On a hot July day, three teenagers distributed free bottled water at the intersection of Owings Mills Boulevard and Reisterstown Road.
But these were not ordinary bottled waters. They were political statements.
The labels featured Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s phone number, the words ‘What’s the Rush? Vote No on Foundry Row!’ and the website address for the Say No To Solo Coalition. As they distributed the bottled water, the teens collected signatures for the coalition opposing Foundry Row, the Wegmans-anchored development proposed for the vacant Solo Cup plant on Reisterstown Road.
The teens said the Say No To Solo Coalition was paying them for their efforts. But they did not know who had paid for their supply of nearly 10,000 bottles of water, which cost somewhere between $4,992 and $6,656, according to figures provided by Seth Koretzky, owner of Baltimore-based H2O Custom, the company that produced the bottles.
Koretzky would not say who wrote the check for the bottled water.
“I’ll tell you, they’re not poor,” he said.
In less than four months, the Say No To Solo Coalition has sprung up to lead the opposition against rezoning the Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills from manufacturing to retail. The group’s leader, Shirley Supik, has been a frequent presence at meetings of the Baltimore County Council, which votes on the rezoning measure on Tuesday.
While Supik has formally requested that Almond disclose her communications with the Foundry Row developer, Greenburg Gibbons, she has refused to say who is financing her new group’s sophisticated efforts to kill the rezoning measure—a position that dovetails with a rival developer that some claim is bankrolling her coalition.
“The funding has come from a person who is on Reisterstown Road who has property that they are worried that Foundry Row is going to put out of business,” said Supik, a 66-year-old resident of Randallstown, which is several miles southwest of the proposed development.
The coalition’s efforts resemble well-financed political campaigns more than the typical shoestring operation of neighborhood groups, according to community organizing experts.
The coalition has used mailings, signs, petitions, a Facebook page and a website that includes links to send letters to elected officials and to media organizations. The group has also hired political strategist Jamie Fontaine, who managed Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s congressional and senate campaigns.
Robocalls, which several communications companies said cost between 2 and 5 cents per 30-second call, have also been used to support the opposition. But Supik said her group did not finance that tactic. She also said she did not finance the bottled water.
Supik said she doesn't know which organization financed the robocalls and the bottled water.
Some observers, including the chief executive of the developer of Foundry Row, say that a rival developer—Kimco—and its politically-connected public relations firm, KO Public Affairs, are behind the Say No To Solo Coalition.
“It’s pretty clear to just about anybody that’s involved in this process that developers are supporting the community battle, or using them as a front to be in opposition of this,” said Carroll Holzer, an attorney who represents about 150 community associations in Baltimore County. “…Very seldom do you have a group that suddenly springs up and can afford some heavy dollars in terms of a battle.”
A KO Public Affairs representative would not say whether it is supporting Say No To Solo Coalition. If Kimco or KO is supporting the coalition, council members voting may not look at the group as a wholly unbiased voice of opposition as it considers the rezoning measure on Tuesday.
Officials from Greenberg Gibbons, the developer behind Foundry Row, believe hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on Say No To Solo’s campaign. CEO Brian Gibbons said he believes Kearney O’Doherty (KO) Public Affairs, mall developer Kimco’s PR firm, is bankrolling the effort.
“Kearney and O’Doherty—it’s the public relations firm orchestrating this,” Gibbons said. “They have Jamie Fontaine full-time orchestrating this.”
Fontaine said in an email she has been working with the coalition in an advisory role since she met Shirley and Jeff Supik at a planning board hearing earlier this year.
“I have an arrangement with them that is fair—but honestly represents much less than my commitment to making sure the good people of Owings Mills don’t get stuck with horrible traffic, an over-saturated retail market and a lost opportunity for the redevelopment of a longstanding county priority: the Owings Mills Mall,” Fontaine said via email.
KO Public Affairs is owned by Steve Kearney and Damian O’Doherty. The political strategy and public affairs consulting firm helps its clients “succeed where commerce, government, politics and media meet” by “tailoring political campaign tools to achieve business goals,” according to its website.
Kearney has been a longtime political operative of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, serving as his communications director when O’Malley was mayor and governor. O’Doherty is the former chief of staff for former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, also a Democrat. In a politically incestuous twist, Smith is the attorney for Greenburg Gibbons' Foundry Row project.
Howard Libit, KO’s chief operating officer, would not say whether or not his firm is bankrolling the coalition as part of an effort to support their client, Kimco Realty. Kimco wants to kill the rezoning measure to prevent perceived traffic woes and so that it can redevelop the Owings Mills Mall without Foundry Row competition.
“As much as Mr. Gibbons would like to make this about developers, consultants and politics, ultimately, it’s about the substance – and about the almost 10,000 Baltimore County residents who have weighed in to demand better planning,” Libit said via email.
Gibbons’ claim that KO Public Affairs is orchestrating the coalition’s efforts is not the first time the firm has been accused of ‘astroturfing,’ propping up a seemingly grassroots community group in a cause that benefits one of KO’s corporate clients. KO helped set up a community group that lobbied the Baltimore County Council to approve legislation to authorize more speed cameras. But the firm never publicly disclosed that the community group’s Facebook page and website were set up by KO, which was representing the company that held the county speed camera contract.
Councilwoman Almond said she has been suspicious of a connection between Say No To Solo and KO Public Affairs, since “most community groups do not have money,” she said.
“The marketing firm – Damian O’Doherty – that [Kimco Realty] hired, that seems to me that would the logical place where the funds are coming from” for the coalition, she said. “I think it’s rather ironic that they accuse me of being in the pocket of the developer, and what are they doing?”
Almond said she has stopped listening to the coalition because of attacks on her that she said are outrageous and bizarre.
Supik, however, is trying to show that Almond's position is influenced by Greenburg Gibbons. Supik filed a Public Information Act request for records of communication between Almond and Greenburg Gibbons and Smith. Almond said she will respond to the request within the 30 days required by law, but said she is in no hurry.
Councilman Ken Oliver, who has also called for Greenberg Gibbons to release a traffic study like Say No To Solo has, also criticized Almond in a Baltimore Sun op-ed for cheering on Foundry Row ahead of public hearings.
“And this announcement of retail plans for the Solo Cup property was accompanied by an immediate public endorsement from Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district includes the Solo Cup property — prior to any public hearings or studies, despite the fact that the new retail center was in conflict with the Master Plan and would be placed on a persistently gridlocked intersection, just blocks from the county's treasured Greenspring Valley,” he wrote.
Supik insists that KO Public Affairs and Kimco are not funding her coalition, which lists thousands of Owings Mills and Reisterstown residents as members on its website. Those are the names of people who signed the group’s petition, not members paying dues that could be used to finance the coalition.
“There has always been another group right from the beginning when we were being blamed for the robocalls,” said Supik. “We never did those. That was two or three weeks after we started.”
Supik had never mentioned another group until last week when asked about who funded robocalls and bottled water.
Donna Spicer, a longtime Loch Raven area activist, said Say No To Solo is a highly unusual group.
“I’m always amazed when you have something like [Say No To Solo] when a group from nowhere, no grassroots background…all of a sudden come up with websites and sign boards, much less robocalls and things that are completely out of the league of normal and average community association things,” Spicer said.
While Spicer has advised a lot of groups outside of her area, she never fought their battles for them, like Supik, a Randallstown resident, is doing in Owings Mills.
“It’s highly irregular that someone will come out of their home area and fight in someone else’s home area for them,” she said.
But Supik said that the issue is bigger than just Owings Mills. Issues like traffic, fixing the mall, environmental concerns at Solo Cup and public process reach far beyond the immediate area, she said.
“You have to look at every problem along the way,” she said. “There are underlying things that are more important that just District 2 and District 4. This will affect all of Baltimore County.”