Council's hot summer cools down Officials' busy season slows after long budget, tax fights; Many head to beach; But tomorrow, members return to pension reform


This just in from Anne Arundel: Nothing's new.

After a feverish eight months of power plays for school board control, labor strife, budget talks, personnel and pension reform and a tax duel with Annapolis, the news in the halls of Anne Arundel government is that there isn't any. Not a stitch.

The Office of Budget and Finance is busy with final preparations for a softball game against the County Council. Council members spent the latter half of last week at the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City, buttonholing colleagues, attending the occasional seminar, getting sunburned.

"Last year, there was a summer breather after the budget," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, who spent the weekend in Ocean City with his family. "This year, there hasn't been time to take a breath."

Usually crammed, the 22-space executive parking lot adjacent to the Arundel Center had two cars in it Friday morning. Even County Executive John G. Gary, whose blue Mercury rarely leaves the lot before 8 p.m., spent the weekend at the shore.

He threw an ice cream social for conventioneers Friday night, met with the governor Saturday and squeezed in a round of golf afterward.

In his place, finance officer John R. Hammond, court jester to Gary's "King John," was left with the keys to the county. "I'm in charge," Hammond said last week. "If I like it, maybe I'll order county police to seal off the Bay Bridge."

"That just goes to show you," said Ray Elwell, a budget analyst who doubled as the office receptionist last week. "Nothing's going on here or they never would have left him in charge."

Anne Arundel has sailed into the summer doldrums -- finally. The slow time has arrived much later than usual, and as a result, will be much shorter.

Neighboring legislators have had it better: In Howard County, the council took August off.

The seasons of county legislative life usually follow a distinct pattern: Frenetic winter with the General Assembly session. Packed spring with county budget hearings. Long, slow summer as county staff catches its breath. Busy fall as public schools open, and administration officials map a winter legislative strategy.

No so this year. Council members have had to labor for their $26,000 annual stipend ($30,000 for the chairwoman.) Once the exception, council meetings that stretch past midnight have become the rule.

"I absolutely cannot think of a busier summer," said Pat Smith, the council's assistant administrative officer for 13 years. "This is a time we catch up, do the routine stuff like cleaning out files and sorting things out. We haven't had a chance to. Even the weekends have been busy this year."

Things will quickly return to what passes for normal.

Tomorrow, the council again takes up the administration's pension reform legislation, hoping to plow through roughly 20 remaining amendments to the 41-page bill. The bill has dominated county political debate since June.

Schools open Aug. 26, and with that comes a flurry of invitations to council members and county executives for ribbon-cuttings, civics talks to social studies classes and PTA meetings in council districts.

While legislative life slowed for the weekend, the nuts-and-bolts of a municipal government that costs $2.1 million a day to operate did not. Politics and operations run on different timetables, with different down time.

The Department of Public Works, for example, does most of its heavy lifting during summer months -- restriping roads, mowing medians, filling pot holes. Winter is rest time.

"Basically, we all get a break. It just comes in bits and pieces." said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman, who usually eats lunch at her desk. Last week, she said she spent a lunch hour at Nordstrom buying a bathing suit.

Two events allowed legislators and employees time for a rest: the counties' association convention and the Republican National Convention in San Diego.

"This is Republican week, and this is a Republican county," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, who last week attended a "mini-GOP convention" at the Annapolis Wyndham Garden Hotel for party loyalists who did not trek to California. (Gary is a Republican, and Republicans comprise a council majority. But Democrats actually hold an edge in registered voters.) If ever the county needed a summer breather, it was this year.

Gary fought unsuccessfully during the General Assembly session for the power to appoint school board members. He pushed a controversial personnel bill in the spring and submitted a drum-tight $754 million budget for council scrutiny in May.

"The council looked all over for places to trim, but they kept finding themselves back at square one," Ritter said.

During budget talks, the Gary administration argued inside and outside courtrooms with Annapolis officials over a property-tax increase for city landowners. Gary won, and the tax was approved, but only after a month of legal wrangling that eventually involved council members. He also won nearly every point during impasse hearings with two county unions, which prolonged into May labor talks that usually end in February.

Gary also had planned to send the council his pension bill, the centerpiece of his campaign to cut payroll costs, in May. But Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican, asked him to delay the bill until June, after the budget was approved.

But at least for one weekend county legislators had a chance to think about other things, like shopping, sand and softball. This week, though, business resumes as usual.

Hammond, king of the county last week, is now looking for a place in the department's slow-pitch lineup. "I play where they let me," he said.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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