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Committee kills PenMar restructuring

March 28, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS- Saying they didn't want to get in the middle of a "family fight," lawmakers on the House Economic Matters Committee on Saturday killed legislation to restructure the PenMar Development Corp.

"We don't need to be in this battle," said Del. Hattie N. Harrison, D-Baltimore City. "This is a family fight. I think we need to let the family take care of it."

After discussing the issue for about 25 minutes, the committee voted 15-8 to kill Washington County lawmakers' proposed changes to PenMar, which is charged with bringing jobs to the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

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The vote virtually guarantees that no changes will be made to PenMar this legislative session, which ends April 12.

Committee members, who were bombarded with e-mails and letters from opponents since the bill was introduced in February, said they felt uncomfortable being thrust into the middle of a local debate.

"It's like your dirty laundry. You wash it at home. You don't take it down the street and wash it," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., D-Southern Maryland.

Republicans on the committee argued they should stick to the Maryland General Assembly's tradition of local courtesy and approve the legislation, which was backed unanimously by the majority-Republican Washington County lawmakers.

Del. Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore/Harford, criticized opponents for not being willing to compromise with Washington County lawmakers.

Disappointing vote


Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he was disappointed by the vote, but hopes that the PenMar controversy results in something positive for the base, which has been vacant since 1998.

"We're just going to have to agree to all work together so that PenMar does become an economic development opportunity rather than a liability for the county," Shank said.

All along, local lawmakers only wanted to ensure greater oversight of PenMar and ensure that the redevelopment does not become a liability to state or county taxpayers, he said.

Shank said he hopes the PenMar board follows through with an earlier suggestion that greater oversight can be accomplished through simple bylaw changes rather than legislation.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. commended Shank for his attempts at compromise.

"I think Chris put a lot of hard work into it, trying to look at all sides of the situation," said Myers, R-Allegany/Washington. "I think he was very unfairly crucified for his efforts."

Vigorous resistance


Opponents fought vigorously against what they saw as an attempt to overthrow the current PenMar board.

They argued that the board has made progress in recent months, both in the way it is functioning and in bringing jobs to the base.

"I think Delegate Shank just underestimated the resolve and the disdain for this legislation, which was rooted in evil in my opinion," PenMar Chairman Ronald Sulchek said.

Sulchek said the board is willing to meet with county and state elected officials to discuss what, if any, legislation should be pursued next year.

"That's what should have been done from the very beginning," Sulchek said. "We all wasted a lot of our time to fight this legislation, which was unnecessary."

Cascade Committee Director Karl Weissenbach, who came to Annapolis to lobby against the bill, said he was happy about the committee's decision.

"It shows that when a community stands together and we make the right case, we can win," he said. "This is good for the community. It's good for PenMar."

Changes scaled back


The Washington County Delegation originally had proposed sweeping changes to the PenMar board, but watered down their plan after public criticism.

Controversial provisions dealing with dissolving the board, instituting residency requirements and placing restrictions on PenMar staff were removed.

Their last proposal would have allowed all 10 board members to serve out their terms, although lawmakers would have been allowed to fill five vacancies.

The bill would have required additional oversight of PenMar by the Washington County Commissioners and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and clarify that the county and state would be free of liability.

The County Commissioners would have had to approve any changes to PenMar's bylaws, any master lease agreement with a developer and any bonds.

Although a Senate bill concerning PenMar still is alive in the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said last week that it's fate was linked to the House bill.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said all parties need to get together to resolve remaining issues.

"It's a shame it had to get to this point," Donoghue said. "The last thing we need is to spend three months trying to resolve an issue that's not resolvable at this point."

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