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Howard's council-zoning conflict


Kathryn Mann has a point when she criticizes Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray over a debt he owes the Laurel Race Course for a campaign fund-raiser there five years ago. Naturally, Ms. Mann, who is running against Mr. Gray for a seat on the council, wants to make political hay out of the debt; she contends that the incumbent acted improperly by not recusing himself from a zoning review affecting the race track.

There is certainly the appearance of a conflict for Mr. Gray, who says now that he won't vote on whether to allow race track officials to locate a horse stable and parking lot on a 70-acre tract adjacent to the proposed site of a Washington Redskins football stadium. The location of the stable is important to Redskins officials' plans, as well as a benefit to track owners.

But while Ms. Mann is apparently focused on trying to catch Mr. Gray in some untoward conduct, there is no evidence that Mr. Gray has done anything except what the current system allows. Mr. Gray insists the debt is a disputed bill, not a loan as his campaign finance report erroneously stated.

Moreover, there appears to be no proof behind Ms. Mann's charge of "collusion" on the part of Mr. Gray in quickly scheduling a hearing on the race course request next Wednesday. The perception of a quid pro quo between Mr. Gray and the race track is a real one, however. Mr. Gray says he will allay those fears by not casting a vote. That's not enough, although neither candidate appears ready to step to the plate with something more substantial.

So long as the Howard County Council also sits as the county Zoning Board, the perception of a conflict of interest will rear up on occasion and make the public even more suspicious of land-use decisions than it is already prone to be. We have argued for some time that steps need to be taken to separate the council from zoning decisions.

An effort was made to establish "ethics" rules requiring those who request a zoning change to report any campaign contributions made to council members. But that legislation, which the governor vetoed, was too narrowly drawn, stopped short of including the county executive and other elected officials, and might not have covered a situation such as this involving a disputed bill.

The real solution to problems like this one is a free-standing Zoning Board. Let's see which candidate will push for that.

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