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Thursday •  February 17, 2022

One Too Many Hats for State Delegate Jessica Feldmark?  The Concerning Case of Calvin’s Ball’s Special New Employee

 

Executive Summary Points

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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.

 

 

  • 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.

Main Post

(For Dedicated HoCo Watchdogs Who Want the Full Story!)

 

Introduction

 

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.

 

At the time of her election, Jessica Feldmark was serving as County Council Administrator for the Howard County Government — a $163,000 per year position that she had held since 2015 and that she remained in during her first 7 months after being sworn in as a State Delegate, until late August 2019.  During this timeframe, Ms. Feldmark simultaneously earned $50,330 per year as a State Delegate, plus per-diem of $106 per day for lodging & $56 per day for meals.

 

17 months after resigning from this county position, Delegate Feldmark was again hired by the Howard County Government in January 2021, at the request of County Executive Calvin Ball, to serve as “Downtown Columbia Liaison” — a new job title for the existing $75 per hour part-time contingent county position of “Director of Downtown Redevelopment”, which had been vacant since 2018.

 

In addition to being a State Delegate, Feldmark is now a $75-per-hour contingent employee of the Howard County government with a unique “dotted-line-on-the-org-chart” reporting authority to both County Executive Ball and the Department of Planning & Zoning Her main duties in this position are to “direct the implementation of The Downtown Columbia Plan for Howard County Government, work with County Departments to facilitate effective administration of policies and procedures, and liaison with developers, investors, major employers and property owners to support and encourage private sector investment in Downtown Columbia.”

 

Jessica Feldmark was elected to represent the citizens of District 12 in the Maryland House of Delegate — a state governmental body that approves laws, establishes executive departments, levies taxes, and proposes state constitutional amendments.  Now, as Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”, Feldmark is on the payroll of both Howard County 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 generously to her election campaign, all while supposedly also representing her local community in the state legislature and as a county employee.

Ethics Complaint Filed Against Delegate Feldmark

 

Section 5-514 of the Maryland Public Ethics Law, shown below, details the restrictions on State Delegates regarding “outside income relating to State or local governmental entities”:

With this section of the Maryland Public Ethics law in mind, a complaint was filed by a concerned District 12 & Howard County resident to the Maryland Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics on June 28, 2021 after it was discovered that the Howard County gonverment had hired State Delegate Feldmark to serve as their special part-time employee.

 

The complaint, shown below, specifically alleged that Delegate Feldmark had committed a “violation of the Public Ethics Law as it applies to members of the Maryland General Assembly for employment with political subdivision (Howard County government)”:

Despite the severity of this allegation, no official response to the complaint was received until November 2021 — five months after the complaint had been submitted.   Meanwhile, the potentially unethical practice was allowed to continue with no pause for consideration of the facts that supported the allegation.

 

After brief review, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics dismissed the complaint with the following response:

According to the official state response to this complaint, 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.

 

This 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 to her election campaign.

Concerns about Conflicts of Interest & Election Campaign Finance Contributions

 

Section 5-514 of the Maryland Public Ethics Law was established to prevent a variety of obvious risks that can arise while attempting to juggle the responsibilities of a state legislator position with those of another county or state government position, including conflict of interest, unfair access & influence by special interest donors, and abuse of power.  Has Delegate Feldmark managed to “thread the needle” and avoid all of these risks associated with her role as both State Delegate and County “Downtown Columbia Liaison”?  Let’s look at her recent professional relationships and decisions more closely.

 

A major part of Delegate Feldmark’s job as “Downtown Columbia Liaison” is to “liaison with developers, investors, major employers and property owners to support and encourage private sector investment in Downtown Columbia”.  This might otherwise be innocuous if not for the significant amount of election campaign donations that Ms. Feldmark has received from local developers and their associated lobbyists, many with whom she is now conducting business in her new county position while she simultaneously proposes & votes on laws that govern these entities as a state delegate.

 

Detailed financial contributions to Delegate Feldmark are available on the Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System.  When contributions made by herself, her family members, and transfers from other political campaigns are excluded, Ms. Feldmark raised approximately $158,700 for her election campaign from independent donors between January 2018 and mid-January 2022

Of this $158,700, approximately $85,300 — over 50% of her independent contributor campaign funding between January 2018 and mid-January 2022 — came from local developers & construction companies, registered developer lobbyists, land use/development attorneys, and consulting companies & LLCs owned by these entities.  

 

Of these special interest groups, the largest local donors to Delegate 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, these two entities provided Delegate Feldmark with almost 20% of her total outside-self/family/political transfer election campaign contributions between January 2018 and January 2022.

 

Merriweather Post Pavilion and The Howard Hughes Corporation represent two of the largest business & development entities involved in Downtown Columbia.  They were specifically mentioned in the 2019 Annual report from the Downtown Columbia Partnership, which Delegate Feldmark is deeply involved with through her position as “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.

 

As detailed in a prior HoCo Watchdogs post, The Howard Hughes Corporation has gone so far as to actively boast to in official investor presentations about the company’s “ability to control cities” and how it has “ownership and monopoly control” of Columbia, MD.

Conflict of Interest Example #1: Housing Trust Fund Legislation

 

Within months of beginning her position as Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”, Delegate Feldmark began to demonstrate just how her simultaneous state and county-level government employment would lead to glaring conflicts of interest.  One such example worth examining closely is Maryland House Bill 878, a state law proposed by Delegate Feldmark in Fall 2021 that requires Howard County to establish a “Housing Opportunities Trust Fund…to be used to promote equitable access to affordable housing”.   In January 2022, the Howard County Delegation proceeded to recommend this bill for formal adoption by the State Legislature.

 

The proposal of this state bill came just months after the Howard County Council had formally rejected an extremely similar $5 million “Housing Opportunity Trust Fund” proposed by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball in his proposed FY22 budget.  As with Feldmark’s bill, the claimed mission of the Trust Fund proposed by County Executive Ball was to “boost the number of income-restricted rental and homeownership units in the county”.

 

Despite the noble social goals of this “Housing Opportunity Trust Fund”, Howard County Councilmembers were deeply concerned about the fact 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.  With these concerns in mind, the Council proceeded to reject this proposed Trust Fund during their budget process with Amendment 5 to CB34-2021. Specifically, the Council unanimously voted to re-allocate the proposed $5 million for this Trust Fund to instead be used for the County Contingency Reserve fund and the HCPSS Health fund.

 

After the firm rejection of Calvin Ball’s “Housing Opportunity Trust Fund” by Howard County’s legislative branch of government, Jessica Feldmark — employee to Calvin Ball and District 12 State Representative — proceeded to supersede their authority by proposing state-level House Bill 878, a bill which would strong-arm Howard County into implementing the Trust Fund anyway.

 

Of note, House Bill 878 explicitly states that this “Housing Opportunity Trust Fund”, paid for by all Howard County taxpayers, could be used to provide “loans, grants, guarantees, or direct financial assistance to developers of affordable housing”.

 

Thus, not only does Jessica Feldmark’s proposed House Bill 878 directly override an important decision made by the Howard County Council, it also 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 serious concerns that the fund may be used to reward local developers who dabble in self-proclaimed “affordable” housing projects such as The Howard Hughes Corporation, which Feldmark is tasked with neutrally conducting business with as the County’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.

 Conflict of Interest Example #2: The Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel Boycott

 

Another clear example of why serving as both State Delegate and as Howard County’s “Downtown Columbia Liaison” presents irreconcilable conflicts of interest for Jessica Feldmark can be seen by how she has been professionally involved in the boycott surrounding the re-opening of the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel.

 

Set to re-open in Fall 2021 under a new name after the Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel has been facing public pressure from protests organized by a Baltimore-area hospitality union, Unite Local 7, which is demanding that the hotel re-hire the over 100 employees that had been laid off during the pandemic.

 

State representatives from Districts 12 and 13, including Jessica Feldmark, stepped in to support this boycott, declaring their own professional boycott of the business and issuing their own demands in an official joint letter signed by each of the State representatives & published by Delegate Feldmark:

 

“…we find ourselves letting local organizations know that we will be unable to attend events held at this location until hotel management allows workers to return to their jobs.”

“…we call on hotel management and ownership to recognize and re-hire those former employees who wish to return to the positions they previously held.”

Thus, while being paid $75 per hour by Howard County taxpayers to serve as Calvin Ball’s “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”, Jessica Feldmark simultaneously has been collecting a salary from Maryland taxpayers to serve as State Delegate and chose to use the power of that position to participate in labor protests against a Downtown Columbia business and encourage a professional boycott to harm their business and pressure them into compliance.

Financial Contributions by Delegate Feldmark to County Executive Calvin Ball

 

In addition to these obvious concerns about conflict of interest, Delegate Feldmark’s campaign contributions to her current “boss”, County Executive Calvin Ball, raise additional questions & concerns about why she specifically was hired for the special position of “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.  As shown below, in additional to over $1,400 in individual contributions by her household to Calvin Ball’s election campaign, Delegate Feldmark has contributed a total of $4,000 to Calvin Ball’s campaign from her own election campaign account.

 

One $2,000 transfer was made just prior to her election, in October 2018, and the other $2,000 transfer was made in January 2020, less than one year prior to when she would be brought onboard at Calvin Ball’s request to serve as the county’s special “dotted-line-on-the-org-chart”, $75 per hour, 1099 part-time county employee.

Closing Thoughts

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should”

“From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it!”

The above examples demonstrate exactly why the state of Maryland has an ethics law that generally prohibits State Legislators from engaging in paid employment with a County government.

 

As a State Delegate, Jessica Feldmark has a trusted responsibility to represent the interests of the citizens of District 12 faithfully and unwaveringly.  She has an ethical duty 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 duties as State Delegate or may lead her to exploit, even unintentionally, any financial contributions that she has received or given as part of her election campaign.

 

By choosing to become Howard County’s special “Downtown Columbia Liaison” employee while she is still a State Delegate, Ms. Feldmark has cast aside this trusted responsibility and ethical duty.

 

Additionally, 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.

 

Finally, 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.

 

Without significant revisions to this part of the Maryland Public Ethics Law, the risk remains high that future state legislators will also be allowed to pursue lucrative local government employment opportunities that present obvious conflicts of interest.

 

As it stands, District 12 constituents & Howard County residents can only stand back and monitor how Delegate Feldmark continues to juggle her state and county-level professional loyalties, with the hope that she eventually decides to “take one dip and end it”.

Supplementary Background Information

(For the Most Dedicated HoCo Watchdogs Who Want Even More Details!)

 

History of the “Downtown Columbia Liaison” Position

 

An MPIA request seeking details regarding the history of the “Downtown Columbia Liaison” position was submitted to the county in Spring 2021.  As shown below in the response received to this MPIA, this position has existed since 2012 under a different name, the “Director of Downtown Redevelopment”, which former Counter Executive Ken Ulman had created and hired Mr. Mark Thompson for in order to “direct the implementation of The Downtown Columbia Plan for Howard County Government, work with County Departments to facilitate effective administration of policies and procedures, and liaison with developers, investors, major employers and property owners to support and encourage private sector investment in Downtown Columbia.”

At the time of its creation, Mr. Thompson was hired as an hourly “contingent” employee, not entitled to benefits, and earning $75 per hour (equivalent to an annual 40 hour per week salary of $156,000).  Delegate Feldmark also has been hired with this same “contingent” status and same hourly rate.

 

After Mark Thompson stepped down from this position in 2015, the then-current Office of Transportation Administrator, Clive Graham, took over the role until the beginning of Calvin Ball’s term as County Executive in late 2018.  For unknown reasons, the position was then left unfilled for the first  two years of Calvin Ball’s term until January 2021, when he requested that State Delegate Jessica Feldmark be brought on to fill the position under the new title “Downtown Columbia Liaison”.

Details of Delegate Feldmark’s Hiring Process & Role in the Howard County Government

 

While Delegate Feldmark apparently began her position as “Downtown Columbia Liaison” in early January 2021 (still in FY21),  the funding request for this renewed position landed on the desk of the Howard County Council during its FY22 budget work sessions in Spring 2021.   The following are the discussions that took place between the County Council, Amy Gowen, Howard County Director of the Department of Planning & Zoning (DPZ), and Sameer Sidh, Chief of Staff to County Executive Calvin Ball, during the Howard County Council FY22 Budget Work Sessions:

May 12, 2021 – Operating Budget Work Session #3

May 14, 2021 – Operating Budget Work Session #4

According to DPZ Director Gowen & Chief of Staff Sidh, the “Downtown Columbia Liaison” position is funded by her department, lumped into the “Salary – Other” category of the budget line, and reports as a “dotted line” position to both Howard County Executive Ball as well as the Department of Planning & Zoning.  No ethics review was conducted prior to hiring Delegate Feldmark for this position and no other position within the county government has such a “dotted line” authority chain.

 

When asked whether County Executive Ball suggested that the county hire Jessica Feldmark for this position, the DPZ Director Gowen answered “Yes, it was a mutual discussion”.  This raises concerns that no competitive, merit-based open hiring process was undertaken before selecting Delegate Feldmark for this position.

 

According to DPZ Director Gowen, Delegate Feldmark’s job for this position is to “Implement the administration’s vision and priorities for Downtown [Columbia]” and to also be a “countywide liaison”, but from the history of the position and its job description, it is unclear how “countywide” this role is intended to be.

 

The county estimates Ms. Feldmark’s part-time services as being on the order of 10 to 25 hours per week ($750 – $1875 per week, or $39,000 to $97,500 annually, and equivalent to 25% to 62.5% of a fulltime position).

 

According to records received from the county in Fall 2021, shown below,  Delegate Feldmark received $17,625 in hourly pay for 235 hours of work logged between her estimated start date of January 4, 2021 through June 4, 2021 (a 5 month timeframe), and an additional $18,431.25 for 245.75 hours logged between June 5, 2021 and August 27, 2021 (a 2.5 month timeframe), for a total of $36,056.25 — approximately 10% more than what she had earned as a State Delegate during that timeframe.

The “25% to 62.5% of a fulltime position” estimate provided by the county and the work hours logged by Delegate Feldmark for the first 8 months of serving in this position are interesting, considering that the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Maryland State Delegates spend an average of ~74% of a fulltime job to satisfy their duties as elected officials.

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