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Disruptive democracy in Towson [Editorial]

We take the Baltimore County Police Department at its word that its officers were just trying to give some helpful tips to a pair of Dundalk activists about the rules of decorum at County Council work sessions and not trying to intimidate them into silence about their opposition to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's proposed redevelopment of a government building in the community. Even if the meeting earlier this month between three officers and a pair of community activists really was intended as a "polite and friendly way to discuss concerns about protocols," as the police department's spokeswoman put it, the whole business still stinks, which Chief Jim Johnson correctly concluded after reviewing the incident. His spokeswoman said today that he has talked with the officers involved and that this kind of thing won't happen again.

Nonetheless, it's a little disturbing that Baltimore County hadn't already gotten the memo about free speech after the arrest last year of a man who spoke up forcefully in opposition to the Common Core at a public meeting in Towson. On the one hand, this latest incident is better — nobody go arrested. On the other hand, it's worse; at the education town hall, one officer overreacted in the heat of the moment, while this time three officers still thought it was a good idea to intervene nearly a week after the fact. But the fault here lies not so much in a police department that has on a pair of occasions displayed a particularly low tolerance for free speech but in a county government as a whole that too often seems to view public input as a bothersome impediment to efficient operation.

The back story is that in December of 2012, Mr. Kamenetz proposed selling three government buildings to private developers with the proceeds dedicated to upgrading the three facilities in question and to providing air conditioning and better technology to schools in the communities where they were located. Among them was the North Point Government Center in Dundalk, which is home to assorted athletic, arts and community events. Last October, the county selected a developer for the Dundalk site who plans to build shops on 15 of the site's 27 acres, to preserve and upgrade the sports fields and to construct a new recreation center with a theater.

Members of a new group called Dundalk United complained about the county's lack of transparency in concocting the plan and picking the winning bidder — even the identities of those on the evaluation committee were secret — and they have continued to oppose the redevelopment plan.

At the County Council's July 1 work session, one of the items on the agenda was a resolution to allow the North Point project to proceed as a planned unit development, which means it could be exempt from certain zoning rules on the condition that it provides a community benefit. In two police reports filed a week later, the officers assigned to provide security at the work session described assorted "disruptive behavior" at the meeting. It seems that some of the Dundalk activists in attendance were unhappy to only be allotted three minutes to speak (per regular procedure, which was announced at the start of the meeting), and some kept talking after their time was up. Some grew "agitated" when they learned that they could not speak unless they had signed up before the meeting. (Again, standard council procedure.) Some applauded fellow opponents' comments or chimed in with their own from the work session room's small gallery. One man video-recorded portions of the meeting on his cellphone and tried to present the council members with a petition. Nowhere do the officers describe anything that could be construed as a threat to the safety of the council members, staff or fellow attendees at the meeting.

Yet the events were deemed sufficiently serious that an officer called two of the attendees at the work session and asked them to a meeting at a local library, which the activists interpreted as a clear attempt by the Kamenetz administration to silence them. The police spokeswoman says that isn't true and that the officers' intentions were benign, but Chief Johnson, upon reviewing the incident, agreed that the meeting was neither beneficial nor necessary and could have been misconstrued.

Perhaps the speakers that day were loud and rude in expressing their opinions, and maybe they did, for a few moments, disrupt the efficient handling of all the other items on the agenda. But this meeting was the only opportunity for those concerned about the North Point proposal to address the entire council and to convey not just their views but also their passion. It's sad that anyone was shocked to see the council members confronted by people who actually care about the items they vote on, rapid-fire, every other Monday night.

As one of the officers put it in her report, "most work sessions are conducted without incident" — we would add, to a fault. Everything you need to know about the County Council's eagerness for public input is answered by the fact that it holds its work sessions at 2 o'clock on Tuesday afternoons. Maybe a few more incidents like this wouldn't be so bad if they reminded the county government that the people deserve a say in the conducting of the people's business.

In the end, the protesters didn't disrupt anything. On the very day of the meeting between the police and the activists, the council took up the matter of the North Point PUD at its legislative session. Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., who represents Dundalk, introduced two amendments to tweak the proposed community benefits the developer would provide. According to the minutes of the meeting, there was no further discussion of the matter, and both the amendments and the resolution itself were approved unanimously.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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