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Lobbyist guards coalition interests

January 28, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - While Washington County's leaders do business, govern and go about their daily lives, a paid lobbyist is guarding their interests in Annapolis.

That's a local coalition's rationale for hiring lobbyist Michael V. Johansen last year and giving him four issues to pursue.

Satisfied with last year's results, the business and government coalition - with one new partner - brought Johansen back this year and gave him four new issues. The coalition is paying him almost $20,000.

Lobbying might be as old as government itself, but it's only recently that local figures decided they need a paid watchdog.

"To me, this should be a regular occurrence for us," said Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval, who said the payoff already has been high.

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The local coalition includes three nonprofit, business-related organizations - the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation (CHIEF).

The Washington County Commissioners are in the coalition, too. This year, the City of Hagerstown joined. Neither government body unanimously supported the idea.

Johansen said Annapolis lobbying is integral for Maryland's large metropolitan counties.

"Power is unevenly distributed throughout Maryland," chamber of commerce President Brien Poffenberger said. A lobbyist's know-how helps a smaller county catch up.

Skeptics, however, wonder why government officials can't fight for their own issues, traveling to Annapolis when necessary.

Unconvinced of the benefit, Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said, "I still think we can be our own lobbyist."

"I don't think it's worth using taxpayer money for that," Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell said, suggesting that elected officials' testimony at bill hearings carries more weight anyway.

The commissioners are putting $7,500 into lobbying this year. The other four entities are contributing $3,000 apiece, for a total of $19,500 for the coalition.

The previous year, the county and the three business groups combined to spend $12,000.

Everyday advocates

What does the money buy?

To start, it gets a piece of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver LLC, an Annapolis law firm whose lobbyists once were prominent in state government. They include a lieutenant governor, a Senate president, a Senate committee chairman, an assistant attorney general and a delegate.

Johansen, an administrative partner in the firm, was an analyst with the state Department of Fiscal Services, and was counsel to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Kevin O'Keeffe, a former lobbyist for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, is working with Johansen on the coalition's issues.

State lobbying records list more than 50 clients under Johansen's name, from the municipalities of Gaithersburg and Takoma Park to diverse trades, such as grocery manufacturers, automobile dealers, wineries, nurses and pawnbrokers.

Johansen said he attends bill hearings, meets with lawmakers, make contacts, answers questions and so on.

"We're here every day," O'Keeffe said.

A capital insider's value, Kercheval said, is "just understanding how Annapolis works - the importance of who you talk to and when's good timing."

The county coalition gets the benefit of Johansen's Rolodex and experience, Poffenberger has said.

Kercheval said the fight for state money for the Dual Highway and Edgewood Drive improvement project was a prime example.

Johansen steered county officials to the right people and advised them on what to say. Through meetings with committee chairs and administration officials, he provided the county brief, but important access, Kercheval said.

The expectation is that results will follow.

A $2 million perk?

The top coalition priority last year was funding for the $12 million Dual-Edgewood project.

Art Callaham, the executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, said the county asked the state for $8 million; the state offered $4 million.

Kercheval is certain that Johansen's influence helped the state boost its share to $6 million.

"That was a $2 million perk on a $12,000 investment," he said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire disagreed. He said the significant step was the county and the city agreeing to a 60-40 split on the local half of the costs and presenting that to the state.

That characterization matches what Gregory I. Snook, the former commissioners president, said last year when the funding arrangement was announced: The state reacted to a proposal he and Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II made.

Johansen didn't take credit for the state pledging $6 million to the project.

"We were kind of the persistent voice," he said. "It was going to happen, but we made sure there were no roadblocks."

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