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Del. Jones: No Conflict on Pension Bill

State delegate sponsors pension bill for the county and is deputy director of Baltimore County Department of Human Resources.

Del. Jones: No Conflict on Pension Bill

Proposed state legislation to change Baltimore County's pension rules is attracting as much attention for who sponsored the bill as for what it would do.

Del. Adrienne Jones, a long-time Baltimore County employee, is currently the deputy director of the county's Office of Human Resources. She is also the lone sponsor of a pension bill that her boss—County Executive Kevin Kamenetz—wants.

Instead of using more traditional routes to propose legislation, Kamenetz asked Jones to file the bill because of her expertise with the subject. As speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates, Jones' position and reputation could also provide an added benefit to the bill's success.   

The close connection between the bill and Jones' government employer has raised some eyebrows about the delegate's sponsorship of the bill—even though Jones has followed General Assembly rules for such potentially sticky situations.

Those same ethics rules would generally prohibit legislators from being involved with bills that benefit their employers. Lawmakers who work for county governments are given more leeway.

The bill could by overturning a court ruling that said the county was charging too much for a penalty on pensions to retirees who transfered their state pension time into the county retirement system.

"Kamenetz is using Adrienne to get this bill through," said Del. Susan Aumman, a Timonium Republican who serves with Jones on the House Appropriations Committee. "Just the fact that this is happening is questionable."

"I think it's a conflict of interest when you have a county employee putting in a bill that directly affects the county," said Aumann. "Why doesn't the county put their own bill in? I think it's a problem."

In an interview, Jones said she does not have a conflict of interest, often getting emotional when explaining the steps she has taken to avoid such criticism. 

"I've filed all the necessary forms," said Jones, a Democrat from Woodstock.

She said she has filed the appropriate disclaimer and disclosure forms with the General Assembly's ethics attorney that state potential conflicts of interest and certify that a lawmaker can make independent decisions on related bills.

Jones said during the interview with Patch that she knows that she was getting "defensive" and "emotional"—at one point she appeared as if she were on the verge of tears—when explaining why she believes that she has no conflict of interest related to this legislation.

"This is the first time in 35 years anyone has questioned my integrity," said Jones, who later added that she is further removed from conflicts of interest because she is on unpaid leave from Baltimore County while she serves in the House of Delegates.

At the heart of the issue is a bill that Don Mohler, a spokesman for the county, said is "an important piece of legislation that has a fiscal impact to the county."

The legislation, if passed, would affect how the county calculates reductions in pension benefits for some state employees who bring their pensions with them when they work for the county.

State law requires that the county count the employee's time in the state pension system as county time even though the employee doesn't contribute to the state system.

In Baltimore County, employees contribute a percentage of their salary toward their retirement benefits. State law allows the county to reduce the final pension benefit to adjust for years when payments weren't made plus 5 percent interest compounded annually.

Currently, the county reduces the payments by nearly 8 percent interest compounded monthly—which nearly doubles the reductions to affected employees.

A Harford County Circuit Court judge, a county Board of Appeals ruling and an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General, all say the county interest rate is too high.

The bill sponsored by Jones would overturn the Harford County Court decision even as the county is appealing to the state Court of Appeals. If the county is allowed to move forward with the 8 percent calculation it would save as much as $400,000 annually.

But the bill is being handled differently than typical legislation deemed a priority by the county.

First, the bill is being sponsored by Jones alone. Most legislation requested by the county is sponsored by the chair of the House or the Senate delegation and marked "by the request of the administration."

The county also typically files identical legislation in both the House and the Senate.

This year, the three major pieces of Kamenetz's legislative priority list were filed in both the House and Senate through the respective leaders of those delegations.

Last year the House and Senate delegations sponsored three such bills, including laws that increased liquor licenses and miscellaneous business licenses.

This year's pension bill is filed only in the House of Delegates where it was sent to the Appropriations Committee—a committee Jones serves on and where she is a member of a subcommittee on pension issues.

Mohler, the county spokesman, said the county asked Jones to sponsor the bill because she "is very well respected and understands the issue."

William Somerville, an ethics lawyer to the General Assembly, said state ethics law is more flexible for legislators who work for county governments.

"It's more lenient than would be the case with a private sector employer," said Somerville, adding that legislators who work for local governments are encouraged not to participate in legislation that "directly affects them or the structure of their departments."

Jones is not directly affected by the bill.

The differences in how the bill is being handled, however, have raised eyebrows among some legislators, some of whom privately questioned Jones' involvement based solely on the potential for an appearance issue.

Aumann, who served with Jones on an ethics committee that reviewed violations by Sen. Ulysses Currie, said the ethics issue "has everyone's antenna up and it should."

"Something smells bad," said Aumann. "Something's weird."

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