The Board of Charles County Commissioners voted at the end of March to authorize economic development director Darrell Brown to sign on to a regional cooperative agreement with five other Maryland counties, a decision that did not happen without some political theater.
The non-binding joint statement, which was signed by the economic development directors of Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties, commits the six participating counties to “explore economic development collaboration on a regional level.” In particular, the counties jointly agreed to:
- Investigate “regional joint marketing, branding, and promotional programming” that plays to the strengths of each county
- Put in place “shared economic development rules of ethical marketing and branding”
- Establish “protocols for communication in addressing business prospects and relocation events”
- Identify opportunities for “multi-county or state-level policy changes to address competitiveness issues for the Capital Region, or that may encourage growth in specific industry sectors, on a regional basis”
- Explore “collective efforts in support or pursuit of targeted industry sectors” that would allow the counties to “capitalize on unique assets or resources within the Maryland Capital Region”
- Collaborate with other “economic development partners” in the region for mutually beneficial objectives
The joint statement noted that the six participating counties represent 3.3 million Maryland citizens and 1.4 million jobs that account for just over half of the state’s economy.
In presenting the proposed joint statement to the Board of Charles County Commissioners in early March, Brown told the commissioners that the idea had been in the works since last fall.
“We believe that it will be in our best interests to meet and begin to discuss regional collaborations as economic development organizations,” Brown told the commissioners during their March 3 open session. “We have certain things in common and … we know from a site selector’s point of view and business attraction point of view that businesses look regionally to … decide where they would like to relocate if they’re thinking about coming to the [Washington] DC metropolitan region.”
Brown emphasized that the agreement did not bind the county to any kind of formal inter-county agreement that would require legislation. The only thing that it explicitly obligates the participating economic development departments to do is to not “pilfer” businesses from other jurisdictions.
“And we do that naturally as economic development organizations because that is a best practice,” Brown pointed out.
Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) voiced his support for the agreement.
“The Washington Post article that described the partnership agreement in Northern Virginia, I think in more ways than one should open our eyes to the significance of looking at economic development from that perspective because we’re strengthened by taking a regional approach,” Collins said.
Throughout the discussion, District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) pressed Brown and deputy director Marcia Keeth on the specifics of how the agreement would allow the county to attract businesses to Charles County given the stipulation that they would be limited to “only reactive business development driven by such businesses’ clear interest in relocating” to another county, and whether that would hamper the county in the competition to attract businesses.
“I’m not saying that this isn’t a good plan, I’m saying I need some more data to support how this is good for Charles County,” Bowling said. “I’m just trying to figure out how this will benefit us. I mean, I see how it’s going to benefit the other jurisdictions. Because if we have things that are going to attract businesses, we are a competitor for them.”
Brown and deputy director Marcia Keeth explained that the agreement did not prevent Charles County from trying to entice businesses to relocate there. The reference to “reactive business development,” they explained, only applied to businesses that were already based in another county. In such cases, Charles County would be free to encourage the company to expand their businesses into the county, but not to relocate its entire base of operations there.
“It’s not an economic development best practice to engage in pilfering,” Brown reiterated. “We don’t do that now. … We all agree that pilfering is not in the best interest of any of the counties.”
After a half hour of discussion and debate, the board voted three to two in favor of authorizing Brown to sign the agreement. Bowling and Commissioners’ Vice President Bobby Rucci (D) voted against the approval, while Stewart hesitated for several seconds before casting her vote in favor.
The decision seemed to be a done deal until, just after the board voted to go into closed session, County Attorney Wes Adams asked if he could be allowed to have a sidebar with Stewart, apparently at her request. After speaking with Adams for nearly two minutes in the back corner of the dais, Stewart returned to her seat and asked for a reconsideration of the vote to approve the signing of the agreement.
“So the reason for my request or my motion is because, sitting here in the moment — and if you go back to the record, I hesitated when [Clerk Carol] DeSoto called on me [to vote] — because in my mind I was trying to connect what we heard today [with] some other information that I had, and I should have asked for a recess or the vote to be tabled,” Stewart said. “I was not, I had to think some more and I had to look at some of my notes. So that is … the reason for the reconsideration.”
After procedural wrangling to nullify the vote to move into closed session and to revisit the vote, the commissioners voted unanimously to table the agreement for discussion during a future session. “It’s a cooperative agreement, it’s not an MOU,” Collins said just before the vote. “But, I mean, I’m respecting … the thought process.”
Four weeks later, the agreement quietly returned to the commissioners’ agenda, this time tucked into the section where the board reviews and approves batches of routine administrative housekeeping items such as budget transfers, resolutions, and committee assignments.
“I know that I was one of the commissioners that had asked for a little more time to discuss this,” Bowling said. “I talked to some of the leaders in the business community and got some feedback from them, and I’m not opposed now to allowing it to go through.”
Bowling asked that, in the future, “maybe there’s a little more discussion prior to bringing it to us for a vote, including some more people at the table. I just didn’t quite understand some of the language in there and how it would impact bringing business into the County. But I have a little bit more information right now and I feel a little more comfortable.”
“I don’t think this was presented in the appropriate way, in the appropriate manner for the commissioners,” Stewart said. “And since our last discussion, during that session I had various questions that I put forth and no one from staff followed up with me with the specific answers to my questions. So I have an issue with that.”
Stewart did not respond to a request from TLR to elaborate on her concerns about the way the joint statement was presented to the commissioners or on the reported breakdown in communications with the staff over her questions.
The commissioners’ vote to authorize Brown to sign the joint statement was unanimous. The day after the vote, all six county economic development directors signed the joint statement.
Collins told TLR that he was in favor of the agreement because it aligned with his administration’s goals of expanding economic development in the county both from within the United States and internationally.
“It was more a response to the effectiveness of Northern Virginia [establishing] a regional collaborative and the positive impact that venture had on securing Amazon,” Collins said. “There was a recognition that there’s more strength in working collaboratively on a regional level than in pitting each … jurisdiction against each other individually.”
Collins said that he believed a regional economic development agreement could also help Charles County recover more quickly from the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In terms of statewide and federal … relief for economic development, if we speak as a voice collectively, that will make our argument a lot stronger as opposed to individual counties,” Collins said. “There are potential benefits of just being at the table.”
(source image: Vectorstock)