Commissioner’s Ties with Big Development On Full Display in February Meeting #2
Leading up to the county commissioners’ open session on February 16th, the Carroll County Observer raised the question: Should Carroll County Commissioners recuse themselves from rezoning and development decisions involving campaign contributors?
The question was timely as the commissioner board was set to hear arguments for the commercial rezoning case involving mega developer St. John Properties, Inc., whom Commissioner Ed Rothstein happened to indirectly receive campaign contributions from.
In the case, St John seeks to build a “high intensity” business park in Eldersburg that would resemble and be located across from Liberty Exchange, another St. John commercial property. Nearby residents have been up in arms about the idea of yet another business park in their neighborhood, which initially started as four residential parcels before being acquired by St. John.
The Carroll County Observer’s question must have struck a chord with the commissioner, because as the hearing for the rezoning case opened, Commissioner Ed Rothstein used the opportunity to publicly attack the local journalist, resorting to name calling, and invoked his military career as proof of his ability to remain “unbiased” .
But as the commissioner went on with his public defense, a more interesting and relevant story began to take shape. The Executive Vice President of Development for St. John Properties, Tim Pilon, took the stand to represent the conglomerate. After Rothstein’s self-defense of his own character, he looked to Pilon to publicly vouch for him, where we’d come to learn of the gentlemens’ long standing business relationship in Anne Arundel County going all the way back to 1997.
“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. The reason I bring this up now is because we’ve known each other for years…I bring this up because you’re [Mr. Pilon] the senior, and you believe I can be unbiased in my effort and you believe our conversations have been very unbiased”, said Rothstein.
Pilon responded, “You [Commissioner Rothstein] mentioned Anne Arundel County, I think we’re the second largest tax payer in Anne Arundel County. I’ve been with Ed since 1997 at St. John. Almost every business park in Anne Arundel County that we’ve developed has got my name on it as development manager. It’s been a place we’ve been able to do a lot of investing.”
Pilon was referring to Rothstein’s time as Economic Developer for Anne Arundel County and CEO of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation, where he spent much of his career before becoming a Carroll County commissioner. And as Pilon described, he and Rothstein collaborated for years in Anne Arundel County to build St. John Property’s commercial real estate portfolio, which has now become the 2nd largest development zone for St. John behind Baltimore County.
With the commissioner’s entangled past with the commercial developer and campaign contributions received from St. John entities, most would consider Rothstein’s involvement in the rezoning case a conflict of interest, or at the very least, gives the appearance of impropriety.
So, is it a conflict of interest?
While it may appear so, it’s not exactly clear per the current county ethics rules, where campaign contributions alone are not considered to be a conflict. However, in this situation, one cannot ignore the 25 year relationship between the gentlemen and extensive business dealings the commissioner had with St. John in Anne Arundel County.
Whether there’s an ethics violation or not, there’s years long precedent of commissioners abstaining from decisions involving personal or financial relationships with involved entities.
For example, on Oct 7, 2021, Commissioner Eric Bouchat abstained from a vote to award M.T. Laney Company, Inc. a contract due to his personal relationship with the owner; a far less involved situation.
In another vote going back to Jun 27, 2013, Commissioner Doug Howard abstained from a vote involving the cancelation of an incinerator project with Frederick County due to his personal relationships to Carroll County Waste Services, who would directly benefit from this decision.
Other votes were found where commissioners abstained from decisions involving their current and past employers, family and friendships, etc.
Recently at the state level, Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a 16-year Army Veteran, recused himself from a scheduled vote by the State Board of Public Works involving a warehousing contract with Under Armour. Moore previously served on Under Armour’s board and owned company stock. Moore, having separated from Under Armour entirely, could have remained involved in the vote, and perhaps could have used his military background as evidence of his ability to remain unbiased, but understood the importance of maintaining the public’s trust and recused himself from the decision.
Unfortunately for Eldersburg residents, the commissioner ignored precedent, and hence the hearing became a missed opportunity by Commissioner Rothstein to regain public trust. Rather than addressing legitimate concerns shared by the tax-paying community regarding his tangled past with big development, he became defensive, labeling those who questioned him as “snakes” and “cowards”.
All of this leads to the question: Should the commissioner follow precedent and abstain from the upcoming rezoning case?
And if not, what reasonable boundaries can residents expect from our commissioners and their personal/business ties to big developers?
Fortunately for Rothstein, he’ll have a chance to redeem himself as the commissioner board is set to vote on the rezoning case during open session on Thursday, March 9th. It will be the commissioner’s actions, not words, that will determine if he values public trust of the institution and the constituents he represents.