Banner political notes: Portrait time; Moore money for other candidates; Money for nothing, but these towns said no

Published 9/24/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT

Maryland, Baltimore City, Baltimore County politics

Maryland is facing a changing of the guard in government positions, and that means it’s time for official portraits.

The state plans to spend $35,000 on a portrait for Comptroller Peter Franchot, who will be wrapping up his political career in January.

After serving four terms as the state’s chief tax collector, Franchot gave up a solid shot at reelection to run in the Democratic primary for governor this year. He finished third.

Franchot’s office has hired Maryland native Carolyn Egeli to paint the comptroller’s official portrait.

The state’s Board of Public Works, which has the final say on state contracts, approved spending money on the portrait without discussion at its Sept. 14 meeting. Franchot is one of three members of the board, along with Treasurer Dereck Davis and Gov. Larry Hogan, who was represented by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford at the meeting.

Franchot isn’t the only one getting a portrait. The state’s highest court held a ceremony this week to unveil a portrait of retired Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

A portrait of retired Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera is dedicated during a ceremony in Annapolis on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. Standing with the portrait are, from left: retired Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty, retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell; Barbera; current Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader. The portrait was painted by Diana "Danni" Dawson and cost $25,000. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Judiciary.

Barbera said in a statement that she was “humbled to be honored” with the portrait by artist Diana “Danni” Dawson. The painting depicts Barbera in a red Court of Appeals judicial robe with legal briefs on her lap.

Barbera retired as chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2021, the first woman to hold that position in state history. She previously served on the Court of Special Appeals, was chief legal counsel to then-Gov. Parris Glendening, worked as an assistant attorney general and taught elementary school.

The Maryland Judiciary paid $25,000 for the portrait, which hangs on the fourth floor of the Courts of Appeals building in Annapolis, in a gallery of portraits of chief judges.

Moore money for more candidates

Wes Moore and his fundraising team have proven to be adept at bringing in money for his campaign. Since launching his campaign for governor, he’s raised more than $10 million.

Now Moore’s lending his name to help candidates in other states.

By The Baltimore Banner’s very unofficial count, Moore has sent several fundraising solicitations in recent weeks to his supporters asking them to also support Democratic candidates for governor in other states.

The emails usually ask supporters to send in donations that would be split between Moore and the other candidate.

So far, these emails have gone out in support of these Democratic candidates for governor:

  • Kathy Hochul of New York
  • Katie Hobbs of Arizona
  • Chris Jones of Arkansas
  • Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan
  • Charlie Crist of Florida

The Hochul email, sent this week, is typical of the requests: “Wes and I are running against far-right extremists for governor in New York and Maryland. While we both want to protect reproductive freedom, keep communities safe from gun violence, and ensure access to the ballot box, our opponents are pushing a dangerous MAGA agenda including banning abortion and denying election results.”

Second E. coli follow-up hearing delayed

The Baltimore City Council has delayed a follow-up hearing into the Department of Public Works response to the discovery of E. coli in the city’s water system.

On Labor Day, the city issued a boil-water notice for sweeping portions of West and South Baltimore after DPW discovered E. coli found in tap water at three locations in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods. The city reduced the advisory area to encompass the two West Baltimore neighborhoods a few days later and lifted the advisory altogether on Sept. 9.

City residents and council members decried DPW’s handling of the incident, questioning the agency’s speed in informing affected communities. Councilman Eric Costello called for a series of investigative hearings into the incident, the first of which was held last week before the Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee.

Public Works director Jason Mitchell acknowledged missteps and said his agency will work to ensure “accurate, timely and consistent messaging” to the public and improve communication with the council.

Mitchell and other city leaders were due to come before the committee again this Thursday, but Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer announced the hearing would be pushed back a week to allow the agency more time to gather information.

Inside the hearing: Senators confront Hogan administration on food benefits fraud

In a passionate confrontation Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Benjamin Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, along with two other senators, repeatedly questioned Maryland Department of Human Services Secretary Lourdes Padilla as to why Maryland can’t use state funds to reimburse families who have been victims of food benefits fraud.

The hearing was convened by senators to probe the administration after reports revealed an increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits fraud and a sharp decline in program participation partially caused by administrative obstacles within DHS.

During the department’s opening statements, DHS officials reported benefits fraud affected one in every 1,000 cases over the last year. Kramer and his colleagues wanted to know why the state couldn’t help if such a small percentage of cases were affected.

“Has your department ever said, ‘Governor Hogan, please, we’ve got these victims, can you, will you put to good use state resources to reimburse these people so they can have what was stolen from them.’ Has that conversation occurred?” Kramer asked.

Padilla did not directly answer the senator’s question. Instead, she said her office has made other cash benefits available to families and is working with her department’s inspector general and federal law enforcement to catch perpetrators.

Committee Chair Delores Kelley — a Baltimore County Democrat — interrupted Kramer’s third attempt to get an answer, blaming time constraints. However, Democratic Sens. Katie Fry Hester, who represents portions of Howard and Carroll counties, and Malcolm Augustine, of Prince George’s County, used their time to pursue an answer.

Augustine wanted to know why the state couldn’t use some of the nearly $2 billion revenue surplus.

Again, Padilla pivoted. “I truly believe that this belongs with law enforcement, and they will prosecute these fraudsters,” she said. “I don’t want to compensate the fraudsters for them stealing the money.”

Fry Hester told the committee she sent the secretary a letter in June asking this same question and had not gotten a response.

“We are still here, and you’re still not providing a decent answer,” Fry Hester said.

Fry Hester also reminded the administrator that she has five times requested contact information for the state’s electronic benefits transfer vendor Conduent to have a conversation with them about security issues. Conduent oversees the transfer of funds to food benefits recipients.

”It’s disrespectful to the General Assembly to not answer senators’ questions,” Fry Hester said.

Padilla told Fry Hester DHS would respond to her June letter in one week.

Tiny Maryland towns decline federal COVID-19 money

Since the spring of last year, more than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief has flowed into Maryland counties, cities and towns, part of a massive program aimed at helping local governments rebound from the pandemic. All 23 counties in Maryland took money out of the American Rescue Plan Act, in some cases roping in millions of dollars. Cities and towns are also benefiting from big time windfalls.

But while nearly every local government in Maryland took the handout, three tiny towns chose not to.

“We have no employees, and most everything has to be done by me,” said Tom Watson, burgess for Rosemont, a village of about 100 houses near Harpers Ferry. “When you deal with the federal government you’re basically going to be dealing with paperwork ‘til the cows come home.”

Rosemont was eligible for just under $35,000 in ARPA money, according to the Maryland Department of Budget and Management — money Watson dismissed as “peanuts.” Besides, Rosemont didn’t know where it could have spent the money. The village has no businesses, no employees and doesn’t maintain its own sewer system. One of three roads is managed by the county, the other two by the state. Just one new home has been built there in the last 15 years.

“We’re not interested in getting bigger,” Watson said.

Officials from Brookeville, a town of fewer than 200 residents in Montgomery County, and Galestown, home to a little more than 100 people in Dorchester County, similarly stood by their decisions to decline the money. In Brookeville, which was eligible for nearly $142,000, Commissioner Bill Gaskill said the town didn’t think they qualified to take the money because they didn’t see revenue losses from the pandemic. In Galestown, Mayor Ron James said local officials didn’t want to deal with the red tape.

While federal funding tends to come with plenty of strings, a feature of the American Rescue Plan Act was a provision allowing small local governments to sink up to $10 million directly into their general funds, regardless of how much revenue they lost during the pandemic.

Even so, James said Galestown isn’t hurting for money.

“It wasn’t worth our trouble to do it,” he said.

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