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    Banner political notes: – The Baltimore Banner

    Just over two weeks since the legal sales of recreational cannabis began, Gov. Wes Moore on Monday announced his pick to lead the state agency responsible for ensuring Maryland’s cannabis industry has entrepreneurs hailing from communities harmed by marijuana prohibition.

    Moore appointed Audrey L. Johnson as acting executive director of the Office of Social Equity, and his office hired Courtney Davis as the department’s deputy director. While not a member of Moore’s cabinet, Johnson will report directly to the governor after she starts on August 7, according to a spokesperson for the governor.

    The office, which operates independently of the Maryland Cannabis Administration, will provide education and free technical assistance to potential cannabis business owners who meet the state’s social equity qualification. Those candidates have lived in or gone to public school in areas where people were charged with cannabis possession at rates above the state average.

    In a statement, Moore called both women “exceptionally talented and committed leaders who have dedicated their professional careers to eliminating barriers to economic opportunity and promoting social justice.”

    Johnson, a seasoned health care executive and civic leader, most recently worked at Johns Hopkins University as the senior director for economic innovation and strategy and serves as president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Health Services Executives. Before working for Hopkins, she spent eight years in senior roles at Kaiser Permanente.

    ”I’m honored by Governor Moore’s trust in me to lead this new agency whose sole focus is ensuring economic inclusion and social equity in Maryland’s cannabis industry,” Johnson said in a news release.

    Davis came to her new role from Marijuana Matters, an advocacy organization focused on creating avenues into the cannabis industry for those from communities previously harmed by marijuana prohibition.

    On July 1, those 21 and older became legally able to use, purchase and possess cannabis products. The Maryland Cannabis Administration is forecasting $600 million in revenues from recreational cannabis sales in its first year.

    At last, ex-Gov. O’Malley’s portrait

    It’s been more than eight years since Gov. Martin O’Malley finished his second term in office, and his official portrait has finally been unveiled.

    Gov. Wes Moore hosted O’Malley and his family and well-wishers at the governor’s mansion on Wednesday for a private celebration to reveal portraits of the former governor and former first lady.

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    The O’Malley portraits have yet to be seen by the press or the public, but Moore’s office released photos of the unveiling. The former governor’s portrait shows him standing, arms crossed, in front of a window. The portrait of his wife, retired District Court Judge Catherine “Katie” Curran O’Malley, depicts her wearing her judge’s robes.

    At some point, the former governor’s portrait will hang in the Governor’s Reception Room on the second floor of the State House. The room is used for meetings of the Board of Public Works, press conferences, bill signing ceremonies and private meetings of the governor and his staff.

    Portraits of recent first ladies hang in the governor’s mansion along a grand staircase at the entry.

    A portrait of Spiro Agnew, former governor and U.S. vice president, hangs behind Gov. Wes Moore as the governor speaks during a bill-signing ceremony at the State House on April 24, 2023. Beside Moore is Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller.

    While it’s taken a while for O’Malley’s portrait to be revealed and hung in public. The most recent governor, Larry Hogan, got his portrait installed in the State House before he left office.

    When O’Malley’s portrait is hung in the Governor’s Reception Room — between Republican Govs. Larry Hogan and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — Spiro Agnew, the former Republican governor and disgraced vice president, will be bumped to make room.

    Water task force gets to work

    A task force has been named to study and recommend changes for the Baltimore region’s water and sewer system.

    Under a state law that created the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott got to name five members: Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry as the task force chair; Lester Davis, vice president and chief of staff of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield; Jason Mitchell, former city public works director; Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3; and Kishia L. Powell, general manager and CEO of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Water.

    Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has three nominees to the task force: Lauren Buckler, deputy director of public works and transportation for the county; Carla A. Reid, former general manager of WSSC Water; and Robert M. Summers, former state secretary of the environment.

    Gov. Wes Moore named two members: Timothy Barr, managing director of water and wastewater for the Maryland Environmental Service; and Jessica Medicus from Bay Associates Environmental.

    The task force will also include two lawmakers: Sen. Cory McCray from Baltimore and Del. Dana Stein from Baltimore County.

    Yosef Kebede, director of public works for Howard County, will also be on the task force, named by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

    By the end of the year, the task force must deliver recommendations for changing how the water and sewer system is run. Technically, it is owned by the city, but serves customers across the city and the suburbs. There have been suggestions that a regional authority should own and operate the system, similar to the WSSC in the D.C. region.

    The advocacy group Food and Water Watch urged the new task force to focus on economic and racial equity. The group also wants any future changes to the water system to have protections for residents and for workers in the system. And the group wants to make sure the water and sewer system is never turned over to private ownership.

    “It must protect Baltimore’s water and wastewater system as a publicly owned and operated asset that ensures water affordability and access for residents,” Food and Water Watch’s Mary Grant said in a statement. “The future of our water and wastewater system is at stake.”

    New look for higher ed commission

    Gov. Wes Moore named eight new members for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which regulates colleges, universities and career schools.

    Catherine “Cassie” Motz, executive director of the CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore, will be the commission’s chair.

    Other new members are: Charlene Mickens Dukes, interim president of Montgomery College; Chike Aguh, chief innovation officer of the U.S. Department of Labor; Sheila Thompson, statistician with the U.S. Department of Education; Mickey Lynn Burnim, former university administrator; Janet Wormack, vice president of Salisbury University; Rebecca Taber Staehelin, co-founder of Merit America, a nonprofit that helps low-income people with career development; and Tanya Johnson, a Morgan State University doctoral student, as the student member.

    Higher education commissioners serve five-year terms and will be subject to a confirmation vote by the state Senate. The student member serves a one-year term.

    Baltimore City Council mulls separate entity for business licensing, consumer protection

    Members of the Baltimore City Council are considering a bill that would create an independent agency for business licensing and consumer protection duties in the city.

    Discussed Thursday at a Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee hearing, the bill would also create a Business Licensing and Consumer Protection Board; prohibit, by law, unfair trade practices; transfer several licensing responsibilities to the new department; and develop procedures for administrative complaints and enforcement. Through its powers, it would receive complaints about businesses, set licensing fees, and issue summons and subpoenas as necessary.

    City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation would benefit city consumers by centralizing several duties that other agencies, such as the Department of Finance, have reluctantly taken over. Dorsey modeled the bill off Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, which handles the licensing of all local businesses.

    “Everyone will benefit from the professionalizing of this service,” Dorsey said at the hearing.

    Committee members delayed action on voting, saying they could use more time to review the proposed amendments.

    Meanwhile, committee chair Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer voiced opposition to several points of the bill, saying the city — and consumers — likely would not benefit from added layers of bureaucracy.

    “Baltimore is already not viewed as business-friendly,” Schleifer said, adding that the bill awards “a crazy amount of power” to a group of political appointees rather than city employees with built-in expertise. He asked why a small group of representatives should be given “carte blanche” authority to make decisions.

    “That’s how representative democracy works at all levels of government,” Dorsey replied in frustration.

    Representatives from the Baltimore City Law Department said they support the bill, which would provide them with new opportunities to hold “bad business actors” responsible for abuses and to tap into a potential new source of revenue with litigation. The Department of Housing and Community Development also issued a favorable report.

    And while representatives from the finance department said they were supportive of the action to centralize licensing and move some duties out of their purview, assistant budget director Mara James said they could not recommend a favorable vote because of the potential budget strain it would cause. They estimated staffing and equipping the new department would cost at least $1.4 million. Meanwhile, the city receives about $760,000 in licensing fees every year since 2019, James said.

    Dorsey said while the current draft of the bill does not propose a fee hike, licensing fees should be “set at a level that adequately reflects our ability to protect our consumers.”

    Additionally, the bill would eliminate several boards — including the Trespass Tow Board — which inspired testimony from two community members who provide towing services. Both urged the committee members to vote against the bill.

    Olszewski picks permitting and workforce department leaders

    County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s office announced new department heads in charge of environmental permitting and sustainability programs, as well as economic and workforce development Tuesday.

    Former Maryland environment secretary Horacio Tablada will lead the county Department of Environmental Preservation and Sustainability, which handles certain development permits and manages preservation programs. He’s taking over the office from David Lykens, who’s retiring after 36 years in county government and nearly five years as the agency’s director.

    Tablada, who was environment secretary for about seven months under former Gov. Larry Hogan, will oversee environmental permitting for proposed development plans and help administer sustainability programs, such as watershed and forest preservation projects and stormwater runoff mitigation. Tablada was former state environment Secretary Ben Grumbles’ deputy from 2015 until Grumbles resigned in 2022.

    The county’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development will be helmed by Marcus L. Wang, who has chaired the county’s economic development advisory board since 2020. Both start July 31.

    Wang, a Gilman School graduate from Baltimore, co-founded the Randallstown-based ZytoGen Global Genetics Institute, which screens embryos for women undergoing in vitro fertilization, in 2013. From 2010 to 2013, Wang was Under Armour’s brand development manager, bringing the company’s first retail stores to China, according to Gilman’s alumni magazine.

    The county lauded Wang for his “extensive business and legal experience in building startups to profitability and in expanding companies globally.” Wang is replacing former economic development Director Leonard Howie, who left his post in April.

    The department, which handles business grants and facilitated much of the county’s share of federal coronavirus aid, has lacked a deputy director since Chris McCollum’s resignation two years ago. It’s been led in the interim by Olszewski’s education advisor Jennifer Lynch; the release says Lynch will return to that role. The county is still advertising the department’s open deputy director position.

    Baltimore County said in the release Tablada, who grew up in Nicaragua, and Wang are the county’s first “Hispanic-American” and “Asian-American” directors. Their appointments are subject to approval by the County Council, which next meets August 1.

    Former Baltimore County Police Chief Hyatt appointed ‘senior advisor’ to U.S. Marshals director

    Baltimore County’s former Police Chief Melissa Hyatt has a new gig after the county executive’s office did not renew her contract this year.

    Hyatt has been appointed to a newly-created position within the U.S. Marshals Service, advising agency Director Ronald L. Davis on “state and local law enforcement partnerships,” according to a July 17 news release.

    In the position, Hyatt, who retired from the Baltimore City Police Department as a colonel before accepting her county post, is charged with “increasing and strengthening the vital relationships between the U.S. Marshals and their local, state, and tribal law enforcement partners,” according to the federal law enforcement agency.

    Hyatt became the first woman to lead the Baltimore County Police Department when County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. nominated her for the position in 2019. She resigned in December 2022, months before her contract was due to expire in July as Olszewski moved into his second term; the county’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 criticized Hyatt for persistent crime (although a Banner analysis found that violent and property crimes were broadly lower in 2022, except for rape offenses).

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