Harford council's foibles on Bel Air Walmart bill defy logic [Commentary]

Has there ever been an event so bizarre as the most recent Harford County Council meeting on April 16, when zoning legislation thinly disguised as a means to stop the planned Bel Air South Walmart "died," after failing to receive a seconding motion?

I say bizarre on a couple fronts.

The legislation was sponsored by four – that's right four – council members, a majority of the seven-member council. One sponsor, Councilman Jim McMahan, made the motion to adopt the bill. Two of the other sponsors, Councilmen Dion Guthrie and Joe Woods, sat mute.

The fourth sponsor, Council President Billy Boniface, wouldn't be expected to second the motion in his position as presiding officer, I suppose, so after hearing no second, Boniface proclaimed the bill dead and, following the meeting, expressed his disappointment the legislation couldn't even get a second to bring it to the floor for discussion. Huh?

Meanwhile, more than 200 people sitting in the audience, most of whom were there in support of the legislation, must have left wondering what strange planet they had just stumbled upon. Several testified in favor of the bill during a 90-minute public hearing prior to the non-vote, explaining how they believe the Walmart would degrade their community. Others, however, spoke against the bill, essentially saying it would be anti-business and anti-private property rights.

So, I'm wondering exactly who is trying to fool whom with all this?

For instance, McMahan proclaimed ignorance that the legislation had anything to do with the Bel Air South Walmart site, saying, according to our previously published account of the meeting: "When I originally thought of this bill, it had no intention whatsoever at that time to stop any development at that location." Really?

When we reported on this legislation leading up to Tuesday, Guthrie was not bashful about saying it was "absolutely" meant to delay or possibly stop altogether the Walmart project. Go figure.

I don't profess to be an expert on "Robert's Rules of Order;" however, after I consulted my copy and found that indeed, "as a general rule every motion should be seconded," I was still left to wonder if Boniface hadn't been a little too quick to bury the bill.

By county charter rule, bills die 45 days following introduction, if no action is taken on them. The anti-Walmart bill, that isn't anti-Walmart in the eyes of McMahan, still has about four weeks left, if somebody wanted to try and get it to the floor. I saw nothing in "Robert's Rules" that would prevent taking it up again before the 45-day deadline.

But enough talk about rules. Considering that most of the members of the current council, including McMahan, Boniface, Woods and Guthrie, are responsible for the Walmart site being zoned B3, it has been hard to fathom how these four could justify trying to lock the proverbial barn door after they themselves helped let the horses out. Clearly, they were beginning to feel the heat from the people who voted them into office two and half years ago, with nary a discouraging word.

My sources tell me that some of the sponsors of the anti-Walmart bill that wasn't anti-Walmart got cold feet because of warnings from lawyers – private lawyers who do zoning work – that the bill was on shaky legal footing. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but last time I checked, the Harford bar is not the duly elected, representative legislative body of Harford County. Besides, we have judges and juries to decide the questions of legality. Lawyers advocate; they don't legislate or adjudicate.

Before the pro-business people and pro-private property rights folks pontificate too loudly about the anti-Walmart bill's apparent demise, there is legal precedence in Harford County for taking action that could thwart the development of a particular property, after the county government previously sanctioned such development. This would be the Gravel Hill rubblefill case from the early 1990s that refuses to go away 23 years later, even though a judge ruled – and was upheld by the state's two appellate courts – that a property owner/developer cannot rely solely on an action of the county government, which could be subject to change or revision before actual development begins.

One of the consequences of the Gravel Hill case was four county council members in office at the time, who had supported the proposed dump, were summarily dismissed by the voters when they tried to run again, while a fifth had already fled to the safety of a state appointment and did not have to face their wrath.

Will we see this phenomenon again in two years with the Bel Air South Walmart fiasco? I tend to doubt it since one key change that has occurred since the Gravel Hill debacle is that six council members no longer run countywide. With today's voting fragmented by council district, it's much more difficult for a group of well-organized citizens to pick off several of the council members at one time than it was 24 years ago. Still, if I were McMahan and Woods, in particular, whose districts come together at the Walmart site, I would be concerned about my prospects in 2014.

While I might not necessarily agree with the tenor of the recent legislation, how do people put their name on a bill and then not stand behind it? What I believe we are seeing is another case of too many elected officials, who have been in office too long, losing touch with their community and the reason why people elected them in the first place. Or, as one of the residents who spoke at the hearing on the anti-Walmart bill eloquently told the council: "I would say your primary obligation is the welfare of your citizens and not to the welfare of Walmart." We'll see.

Postscript: My last column – "Throw the bums out" - received a huge e-mail response that was, I might add, overwhelmingly favorable. I tried to respond to all of your e-mails personally and if I missed someone, please accept my apology. My thanks also to several writers who pointed out "Taxman" was George Harrison's song, not John Lennon's. Finally, as I wrote to some of you, moving to another state is not the solution. Getting involved and putting into office people who will - as noted above - look out for your welfare as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens is what's needed first and foremost.

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