Pair on council propose creating people's counsel; Attorney would help in development fights


Responding to citizens who feel legally overwhelmed and outguessed by developers' lawyers, two freshman Howard County councilmen are proposing an independent people's counsel as a way to level the playing field.

The idea is to use taxpayer funds to hire a lawyer who would serve as an independent public advocate. Such attorneys often help community groups not versed in the law fight zoning changes that are proposed to allow new developments.

A citizens committee appointed this year to suggest ways of updating Howard's General Plan also recommended such a move.

Baltimore, Harford and Montgomery counties have a people's counsel -- though Montgomery hasn't hired anyone for the recently funded job.

Although the people's counsel position is only a proposal, Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, say they are eager to move ahead with it.

"We think it's so important, it's worth doing immediately. It's something that should have been done years ago," Guzzone said.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning and zoning director, also supports the idea.

"I like the concept of providing direction to the community groups. I think that's fantastic," he said.

County Executive James N. Robey, though not sold, said he does not oppose the idea. "The concept intrigues me," he said.

Developers were less enthusiastic.

"I need to know more about why it is necessary. I'm always a little leery," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse Co. His company is proposing a mixed-use development in North Laurel on land rezoned for that purpose.

"It's another tier [of government]," he said.

Community activists, on the other hand, are all for it.

"Do we need a counsel? Absolutely. We need somebody to represent citizens," said Peter Oswald, vice president of the Greater Beaufort Park Citizens Association.

One reason for the need, say some community activists, is that residents may lack a close-knit network.

"Nowadays, you can live someplace for five years and just be on waving terms with the guy across the street. You don't even know his name," said Robert I. Bernstein, an Ellicott City leader who is uniting area associations to bolster their influence against developers.

"The ordinary folk are at a disadvantage," Bernstein said.

Guzzone said he wants to have someone in the job as soon as possible, but he isn't sure what is legally required to create the position. He said a charter amendment, which would require voter approval next year, might be needed.

Also unclear are details such as how the lawyer would be hired, what the powers of the office would be and the pay.

Merdon said he envisions a system in which the executive appoints the attorney, but the council appoints a citizens advisory committee that would recommend which cases the office should handle. Before a bill is drafted, he said, the council members will get legal advice and meet with business and community leaders.

"Our intention is not to throw roadblocks in the way of developers," Merdon said.

In Baltimore County, where reform forces added an independent people's counsel to the county charter in 1974, attorney Peter Max Zimmerman decides which cases his office will handle.

"I'm an independent advocate for the public," Zimmerman said. "We actually defend the law."

His office has handled cases involving assisted-living homes, after-hours nightclubs, helicopters landing in agricultural areas, commercial signs, used-car lots and fights over proposed golf courses. Even though most of Baltimore County's land zoned for development is filled, new controversies crop up, he said.

Independence can have a price.

When a previous Baltimore County people's counsel opposed a world trade center and Asian theme park on 1,000 acres between U.S. 40 and Eastern Boulevard, there was talk of eliminating the office.

That didn't happen, but neither did the project.

Subsequently, pay for the post was cut and Zimmerman now earns $50,000 a year, less than half the salary of several of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's staff members.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad