Referendum dispute continues in reappointment battle

Though a decision was handed down by Maryland's second highest appeals court nearly a month ago, the aftershocks of a citizen-led campaign to bring multiple zoning decisions to referendum continue to play out, this time in a bitter dispute over a County Council resolution.

Bill Erskine, an attorney for several developers involved in the referendum case, is up for reappointment by the council to the Board of Directors for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, and members of the Citizens Working to Fix Howard County have come out strongly against renewing his term.

They argue that Erskine's career as a land-use attorney at Howard County firm Offit Kurman, coupled with his position on the board, gives him undue influence in county zoning decisions. In testimony against the appointment in July, many also brought up his decision to serve petitioners with subpoenas in the referendum case.

"We are all law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who now face being handcuffed and sent to jail," petitioner Bob Cantor testified at the time. "Mr. Erskine is the wrong leader for the HCEDA simply because his legal actions do not represent the EDA."

"This is wrong, this is America, land of the free and home of the brave, where we grew up thinking we could say what we think and speak our mind, said petitioner Ron Coleman. "We do not think [Erskine] deserves the honor of serving on this board using those kind of tactics against the citizens of Howard County, and we will stand against it as long as we have breath in our bodies."

Erskine testified that the opposition was referendum-related backlash, not an indictment of his time on the HCEDA board, where he currently serves as chair. While referendum supporters believe that Erskine's subpoenas were meant to intimidate future petitioners, he contends that questioning them was a valid part of building his case.

"I think it's very clear that this really is not about Bill Erskine, because one thing that you have not heard tonight is one single act or one single omission about anything I have done or failed to do while serving on the HCEDA board," Erskine told the council.

A lawsuit appealing the Howard County Board of Elections' decision not to place the referendum petition question on the ballot this November was denied by the Court of Special Appeals in August.

HCEDA director Larry Twele testified in support of Erskine, saying that the organization's "reach has extended tremendously" since he became chair.

Twele pointed out that the HCEDA's bylaws prohibit the organization from participating in the zoning process.

Though introduced at the beginning of July, Erskine's reappointment has been tabled. The council's next opportunity to vote for or against his reappointment is at its legislative session on Oct. 6.

The HCEDA's board has fiduciary oversight over the organization and is responsible for its strategic direction, according to its website. The board meets once a month and is composed of a dozen private-sector professionals, including Sang Oh, the other land-use attorney in the recent referendum case.

Other members come from local businesses and organizations, including Howard County General Hospital, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and BGE.

A host of new appointees to the board, including Columbia Association President Milton Matthews and Howard County General Hospital President Steven Snelgrove, were proposed in legislation introduced this month.

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