The Harford County Council seemed to bow to public outcry Tuesday night, failing to act on a charter amendment that would have removed the council as the zoning appeals board.
The potential charter amendment is effectively dead, since the council will not reconvene until August and the time frame to vote on it will have passed.
Councilman Dick Slutzky, the amendment's main defender, declined to comment after Tuesday's meeting.
After a public hearing earlier this month drew more than a dozen residents complaining about the amendment, Slutzky said he would be willing to reconsider his stance.
Slutzky is running for council president.
Bill Wehland, one of the opponents of the charter amendment, said after the meeting he was surprised the vote did not come up.
The controversial charter change was supported by most of the council members, who argued they as a group needed to step down as the zoning appeals board so they could legally speak with constituents on zoning topics.
Councilman Dion Guthrie, another major supporter of removing the council as zoning board, said later that night he plans to talk with residents about zoning issues and "let the chips fall where they may."
If the relevant zoning issue is appealed to the council, he intends to abstain from the case, he said.
Guthrie said the council felt obligated to let the amendment die, after the outcry at the public hearing.
"We had 19 people stand up and say, 'Stay with it,'" he said about the council serving as zoning board.
Wehland told them again during Tuesday's meeting he does not see why simply talking with residents is considered a problem.
"The question, and I continually ask it, is, what constitutes influence?" Wehland said. "To me, influence is not a conversation with a council member seeking clarification on an issue."
Wehland cited an earlier comment by Slutzky that he had received a letter with "30 lawyers listed" from Walmart, during the company's campaign to build a store in the Emmorton area.
"I submit to you that the Walmart letter was a direct threat" and a clear attempt to influence the council, Wehland said.
"Do you as council members know when a citizen is attempting to influence you?" he wondered, adding he believes the council has "a duty" to not be influenced by anyone acting in an unethical or illegal manner.
On the ballot
Two other charter amendments, concerning auditor duties and county deputy directors, made it to referendum and face approval or rejection by the voters in November's general election.
The council approved language for the amendments Tuesday night. The first ballot question will request "to amend the Harford County Charter to identify offices subject to audit as well as allowing for operational and performance audits to be conducted by the County Auditor upon a majority vote of the County Council."
The second question will request "to amend the Harford County Charter to include all deputy directors of the executive branch in the exempt services, making them non-classified and at-will employees. These positions shall be appointed by the County Executive and subject to confirmation by the County Council."
Byron Hawley, of Bel Air, told the council he was surprised Harford County Executive David Craig vetoed the amendment making deputy directors exempt. The council overrode the veto at its last meeting.
Development signs, Comcast payback
The council passed Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti's bill ordering larger development notices along roadways, but amendments to the bill shrunk the ultimate size from 4 feet by 6 feet to just 2 feet by 3 feet.
Lisanti was not at the meeting because her mother has been critically ill.
Wehland tried to tell the council he was "disappointed" that the amendments only upped the size by a couple inches, but Council President Billy Boniface advised him he was not allowed to comment on a bill that was just passed.
County auditor Chrystal Brooks gave an update on government audits, noting that Comcast was found to have accidentally underpaid the county $70,034 for 2011 through 2013.
The council signed a 10-year franchise renewal agreement with Comcast at its last meeting.
Zoning case, Citizens Nursing Home
The council voted to uphold the zoning hearing examiner's decision to deny a variance letting a Joppa couple keep an existing shed in a Critical Area buffer zone.
John and Karen Rostkowski had appealed the case to the council, arguing they had purchased the home with the shed in place and were not informed of the zoning violation.
Council members Dion Guthrie and Joe Woods voted against the zoning hearing examiner, but the rest of the council agreed to uphold it.
Boniface said he "reluctantly" supports the decision, since denying it would "have implications for the critical area buffer."
Boniface added he thinks it is "an injustice" for the previous owner not to inform the Rostkowskis of the shed situation.
Guthrie said: "I think this family is being really shortchanged by the Harford County government... I think it's unfair that you take someone who bought the house, the shed where it is, and now blaming him for something the previous owner did. I think this is a serious problem that we have in this county and this isn't the first case I have seen like this."
The council also agreed to sign a 20-year-lease agreement with Citizens Nursing Home Board of Harford County for the Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center in Havre de Grace.
Councilman Jim McMahan said he would like to see the center be "self-supporting," but Boniface explained the county is required by state law to be involved with Citizens.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun