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Slow-growth advocates criticize charter panel Proposed changes would weaken citizen influence, they say


Proponents of slow growth in Howard County assailed the Charter Review Commission last night, charging that the commission's proposed changes to the county charter would weaken citizens' influence on land use issues.

"In short, these recommendations are a citizen's nightmare and a developer's dream," said Peter J. Oswald, who helped write Question B, which was intended to give citizens the right to challenge county land use decisions made by the zoning board through referendum.

Mr. Oswald was one of nine Question B supporters who spoke against the proposed changes. The Howard County Council will review the changes and decide whether to send them to a county-wide vote.

Only one speaker last night supported the commission's proposed changes to Question B.

Others in attendance -- including nine county laborers wearing bright green union caps -- criticized the removal of the term "merit system" in the charter. Speakers also criticized a change that would permit politicians to receive "nominal" gifts from someone doing business with the county.

But Question B dominated the meeting. Mr. Oswald delivered perhaps the sharpest criticism, suggesting the County Council deliberately stacked the 15-member Charter Review Commission against Question B.

"Was it random chance that [from] the camp of anti-Question B activists, six were selected, while no one from the pro-Question B camp was appointed?" he said. "I don't believe so."

Like other speakers, Mr. Oswald objected to two proposed changes:

* Currently, petitioners need 5,000 signatures to bring land use decisions to a vote. The commission is recommending that citizens be required to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the county's registered voters -- or about 5,750 people -- to place a referendum on the ballot. That requirement would increase with the county's growth.

* The second change would limit the instances in which Question B could apply, a move that mirrored a bill passed last year by the County Council that excluded certain zoning matters, such as new town zoning for Columbia or special zoning uses that allow businesses in rural areas.

But Thomas Meachum, a Columbia attorney and chairman of the commission, said the panel was worried that a relatively small number of people could have too much say in zoning matters, particularly as the county grows.

As for the limiting of when Question B can apply, charter commission member Tom Flynn said that simply was a matter of interpreting the law as it was written for the 1994 election.

Mr. Flynn said that as a Question B supporter he was in the minority on the commission. But he maintained there still was a voice for Question B during charter review metings.

The commission has met 17 times to discuss changes, Mr. Meachum said. Last night, only six of the 15 members came to the public hearing, a point noted by several speakers.

As for the proposed changes in ethics provisions, the acceptance of "nominal gifts" would allow politicians to receive a cup of coffee, said Howard County Ethics Chairman Russell Gledhill, who supports the change because, he said, no one is expected to be influenced by such small gifts and the change in language would line up with the Howard County code.

But Gary Prestianni, a Jessup electrician, was one of several speakers who worried about an expanding definition of the term "nominal."

"We can't trust our County Council members to stay within self-imposed spending limits, much less remove themselves from obvious conflicts of interest," he said. "A cup of coffee, then Mr. Coffee, then a silver coffee service, then stock options and so on."

The laborers objected to a recommendation that would strike the term "merit system" from the county code.

"To suggest a return to nepotism, cronyism and political patronage is a major step backward," said George Gisin, who said he represents about 800 county laborers and jail workers.

That's putting things too strongly, said supporters of the change. They say that laws to protect county workers would remain in the county code.

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