Council's role as lawmakers is questioned 31 of 103 bills have come from 7-member panel; Gary's reform dominates; Modest budget, time pressures hamper legislators

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the past year, County Executive John G. Gary's reform agenda has dominated Anne Arundel legislation to a degree unprecedented this decade.

On the receiving end of Gary's blitz of bills has been the County Council, a seven-member panel charged by the Anne Arundel charter with setting local legislative priorities. But calling the council the legislative branch, at least this year, may be a misnomer.

Of the 103 bills passed, only 31 have come from council members, the lowest total since 1989, when the council last took up major pension legislation. Gary's legislative appetite has turned the council into little more than a review panel, although an independent one, since rubber-stamping the county executive's budget in May.

As it prepares its own agenda for next year, the council will have a chance to answer a question that goes to the heart of the county charter:

Are members of the panel relevant as lawmakers?

"There's nothing to stop us from introducing massive legislation," said Councilwoman Diane R. Evans, the Arnold Republican who chairs the council. "But it's a matter of resources. We're only limited by our own time and interest."

Council members past and present say the charter, while calling the council the chief legislative body, stacks the deck in favor of the executive branch. As a result, almost all major countywide legislation has come from the executive's office.

Being a council member is not a full-time job, in contrast to the executive's position. Also, the council has severely limited resources. Last year, the panel approved the $2.08 million budget Gary proposed for it -- not much in a $754 million operation.

"When you sit down and implement an agenda with seven part-time people and their staff, it's hard to draft comprehensive legislation," said Councilman William C. Mulford II, an Annapolis Republican. "I think that's the way charter government with an executive branch is supposed to work. It's more efficient."

But two characteristics have made this council more passive when it comes to legislating: Gary's agenda has left little time for council members to execute their own, and only two of seven have been on the panel longer than two years.

"This is the way the county executive likes it," said former Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat, referring to the council as a review panel. "You've got so many new people, and the first four years on the council is pretty much a learning experience. It's tough to draft much comprehensive legislation."

Gary, a Republican who was elected in 1994, needed five months to sell pension reform to the Republican-majority council. A pair of personnel bills took another three months. A steady stream of other legislation -- from property tax cuts for high-tech business to selling surplus county land to the private sector -- has also consumed time and energy.

"His agenda competed for the same resources and time," said Councilman John J. Klocko, a Crofton Republican who managed some of the year's most important council legislation. "When you function in a part-time capacity, you only have a certain amount of human resources."

In the coming weeks, council members will be catching up on behalf of varying constituencies after holding back bills for months out of fear they would be lost amid larger legislative battles. Those often put the council between clashing interest groups -- usually labor on one side, taxpayers' associations on the other.

But their planned legislation is less public policy than a patchwork of prescriptions for citizen complaints -- a contrast to past councils, which tackled such social issues as smoking and prostitution.

Most council legislation will concern land-use matters amounting neighborhood housekeeping, testimony to the fact that most council legislation is driven by constituent needs rather than abiding political philosophy.

"You may work for a couple years and a bill will come out of it," said Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel's former county executive. "But a lot of what council members do for their constituents doesn't require that at all."

Councilman Thomas W. Redmond, a Pasadena Democrat, plans introduce a bill that could create a special zoning category for recycling businesses.

Councilman Bert L. Rice, an Odenton Republican, plans to mediate community concerns over growth surrounding that community.

Evans wants to clarify land-use rules that apply to assisted-living homes in residential neighborhoods -- a hot topic in her upper-middle-class district.

"This year has been unusual," said Redmond, one of five council members to join the panel in 1994. "The administration had an agenda, but unfortunately it dominated the process."

And time is short.

In February, the administration plans to introduce a revised general development plan, which will govern all county land use for at least the next 10 years. The review will be intensive.

In March and April, county budget planning begins in earnest with another difficult negotiating season with Annapolis leaders over property tax rates and with county labor unions expected.

"There are fundamental philosophical differences on the wage and benefit package for public safety employees," Mulford said. "That will have to be addressed."

To be sure, some important legislation has emerged from the council.

Klocko, for one, proved himself a deft legislator on land-use matters. As an attorney, he was able to counsel himself on many legal questions, although he did seek advice from county lawyers.

With three bills, Klocko closed a loophole in the family-land conveyance privilege that was being exploited by developers in rural South County, placed greater zoning restrictions on proliferating cellular telephone towers and required large projects planned for rural land to receive special permission from the county's administrative hearing officer.

But the council's role has been more legislative spoiler than author.

Reviewing the measures has been thankless, but with Gary's aggressive agenda, it's the only consistent way the council has been able to make its mark on legislation without producing much of its own.

"We are the ones who are supposed to be setting policy," said Evans, who was the force behind many of the more than 75 amendments to Gary's personnel bill.

"Part of my stressing an independent council is to protect the checks and balances."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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