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In the blink of an eye, it's law

The Baltimore Sun

A developer receives a zoning change allowing the construction of dozens of homes on one particular Middle River tract.

Landlords in another community in eastern Baltimore County are added to a group of property owners required to subject their rental homes to inspections.

Shopping centers across the county are told they must install security cameras in their parking lots -- but the requirement applies to fewer outlets than originally proposed.

The Baltimore County Council passed all of these measures. But in each case, the bill passed into law contained provisions that were added after the end of the public-review period.

Tinkering with bills throughout the lawmaking process is not uncommon for any legislative body. But while governments in other nearby counties require amended bills to undergo additional public review, no such requirement exists in Baltimore County, where changes are sometimes made hours before bills are passed into law.

"You never know what you got or didn't get until after the bill has been passed," said Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist who closely follows the council. "After it's passed, you find out there's all these amendments on it, that there's all these changes on it."

"Doing an amendment right before the voting session," she added, "has no sunshine on it."

While some amendments are designed to address such minor issues as grammar, many contain material changes, such as the penalty for a violation.

Council members say the amendments never change the overriding intent of their bills, and that the changes are almost always based on suggestions and criticism made at previous council work sessions.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said the work sessions provide ample time for the public to weigh in on bills.

"I don't believe a council member is to be micromanaged by the public," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "Rather, the public puts their faith and confidence in a council member to do the right thing, and then they judge his job performance at the voting poll."

Policies on amendments vary across the region.

Harford County also allows final votes on bills immediately after amendments are approved.

While Baltimore City Council members can introduce amendments on the same day of final votes, they rarely do so. Amendments are almost always passed, printed and distributed before the day of the final vote.

In Howard and Carroll counties, bills with amendments involving material changes are tabled until another public hearing is held. That's also the case in Anne Arundel County, although exceptions can be made for emergency legislation.

Longtime Anne Arundel County Councilman Edward C. Middlebrooks said lawmakers and the public benefit from hearings on amendments.

"There are times we will amend something and it draws out a whole different group of people," Middlebrooks said. "I want the people to feel they've had an opportunity to be heard."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, agreed that amendments involving material changes should undergo a public review, saying lawmakers should "err on the side of more public debate."

In Baltimore County, bills are introduced at a council meeting and generally taken up a month later at a work session on a Tuesday afternoon. In the interim, people can comment on the bills or any other subject during public comment periods directly after council meetings. The public also has three minutes to comment on a particular proposal at the work session. Then the bill comes up for a final vote six days later.

Critics, including community activists and a lobbyist who regularly deals with the council, grumble that they do not know what changes will be made to a bill between the work session and the final vote.

Carolyn B. Cook, deputy executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, recalled lobbying last year against a proposal to expand a program that requires landlords in some areas to obtain licenses and subject their properties to inspection.

She said that as she sat in the audience during the night of the final vote, she was taken aback when the council approved an amendment adding the Holland Hills community in the Overlea area to the program. Cook said some landlords in Holland Hills might have testified against the bill during the work session had they known their community would be included.

She added that amendments passed at the last minute carry greater risk of unintended consequences.

"If a glaring problem arises, you have an opportunity to talk to people and say, 'Look, this is a major problem. You don't want to do this. Let's pull this back,'" Cook said.

Two years ago, a bill requiring shopping malls to install security cameras in their parking lots contained 14 amendments that were approved just before the final vote. The bill -- introduced after the 2005 fatal shooting of an educator at Towson Town Center -- had been drafted after a task force studied the issue.

Among the changes: shopping centers with at least 15 stores, instead of a minimum of five, were covered under the law; and 75 percent of a parking lot, as opposed to all of it, is required to be under surveillance.

This summer, Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder sponsored a bill on the Middle River community plan, a blueprint for long-term growth drafted by residents, county planners and the Planning Board.

Hours before the final vote, Bartenfelder submitted amendments that overrode many of the recommendations. The zoning of about 20 acres near the site of the planned Vincent Farm Elementary was changed to allow a developer to build more than 30 single-family homes there.

Bartenfelder said the development will provide high-quality housing, and that he has heard no complaints on the zoning change.

The other changes to the plan were made at the request of residents unhappy with the recommended plan, and they kept much of the zoning in the area the same, allowing fewer homes, in all, to be built than what the community plan called for, Bartenfelder said.

Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley said that requiring a public hearing every time a bill is amended would encumber the process.

But Councilman Vincent J. Gardina -- a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat who last month amended on the night of the vote a bill on pit bull regulations that was ultimately defeated -- said he is increasingly troubled by the practice of making last-minute changes to bills without the public having the opportunity to see them on paper and comment further.

"And I don't think councilmen can assimilate or understand the changes," he said.

Sun reporters John Fritze and Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

How amended bills are handled

Anne Arundel County: If amendments are approved, a final vote must be postponed until the next council meeting, which will include a public hearing on the bill as amended.

Baltimore County: Final votes on bills can be held the same night amendments are approved, with no requirement for public hearings.

Carroll County: If the amendment includes substantial changes to the bill, another public hearing is required before a final vote.

Harford County: Final votes on bills can be held the same night amendments are approved, with no public hearings required.

Howard County: If amendments contain material changes to the bill, a final vote is postponed for another month, and another public hearing is held.

Baltimore City: Council members may introduce amendments on the day of final votes. In practice, amendments are almost always passed, printed and distributed before the day of the final vote.

[Source: City and county government officials]

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