Thursday • February 17, 2022
One Too Many Hats for State Delegate Jessica Feldmark? The Concerning Case of Calvin’s Ball’s Special New Employee
By Steven Keller
Executive Summary Points
(For Readers in a Hurry)
Should a current Maryland state delegate be allowed to simultaneously work for a County Executive, managing business relationships & major county-level decisions between special interest groups that donated generously to that state delegate’s own election campaign?
This odd and concerning question has been raised about the professional activities of State Delegate Jessica Feldmark since her election as District 12 representative in November 2018:
- In January 2021, District 12 State Delegate Jessica Feldmark accepted a job offer by the Howard County government to be the county’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison” — a new job title for the existing $156,000 per year 1099 part-time county employee position of “Director of Downtown Redevelopment”, responsible for managing business relationships & major county-level decisions with developers, investors, major employers and property owners to support and encourage private sector investment in Downtown Columbia.
- According to County leadership, Delegate Feldmark was hired to be the ”Downtown Columbia Liaison” at Calvin Ball’s request, raising concern that no competitive, merit-based open hiring process was undertaken before selecting Delegate Feldmark for this position. The position has a unique “dotted-line-on-the-org-chart” reporting authority to both County Executive Ball and the Department of Planning & Zoning. No ethics review was conducted by the Howard County government prior to hiring Delegate Feldmark for this position and no other position within the county government has such a “dotted line” authority chain.
- Between January 2018 and January 2022, over 50% (approximately $85,300 out of $158,700) of the election campaign contributions that Feldmark received from independent donors (excluding donations made by herself, her family and official political entities) came from local developers & construction companies, registered developer lobbyists, land use/development attorneys, and consulting companies & LLCs owned by these entities.
- The largest special interest donors to Feldmark’s election campaign since 2018 have been The Howard Hughes Corporation, with total direct & lobbyist contributions of approximately $16,650 and Merriweather Post Pavilion & its affiliates, with total contributions of approximately $13,200. Together, they provided Feldmark with almost 20% of her total outside-self/family/political transfer election campaign contributions. They are two of the largest business & development entities involved in Downtown Columbia which Feldmark must conduct business with as Howard County’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.
- From her own election campaign account, Jessica Feldmark has contributed a total of $4,000 to the election campaign fund of her current “boss”, County Executive Calvin Ball, including a $2,000 transfer made just prior to her election and a $2,000 transfer in January 2020, less than one year prior to when she was re-hired by the Howard County government at Calvin Ball’s request to be the ”Downtown Columbia Liaison”.
- Feldmark is now on the payroll of both the Howard County government and the state of Maryland and has the full authority to act in the interests of special interest groups such as local developers, businesses, and politicians who donated heavily to her election campaign, all while supposedly also representing her local community in the state legislature and as a county employee.
- With very few exceptions, Maryland ethics law prohibits the ability of General Assembly members from being simultaneously employed by other county & state government entities in order to prevent a variety of obvious risks that can arise while attempting to juggle both positions, including conflict of interest, unfair access & influence by special interest donors, and abuse of power.
- In Spring 2021, a complaint was filed to the Maryland Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics after it was discovered that the Howard County government had hired State Delegate Feldmark to serve as their special part-time employee. This complaint was dismissed by the State Ethics Committee which stated that Ms. Feldmark’s potential violation was being interpreted by them as a “logical career progression” exception from her previous position as Howard County Council Administrator that she had held prior to her election as state delegate.
- Calling Feldmark’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison” position a logical career progression is a painfully stretched interpretation of the State Ethics law, considering that a full 17 months had passed between when Ms. Feldmark had left her original county position in August 2019 and when she began her new “Downtown Columbia Liaison” county position in January 2021, and considering that her new county position has a completely different set of responsibilities, many of which involve making significant decisions with special interest groups who donated generously to her election campaign.
- While employed as the Calvin Ball administration’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”, Delegate Feldmark proposed a state bill to establish a “Housing Opportunities Trust Fund” — a bill that directly overrides an important budget decision made by the Howard County Council in Spring 2021, when they decided to reject almost the exact same Trust Fund that Calvin Ball proposed in his FY22 budget, out of concern that the Trust Fund had no “guardrails” on it to prevent it from being used for private interests, such as being a bare-minimum-strings-attached $5 million gift to local developers.
- The Trust Fund proposed by Delegate Feldmark may be used to directly fund those special interest groups who contributed handsomely to her election campaign as long as they meet the very vaguely-defined requirement of being a “developer of affordable housing”. This raises concerns that the fund may be used to reward developers such as The Howard Hughes Corporation, which Feldmark is tasked with neutrally conducting business with as the County’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.
- While being paid by Howard County taxpayers to serve as the “Downtown Columbia Liaison”, with a specific duty to “liaison with developers, investors, major employers and property owners to support and encourage private sector investment in Downtown Columbia”, Delegate Feldmark chose to use the power of her state legislator position to participate in labor protests against The Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel — a Downtown Columbia business — and encourage a professional boycott to harm their business and pressure them into ceding to the demands of a Baltimore-area hospitality union.
- By choosing to become Howard County’s special “Downtown Columbia Liaison” employee while she is still a State Delegate, Jessica Feldmark has cast aside her trusted responsibility and ethical duty to faithfully and unwaveringly represent the interests of the citizens of District 12 and to decline any transactions, including positions of employment that may be loosely considered a “logical career progression”, that may present obvious conflicts of interests with her State Delegate duties or may lead her to exploit, even unintentionally, any financial contributions that she has received or given as part of her election campaign.
- County Executive Calvin Ball demonstrated seriously poor judgement and concerning leadership by suggesting Delegate Feldmark be hired for the county-level position of “Downtown Columbia Liaison”. A prudent, ethical County Executive would have erred on the side of caution and refrained from suggesting anyone for this sensitive position that might have obvious risks of conflict of interest — particularly a current state delegate who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from major developers & business entities that she must coordinate business as “Downtown Columbia Liaison”. Did Calvin Ball really not know how questionable this decision would be?….or did he know and just not care? Either way, it does not reflect well on him as he enters 2022 seeking re-election.
- The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics dropped the ball when they gave Delegate Feldmark an exemption from Section 5-514 of the Maryland Public Ethics Law and allowed her to simultaneously be employed as a State Delegate and as Howard County’s special “Downtown Columbia Liaison” employee. The particular exemption cited, “logical career progression”, should be revisited by the Maryland Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and amended to ensure that such cases as Ms. Feldmark’s cannot qualify for exemption in the future.