Howard County legislators approved local bills this week that - if the General Assembly agrees - would let the county school board remove a school superintendent for the last four months of a four-year term, and would permit up to five restaurant liquor licenses per owner in the county.
In addition, the county's legislative delegation debated a bill that seeks to guarantee the level of state funding for agricultural preservation, although a vote was delayed. Local bills approved by a jurisdiction's local delegation typically are passed by the full General Assembly.
The school board issue came up two years ago when Howard's board told then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke his contract would not be renewed. But the board found it had no power to replace him with an interim superintendent without his agreement.
Only state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has the power to fire county superintendents. After some wrangling, the board bought out O'Rourke's remaining contract.
A statewide bill giving all Maryland school boards the power to replace outgoing superintendents died in committee last year, partly because of opposition from Grasmick, according to Del. Frank S. Turner, who this year sponsored a bill applying only to Howard.
A spokesman for Grasmick said she has not seen the Howard bill "but has some concerns," about the idea. County school officials favor the change, however.
"Current boards are powerless without the consent of the superintendent," said school board Chairman Joshua Kaufman, who attended the delegation meeting. "We lack the authority that almost every other employer in the country has."
The measure was unopposed by Howard's legislators Wednesday in Annapolis, as was the multiple liquor license bill.
Richard W. Story, the Economic Development Authority chief executive officer, told the legislators that the current law that limits one owner to two restaurant licenses is restricting growth. In some cases, he testified at an earlier hearing, one corporation owns two different chains, limiting the company to one restaurant per chain.
The original bill would have removed any limit, which drew a question about whether that might invite large corporations to flood Howard with multiple-chain outlets.
"Even though nobody in Howard County actually cooks at home, the market wouldn't allow it," Story replied deadpan, to laughs from the officials.
After objections from local license holders, however, a compromise was reached for a five-license-per owner limit - two Class "B" restaurant licenses and three "luxury" licenses that require at least a $750,000 investment in the business, excluding the building, and at least 125 seats.
The five-license limit "would certainly free up capacity for the next few years," Story told the legislators Wednesday .
The land issue was thornier, representing continued maneuvering over the county's inability to add significant acreage to agricultural preservation land because of development pressures.
The local bill, sponsored by Republican Del. Warren E. Miller, would guarantee the current level of state money for agricultural preservation, even if Howard County fails to achieve state certification of its preservation efforts.
Threat from state
State planners for years have threatened to remove the county's certification and reduce the funding - mainly because Howard never enacted restrictive, large-lot farm zoning to protect rural land. The state has given the county until June to make progress or face decertification.
Developers are paying double or more than the $20,000 an acre the county offers for prime farmland. At those prices, no land is entering the preservation program.
Joy Levy, the county's agricultural preservation planner, told legislators the county has received varying amounts from the state, ranging from $300,000 to $900,000, over the past five years.
Levy and Herman Charity, County Executive James N. Robey's lobbyist, said the executive opposes the bill because the county wants certification of its programs more than the extra state money.