The worst form of government [Editorial]

Winston Churchill is credited with many wry quips, including the observation that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

No doubt, the sentiment relates to the reality that representative governments, managed by leaders chosen by the people and organized to prevent tyrants from taking over and to protect the rights of people who hold minority opinions, are notoriously beset by inefficiencies and no-win situations.

The zoning appeals process in Harford County (and the balance of Maryland, for that matter) is a situation that illustrates Mr. Churchill's point.

The county government – the county council in Harford – is responsible for setting land use policy, to include passing the laws that set zoning designations for each piece of property in the county.

To protect the rights of property owners, an appeals process is required, so those who feel their properties have been unfairly tagged with a particular zoning designation have reasonable recourse to address their problems with the zoning law.

Generally, under state law, the main reasons allowed for changing zoning are if a mistake was made, or if a neighborhood has substantially changed. Who better to decide whether a zoning law mistake was made than the government body that enacted the zoning law? That's part of the reason why Harford County's zoning appeals process passed directly through the county council.

Another reason for the initial setup was that the council, entrusted with making land use policy, would be unable to act against any decision made by a separate zoning board or zoning judge without taking the matter to court. To challenge a zoning appeal, the county council would be obliged to file suit against the county. (There are places in Maryland, by the way, where this situation is the one on the books.)

But wait, it gets more convoluted. The zoning appeals process isn't so much a legislative one where the council is representing the people who elected it, but rather a judicial one (technically, quasi-judicial) where the council is obliged to decide a matter of law.

In judicial (and quasi-judicial) proceedings, the people doing the deciding aren't supposed to discuss the matter at hand in public or among themselves prior to hearing all the facts. That's why juries are instructed not to talk about the case they're hearing until after closing arguments.

So for years in Harford County, any land use matter that involved a zoning dispute and the potential for a development that was inflaming some in the general public was one that county council members were precluded from talking about with the people who elected them. Still, the council would be able to take action on the zoning issue in question.

The council is poised to change this. New legislation likely to become law would remove the council from the zoning appeals process, freeing its members to speak as much as they want about any hot button zoning appeals case that comes up. Under the new arrangement, however, the council will have no authority to oppose such a zoning change, unless it chooses to file suit against the county to rescind the offending decision.

As a practical matter, were the council to blatantly deny a zoning appeal that was on firm legal ground, there's every reason to believe the land owner would take the matter to court, as has happened from time to time over the years.

Once in court, an appeal in a land use matter can drag on for years, or decades in some cases.

Essentially, the change ends up being that county council members go from not being able to talk about certain land use policies, but having a key say in their outcome, to being able to talk all they want about those land use policies, but having almost no say in their outcome.

Neither option is particularly exemplary of why democracy is the preferred form of government, hence Mr. Churchill's observation.

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