Last week, Baltimore County Executive-elect Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D) announced the appointment of five people to senior positions within his administration. The appointments will fuel speculation that he already has his eye on a run for statewide office. They also will heighten fears that it will be business-as-usual in Baltimore County, with politics dominating every important land use and other decision.
Mr. Olszewski’s senior staff will be top-heavy with political operatives and “strategic” advisers. In what may be a first for a county government, two of his appointees are former executive directors of the Maryland Democratic Party: Patrick Murray, his chief of staff, and Charles Conner, his chief legislative officer.
Mr. Murray most recently served as Senate President Mike Miller’s chief of staff. He managed Chris Van Hollen’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016. Mr. Conner also has ties to Sen. Van Hollen, leaving his job as the senator’s deputy state director to work for Mr. Olszewski.
Samantha O’Neil will be a senior adviser to Mr. Olszewksi. She was a vice president of Margrave Strategies, a politically-connected “strategic advisory firm” founded by former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D). Ms. O’Neil worked for Mr. Ulman when he was county executive. Mr. Ulman was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Margrave touts its “knowledge of local, county, and state government as well as our extensive private sector relationships.” Its clients have included Towson University and the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, where Mr. Ulman serves as chief strategy officer for economic development.
Elisabeth Sachs is a public policy adviser with her own firm, Long Point Strategies. She will be Mr. Olszewski’s director of government reform and strategic initiatives, a new position. Ms. Sachs is a former Maryland assistant attorney general, who later worked in several capacities for the state. She is the daughter of former Maryland Attorney General Steve Sachs (D), who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1986.
Drew Vetter was named by Mr. Olszewski as the deputy county administrative officer. According to Mark Reutter of the Baltimore Brew, Mr. Vetter is the grandson of the late Gerald J. Curran, a Democrat who represented Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods in the House of Delegates for 31 years. He also is a relative of former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s wife, Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley. Mr. Vetter went to work for Mr. O’Malley when Mr. O’Malley became governor.
The appointment of Mr. Vetter is curious if only because of its timing. Mr. Olszewski states he is conducting a nationwide search for a county administrative officer (CAO). For any experienced candidate for CAO, the “pre-selection” of his or her deputy will be an ominous sign. It could even discourage qualified persons from applying. Someone in a position of that responsibility generally wants to be able to pick his or her own second-in-command.
Mr. Vetter’s most recent job was director of the office of criminal justice under Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D). That is tantamount to having “chief navigator of the Titanic” on your resume.
In fairness to Mr. Vetter, he was known as an able staffer under former city police commissioner Kevin Davis and as a CitiStat administrator before taking the criminal justice position. The optimistic view is that Mr. Olszewski tapped him to help bring evidence-based decision-making to Baltimore County.
The five appointees are heavy on political connections and campaign experience, light on meaningful management and local government experience. Four of the five are lawyers, with Ms. O’Neil the exception.
The political pedigrees of the appointees don’t mean that they won’t do good jobs. The appointments of prominent state Democratic Party functionaries will, however, will cause consternation among Baltimore County citizens who grew weary of the effects that the gubernatorial aspirations of the late Kevin Kamenetz (D) had on the county.
The former county executive amassed a large political war chest funded primarily by real estate developers and their lawyers. His loyalty to those donors was widely perceived as fostering a “pay-to-play” culture in the county that became increasing hostile to ordinary citizens and community groups.
The plan released by Mr. Olszewski for his inaugural celebration on Dec. 8 did nothing to lessen those concerns. Sponsorship “opportunities” for the gala begin at $25,000 for the “platinum” level. For only $10,000 you can be a “gold” sponsor. Where do you think that kind of money is coming from?
General admission is $50 per person, so we’re not exactly talking about a “people’s” inaugural celebration. The message sent by this expensive event is a bit discordant for someone who campaigned on a pledge to bring a new style of leadership to the county. Raising money from special interests is nothing new in Baltimore County.
It seems clear that, while Mr. Olszewski will be working in the Historic Courthouse in Towson for the next four years, he will be keeping one eye on the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. Baltimore County citizens have reason to worry that his politically-oriented management team will be focused more on image-building and manipulating public sentiment than on facilitating open and transparent processes for informing and engaging citizens and community groups. It is something that bears watching as the Olszewski administration unfolds.
— DAVID A. PLYMYER
The writer is a former county attorney in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @dplymyer