big news,” said Jamie DeMarco, campaign co-manager for the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Initiative. “This is a ‘this-year’ game now.” …

More than 650 groups have already endorsed the clean energy measure. And with 24 senators and 73 delegates signed up to be co-sponsors so far, advocates now believe there is a chance of passing the legislation this year. …

There are no GOP co-sponsors so far, but Jamie DeMarco said he is confident that some Republican lawmakers will support the measure.

SB 732, sponsored by Senator Brian Feldman, would increase the RPS from the current 25 percent renewable goal by 2020 to a 50 percent renewable goal by 2030. The bill also includes provisions for offshore wind, incentives for green energy jobs, a study on electricity rate impacts, and a phasing out of preferences for waste to energy and waste-derived fuel technologies. The bill is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee on March 6. Delegate William Frick is expected to introduce the cross-file in the House of Delegates.

HB 878, sponsored by Delegate Shane Robinson, would taken an even more aggressive stance, setting a 100% renewable energy goal by 2035.

The article noted that the Governor Larry Hogan Administration is reviewing the legislation but has not yet taken a position.

Useful Links

SB 732 of 2018

HB 878 of 2018