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Muckraker: Rothstein calls journalists “snakes”, as Carroll Observer reports potential conflict of interest

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On Thursday morning, Carroll County’s award-winning volunteer journalist Scott Ewart of the Carroll Observer, reported a potential conflict of interest when he discovered that a prior contributor to the campaign of District 5 Commissioner Ed Rothstein, is now the applicant in a commercial zoning change request being heard by the Commissioner’s Board.

The zoning request at issue was filed by Eldersburg Investors II LLC, who is asking that four parcels of land totaling 12 acres just off 26 opposite Liberty Exchange, be changed from Commercial-2, which allows for medium retail & office usage, to Commercial-3, allowing for large scale retail, regional destinations, wholesalers, and light processing operations.

What Ewart discovered is that Eldersburg Investors LLC, the same group, had previously thrice contributed to Rothstein’s campaign in 2018. Reacting to his discovery, Ewart wondered aloud on video from his public Facebook page: “Should Carroll County Commissioners recuse themselves from rezoning or development decisions related to campaign contributors?”.

A reasonable question to ask. A developer donating to a politician’s campaign, then later asking that same politician for a zoning change, could certainly be said to give off at-least the appearance of potential impropriety or a quid-pro-quo type entanglement. So Ewart decided to attend the Commissioner’s meeting in person to ask his question and hopefully get an answer.

Before Ewart could ask his question during public comment, as the rezoning case was still being heard, Rothstein preemptively lashed out at the “snakes” and “garbage” on social media, before confirming he has no intention of recusing himself from voting on a matter involving a campaign contributor of his. He said:

“Social media can get away from people, and it’s garbage in so many cases, especially when people write anonymously, which is even more garbage, but, I have no intent of recusing myself in any decision we make, because I believe I can be very unbiased as I’ve shown over the last five years. It actually questions my ethics, over thirty years in uniform”.

He concluded:

“All those, whether we call them snakes or whatever on social media, that don’t want to identify themselves, rest assure, I’m very comfortable in a very unbiased leadership role that I have on the dais”.

After the insult, Ewart could be seen on video leaving the Commissioner’s meeting. Soon after, he posted another video to his Facebook, saying: “I’m assuming Commissioner Rothstein was talking about me about being the anonymous snake on social media.” He said he would take some time to cool off before publishing a more complete response.

Curiously, none of Ewart’s content or the Observer’s is published anonymously, an indication that Rothstein’s facts were incomplete, and that he is likely conflating the Observer with other local volunteer journalists.

Back in the room, Commissioner Guerin said, “County residents are concerned about development”, before saying at more length:

“If people have questions about their County Commissioners, and they want to ensure that they’re taking an unbiased approach to all the decisions we make up here, I think it’s completely within a County resident’s right to ask that question.”

During last summer’s District 5 Commissioner debate against Kate Maerten, Rothstein was asked during public comment if he would be willing to sign a pledge not to accept campaign contributions from developers moving forward. He scoffed at the idea, saying, “No, I wouldn’t sign a pledge”, and that, “This pledging stuff” should be kept “back in college days”.

In Howard County during the last election cycle, a non-partisan group including the Progressive Democrats of Howard County, the HoCo Watchdogs, and the Howard County Citizens Association, came together to create the “No Developer, No Dark Money, Campaign Pledge”, where office-seekers can confirm they are unwilling to accept campaign contributions from developers or those working in direct support of developers. The pledge was signed by 28 candidates.

As for Eldersburg Investors II’s commercial zoning request, the Commissioners decided to punt on making the decision for another month.

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