Responding to concerns about unchecked development along the Chesapeake Bay watershed, 17 Anne Arundel County residents appeared before the County Council on Monday night to interview for spots on the board that hears zoning, permit and license appeals.
For environmental groups, the seven-member Board of Appeals has become a target of criticism for approving too many variances to state regulations that protect critical areas near the waterfront.
Current board members - six of whom are seeking reappointment to another four-year term - defended their voting records on variance issues, but most of the challengers vowed to enforce the Maryland Critical Area Act more strictly and crack down on leniency.
"What's the sense of having any kind of board at all if you just let people go and do whatever they want to do?" asked applicant Andris Baltins, 63, a retired grocery store manager from Arundel View. "The status quo has got to go."
One board member, Michael Topper, is stepping down. Four other applicants did not attend Monday night's meeting.
The council is expected to present a resolution naming its appointments to the board at its next meeting Jan. 2, with a swearing-in ceremony to follow Jan. 3.
Because selection for the board has traditionally been considered a county personnel matter, council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said it was unclear if there would be an opportunity for further public comment before the new board is approved.
"If the council wants to change the way it's historically done business, that's something we need to discuss," he said.
Activists circulated a flier at the meeting referring to a University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic report that found the county Board of Appeals approved 77 percent of all variances requested in 2005 for environmentally critical areas.
Voting statistics from the past four years compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also showed variance approval rates for the individual board members ranging from a low of 47.3 percent (for William Moulden) to a high of 72 percent (for Arnold McKechnie).
Other board members seeking reappointment are John Boring, Vance Remillard, Ray J. Jicka, and Anthony V. Lamartina.
In criticizing these high approval rates, Baltins - the first of the candidates to speak before the council - said: "There needs to be growth, controlled growth. ... But to hand out variances, it really needs to be looked at. There needs to be some really justified reasons to do that."
Because the interview process was listed as an agenda item at the meeting, members of the public were not allowed to comment on the individual candidates. That didn't prevent representatives from bay-area environmental groups from commenting on the overall appointment process.
Bob Gallagher, a nonprofit group's "riverkeeper" for the West and Rhode rivers, urged council members to abandon the "system that has applied in past" of voting to approve each other's individual selection and instead critically examine each applicant's credentials and stated intentions.
"Deferring to the judgment of your colleagues is not the same thing as exercising your independent judgment," he said. "There are a large number of your constituents who are very unhappy with the results of the decisions produced by the old appointment process."
Applicants were allowed to speak for up to three minutes before the council. Despite its being billed as a public interview process, however, council members asked questions of only three of the candidates.
That, Gallagher said, could suggest that many of the council members have already made up their minds.
"I believe that to be the case with some of them for sure," he said. "Some of them have told me they intend to reappoint the people that they appointed last time."
However, Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Republican, noted at the start of the interview process that the council had received more than 230 e-mails from citizens calling attention to the coming appointments.
"I don't think I've had this many e-mails on a subject in a long time," he said.
Monday's meeting also included a presentation by county Health Officer Frances B. Phillips, who praised immunization efforts across the county and encouraged a countywide indoor smoking ban.
She said Anne Arundel is one of the few areas in central Maryland that hasn't pursued progressive tobacco controls.
"We're beginning to be in the middle of the doughnut," Phillips said. "This is a problem whose time has come in Anne Arundel County."
It was the first public meeting for newly elected Democratic council members G. James Benoit, Josh Cohen and Daryl Jones.