Upset by board President Julia Walsh Gouge's decision to hold a series of community meetings without her colleagues, Commissioners Robin Bartlett Frazier and Donald I. Dell have directed county staff not to attend public forums held by a single commissioner.
Just hours before Gouge's community meeting in Eldersburg on Wednesday, Frazier and Dell directed their secretaries to notify several department directors that they would not be needed at the South Carroll meeting, fearing the staff would be asked to support Gouge's views.
"I was told staff could not come with me by the other two commissioners, because my viewpoints differ from theirs," Gouge told the audience in Eldersburg.
"It is not proper for staff to go to what is basically a campaign meeting," Frazier said yesterday. "This turned into Julia's meeting and was no longer a county meeting."
Although many applauded her for coming to South Carroll, Gouge would not characterize the meeting as political.
"I never said vote for me," Gouge said. "I didn't and I won't. That's not what these meetings are for."
The board is not up for election until 2002.
During the past year, Gouge has opposed several decisions made by the board, including construction of a second water treatment plant for South Carroll, purchase of farmland for industrial development in Union Bridge and the rezoning of a Woodbine farm for an upscale golf community.
Gouge had invited the county's acting zoning administrator and the directors of planning, enterprise and economic development to the meeting. About 100 people gathered at Eldersburg library and questioned Gouge for more than two hours on topics ranging from water quality to landscaping along Liberty Road. Some questions were too detailed for Gouge to provide the information residents demanded.
"I wanted the staff there to answer any technical questions. I did not feel comfortable doing that, because I can't remember every detail on every issue," Gouge said yesterday. "I would never jeopardize the position of any of our staff or put them in an awkward situation."
Department heads on the county payroll serve at the pleasure of the commissioners. Any two commissioners can terminate their employment at any time, even without cause.
The employees who were invited to the Eldersburg meeting refused to comment.
"Our tax dollars are paying the county staff," said Angela Lee, an Eldersburg resident attending the meeting. "That they are not allowed to be here to give us the taxpayers information" is wrong.
During the meeting, Gouge promised residents she would get them the information they sought. Her secretary, Kathy Rauschenberg, took minutes.
Frazier said she would have no problem directing staff to attend if the session had been a typical public meeting. But, Frazier said, the Eldersburg gathering was "a campaign meeting" to garner support for Gouge.
The board president denied that, noting that she held similar meetings during her previous terms from 1986 to 1994.
Gouge said she went to Eldersburg, the county's most populated area with more than 30,000 residents, "to listen and to learn. I don't live there. I don't understand everyday life there the way people who live there do."
The timing of the sessions - all but one are scheduled on Wednesday evenings - conflict with Frazier's schedule. She attends church Wednesday evenings.
"We talked about holding county/town meetings, and we all expressed an interest in attending," Frazier said. "There was nothing cloudy about our interest. We told Julia she could take the lead, work with the schedule and let us know. Obviously, she did not check with my schedule."
Frazier would like the entire board to attend community sessions, and she criticized the scheduling of the five meetings that will be held throughout the county.
"Donald and I never saw the press release and the dates were never discussed," Frazier said yesterday.
Frazier said the board would probably develop a policy that would restrict staff from attending meetings unless at least two commissioners are present. Dell said there is consensus for such a mandate.
Dell said the policy would only affect meetings called by a single commissioner.
"If, for example, the Finksburg Planning Area Council asked the board to attend a meeting and only one of us could go, then I don't think there would be a problem with staff attending. In that case, there would be a set agenda. When a meeting is called by only one commissioner, it can be very political," he said.
On Wednesday evening, at the board's request, two department heads accompanied Dell to a zoning hearing in Baltimore County.
"I held these meetings for six years without staff present," Gouge said. "I suppose I can do it again."
The commissioners schedule meetings with the eight incorporated towns at least once a year and usually bring most of their staff. They also are frequently invited to community sessions and bring staff knowledgeable about specific issues.
"There is certainly a reason to have a director who knows a topic we know will be discussed," Frazier said.