- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2014

A ballot initiative to extend term limits for Prince George’s lawmakers that has been quietly championed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has been funded almost entirely by two well-connected developers with extensive portfolios in the county.

The committee organized to support the extension of term limits recorded $80,050 in donations in its campaign finance reports — $50,000 from two companies owned by developer Kenneth H. Michael and a total of $25,000 from seven companies associated with developer Edward St. John.

Both developers declined to discuss their contributions, which are legal under Maryland law, which does not limit how much a person or business can donate to a political committee. But their interest in the issue of term limits, which became fashionable in the 1990s in part as a way to limit the influence of money in politics, strikes some as unseemly in a county still struggling to rehabilitate its image from the 2011 conviction of former County Executive Jack B. Johnson on public corruption charges.

“It’s common to see developers who had potential business before a county or city to support those term limits abolishments,” said Nick Tomboulides, executive director of the pro-term limit group U.S. Term Limits. “When the public catches on to the fact that minority special interests are funding the campaign to destroy term limits, it looks very bad.”

Quiet support

The initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot, Question J, would expand the number of four-year terms that the county executive and members of the County Council could hold from two to three consecutive terms.

The new law would affect Mr. Baker, who is running unopposed for his second term and spearheaded a previous charge to abolish term limits. He has largely refrained from publicly campaigning for the initiative — instead saying he preferred to leave the issue up to voters.

But the county executive hasn’t taken a backseat on the effort either.

An eight-person commission, made up of members selected by the County Council and Mr. Baker, recommended an expansion of term limits this year. The County Council voted in July to include the measure on the ballot.

In September, Mr. Baker succeeded in persuading a hesitant Democratic Central Committee to include an endorsement of the term limit expansion on their sample ballots, The Washington Post reported. In an email to supporters Tuesday, Mr. Baker urged supporters to vote to loosen the term limits restrictions.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Prince George’s for Fairness in Government committee, Calvin Brown, is a Baker political appointee who serves as chairman of the county’s Revenue Authority.

“The County Executive has openly shared that he believes voters should ultimately determine who their elected leaders should be through elections. Term limits take away that power,” Baker spokesman Scott Peterson said. “However, throughout this election process, Mr. Baker has had limited engagement in any referendum campaigns because he has tried not to make this issue about him [but rather to] allow voters to make their decision based [on] what [they] think is best for the county.”

Mr. Brown declined to say whether he was asked by politicians to be chairman of the committee, adding that he has been opposed to term limits since they were enacted in the county in 1992.

“Who asked me, and why they asked me, it’s immaterial,” he said.

Financial interests

Mr. Brown also said he had no knowledge of why the majority of donations to the committee would have come from developers.

“Anybody in the world can give contributions. I’m not in the politics of who,” Mr. Brown said. “I don’t have any knowledge that anybody is getting anything out of this deal.”

Though the committee was only registered on Sept. 10, it was able to rake in the $70,050 in donations within a span of four days.

A campaign finance report due Oct. 24 but filed a week later on Oct. 31 recorded the committee as receiving $80,050 in donations. However, the report did not include $10,000 in donations contributed by the Prince George’s County Firefighters Association PAC and included on the PAC’s own campaign finance report.

Contributions made to the term limits committee include two $25,000 donations from Lanham LLLP and MLK Beltway LLC — companies that both list Mr. Michael as their resident agent. Mr. Michael is the head of one of the county’s most powerful real estate and development firms, NAI Michael, where former County Executive Wayne K. Curry served as president from 2011 until his death this summer. Mr. Baker, who often referred to Mr. Curry as his mentor in politics, led the effort to try and repeal term limits in 2000 — two years before term limits sent Mr. Curry packing from office.

Tuesday will be the third time in 22 years that county residents will vote on whether to keep term limits — the first was in 1992, when residents approved the term limits now in place. The second time was in 2000, when Mr. Baker led an effort as a state delegate to overturn the limits. Additionally, voters in 2004 rejected a charter amendment to create two new, non-term-limited at-large council seats.

That Mr. Michael would be the primary funder of the latest campaign to loosen term limits was no surprise to longtime county activist Judy Robinson, who led the effort to collect signatures to place the term limit question on the ballot in 1992.

“He paid for the last one,” Mrs. Robinson said.

Mr. Michael supported the 2000 effort led by Mr. Baker, donating $5,000 of the $56,000 collected by the effort, The Post reported at the time.

Seven companies that list Mr. St. John, head of Baltimore-based developer St. John’s Properties, as their resident agent in Maryland business records made donations ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 to this year’s ballot committee effort. The companies are Knecht; Maryland Science and Technology CTR LLC; Maryland Science and Technology LLC; Patapsco Avenue LLC; St. John Escrow; Technology Investors LLC; and Whittington Avenue LLC.

St. John’s Property is currently developing the Melford site in Bowie, a 466-acre mixed-use project that is seeking approval from the county planning department to deviate from its original plans for the site in order to build 2,500 units of housing at the location. The county planning board is scheduled to vote on the plan Nov. 13.

Old friends

The motivation for developers to donate to an effort to repeal term limits, Mrs. Robinson surmised, is to be able to keep the same politicians in power who could approve and aid their projects.

“It’s an old friend you don’t have to keep reintroducing yourself [to] every four or eight years,” she said. “The names have changed, but the objectives are the same, which is to get the council to ride roughshod.”

Other donations recorded by the term limits committee include $5,000 from Southern Management Corporation, a property management company, and $50 from Calvin Hawkins, a county Homeland Security employee.

The latest report details the committee’s finances through Oct. 19, and shows it has $37,000 left in the bank after expenses — including $27,000 in consulting fees paid to a company owned by Travis Tazelaar, a former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

For the county firefighters PAC, which donated $10,000 to the effort, the reason to support the term extension was to ensure the fire department can continue with the progress that employees feel it has made under Mr. Baker’s leadership.

“While we don’t support the repeal of term limits, I think the extension would really give the opportunity for the fire department to get some momentum on some of those challenges, like staffing and apparatus,” said Andrew Pantelis, PAC chairman and president of the county’s firefighters association.

Though grass-roots opposition efforts to the term limit extension have appeared around the county, spreading the word through email chains and social media, no formal group has registered as a committee to raise money to oppose the measure.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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