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County Council refuses to give up office space


One council member offered to give up his office, another asked for more dialogue, a third urged cooperation. But in the end the hard-line position of Harford County Councilman Robert S. Wagner prevailed in the Battle of the Bel Air Court House.

Under no circumstances will the Harford County Council relinquish its offices or meeting place to make room for another courtroom, the council said Tuesday night in a 4-3 vote.

It was the second time in a month that the panel cast such a vote in the standoff between council members and judges. And it appears to settle the issue for now because the council holds the purse strings for the courthouse's operation.

The dispute involves finding space for the fifth Circuit Court judge, who is being added to help with the increasing number of civil and criminal cases in Harford County.

There are only four courtrooms, and William O. Carr, the administrative judge, has told the council that its chambers on Level A of the courthouse is the only area available for another courtroom.

Mr. Wagner doesn't accept that, and has offered a number of alternatives -- everything from better scheduling to night court. Judge Carr, who refused to comment this week, has dismissed Mr. Wagner's ideas, the councilman said.

"I've thought about [night court] very seriously," Mr. Wagner said. "But the judges don't want to hear it. . . . To me, it's very simple. The new judge is low man on the totem poll. Make him the night judge."

Already, the Harford Circuit Court building is open weeknights until 9 with a security guard on duty. Mr. Wagner said the new judge's staff, which has not been hired yet, could work nights and be paid a night differential.

Some working people might like going to court without missing a day's pay, he said.

Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith, who Tuesday urged cooperation with the judges, said she was open to establishing a night court if it could work.

But from what she had been told by judges and lawyers, she said, it never would. One problem is the possibility of keeping jurors deliberating into the early morning hours, she said.

Mrs. Chenowith and Mr. Wagner, Republicans like the rest of the council, debated whose position was more fiscally responsible.

Mr. Wagner argued that it would cost nearly $500,000 for the council to move out of the courthouse and for the judges to renovate the council space. The expenditure would be wasteful if some other space were available for the new judge, he said.

Mrs. Chenowith argued that delays in criminal trials cost the county $100,000 a year because prisoners are kept in the local jail longer. She also said one of Mr. Wagner's ideas -- building a remote, single courtroom somewhere else in the county -- would cost $800,000.

The issue appeared settled last month, when the council voted 4-3 to send a letter to Judge Carr making it clear that the council did not intend to move or share space.

Mr. Wagner and Councilmen Barry T. Glassman, Mitchell Shank and Mark S. Decker voted to send the letter. Mrs. Chenowith, Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton and Council President Joanne Parrott voted against sending it.

After the letter was sent, however, Mr. Wagner wasn't happy. He said the letter Mrs. Parrott wrote didn't make clear the council's majority position.

To ensure that such a situation would not recur, Mr. Wagner proposed Tuesday night a new council rule -- that whenever the council voted to send a letter, all council members would have to approve it before the actual mailing. His colleagues agreed with him and approved the rule change.

But when it came time to send Judge Carr another letter, members were divided. Mrs. Parrott said that the council should meet with Judge Carr again, but that she had been unable to arrange such a meeting because she had been playing "pingpong on the telephone" with him.

Mr. Decker, who voted to send the earlier letter, switched sides, saying the council should try to help the judges. He even offered to give them his office "if one of my colleagues will have me" in their space. His colleagues chuckled, but no one offered.

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