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City council isn't listening, residents say But Snowden argues that testimony often is redundant; Hearing held after action; Downtown sidewalk cafes are among controversial issues


Call it the predicament of a community whose residents are anything but apathetic.

Some Annapolis residents say they are being denied their right to be heard at City Hall. But city council members say if they listened any more, they wouldn't get anything done.

"The council is denying the public the opportunity to participate in big decisions that affect the future of this city," said Tom Davies, who lives in the city's historic district.

Yet Alderman Carl O. Snowden said he sometimes hears the same testimony on the same issue from the same person three times before he votes.

"We analyze, analyze, analyze until there's paralysis," he said.

In recent weeks, for example, council hearings on several controversial plans for downtown development have lasted well past midnight, forcing the aldermen to schedule "catch-up" meetings to complete work on legislation.

But residents say the hearings are little more than exercises because they occur so late in the legislative process, after council members have made up their minds.

"They should be including us at the beginning of this process, not the end," said Cindy Eckard after a recent council meeting. "It's mind-boggling that they can pretend to represent the city while refusing to let the citizens speak out."

No pulbic hearings

She was angered because the council passed resolutions endorsing the pursuit of money for a conference center and temporarily allowing sidewalk cafes downtown without public hearings or committee reviews.

In both cases, the aldermen promised they would hold a formal public hearing before the final versions of the legislation come up for a vote. The resolutions were not binding and were meant only to break gridlock in city government, they argued.

Indeed, the council will hold a hearing on permanent sidewalk cafes tomorrow. And legal experts say a municipal government doesn't need a resolution to begin lobbying for state and county funds for a project.

But Alderman Louise Hammond, who represents the historic district, said that approving the resolutions amounts to passing the legislation incrementally. The laws will be all but inked in the books by the time of the hearing, she said.

"They obviously don't want to listen to the public. Maybe it makes them squirm in their seats a little too much," she said.

The problem is not that there are too few public hearings, but that historic district residents are losing more and more battles, Mr. Snowden countered.

"It's not a question of input -- it's a question of Ward One adjusting to new political realities," he said.

Annapolis residents have never been shy about speaking their mind, and frequently they have been effective.

McDonald's gave up on plans to open a restaurant on Main Street in the early 1970s after a demonstration in which residents tossed a man dressed as Ronald McDonald into the harbor.

"People care about the issues and they take an active role here and that's great," said Jonathan Hodgson, a former city attorney.

The city code requires public hearings only for budget proposals and land use measures. Residents can speak on other issues during the public petition sections of each legislative meeting. Meanwhile, the council has organized 25 citizen commissions and many more committees to review pending legislation and issues of interest to the council.

"It's been my experience that the city council would carry over public hearings for a second or third night and hold public hearings on subjects they weren't even required to by law," said Mr. Hodgson, who now appears before the council on land-use issues.

The public hearing debate, which has been simmering for nearly a year, is evidence of a larger identity crisis in the city's government, said prominent zoning lawyer Harry C. Blumenthal.

'Old-style town'

"Annapolis is an old-style town meeting government dealing with modern day issues," he explained. "It is designed to let citizens speak at each and every meeting. But the meetings get very long and confusing and complicated."

For example, most cities of 35,000 have empowered non-elected boards to handle zoning decisions, but in Annapolis, the city council performs that function, he said.

Because of that, some city council debates sound "like we're arguing over trivialities," said Mr. Davies, a former president of the Ward One Association.

"And then they get politicized beyond what they normally would be because they're before the council," he said.

Some aldermen say the number of hearings forces expert witnesses and othersto run through the same arguments repeatedly.

"It's very difficult to expect a resident to testify three times on any given bill. That's expecting too much," said M. Theresa DeGraff, who represents a neighborhood along Back Creek on the southern tip of the city.

She said she wants to organize more boards and commissions so that some of the controversial zoning issues can be resolved before they hit the council chambers.

And if all these committees aren't enough, residents have least one more option:

"My phone number is in the public directory," said Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins. "You can always call me at home."

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