Arundel officials spar on control

The Baltimore Sun

A showdown could be brewing between the Anne Arundel County Council and County Executive John R. Leopold over which branch of government can exercise more control over expenditures and a key board that reviews county building projects and growth plans.

Five charter amendments proposed by a pair of Democratic council members last week could chip away at the power of the county executive if they pass through the council and are approved by voters in November.

The most drastic change would give the council the power to appoint four of the seven members on the county's Planning Advisory Board - a committee that is currently hand-picked by the executive and helps determine which building projects are funded - as well as review the county development plan.

Another amendment would require the executive to get the council's approval when reallocating sums of $50,000 or more within a department.

Amendments to the charter, the county's founding document, need a supermajority - or five of seven votes - to clear the council before going to a voter referendum in November.

Leopold's office opposes the measures, said Alan R. Friedman, director of government relations, who said Wednesday that the substance and timing of the proposed changes is awkward. "I think it's a disservice to citizens to talk about charter amendments in a year when there's no county offices on the ballot," said Friedman, adding that voters will be too focused on the presidential race and the issue of slot machine gambling in Maryland to care much about the amendments.

Friedman also accused council members of trying to micromanage the government.

One of the proposed amendments would give the council authority to appoint its own legislative counsel.

Another would allow the council to appoint three members to the seven-member Ethics Commission. A third would make any bill passed by the council a law if the county executive fails to sign it within 10 days.

"If you go down this micromanagement road, when do you stop?" Friedman said.

Councilman G. James Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat who wrote the amendment curtailing the executive's ability to transfer money, said the changes do not reflect any bad blood between the council and Leopold's year-old administration.

"This had nothing to with the current administration and everything to do with my view that the expenditure of taxpayer money should be done under the full light of the public eye," said Benoit, who added that the change was warranted by "egregious examples" of misdirected spending by previous administrations. "Naturally, the county executive doesn't like this because it provides some much-needed oversight over the expenditure."

County Auditor Theresa Sutherland said previous executives have irked council members by rechanneling funds. She recalled a 1996 case in which then-County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican, allowed the office of personnel to purchase an $80,000 "voice response system" to handle health insurance enrollment and inquiries, a move that proved unpopular with the council because the system required yearly maintenance costs.

But former County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat, said asking for oversight on transactions of only $50,000 - a tiny fraction of the county's overall budget -is a bit heavy handed.

"I could see that if you moved the amount up to half a million, but $50,000 just seems so low," she said. "I think it would be unwieldy, and if the council passed this resolution and implemented it, I could see them in six to eight months saying, 'This is crazy.'"

"Maybe they just wanted to slap the county executive's fingers," she added. "If I was sitting in the seat, I would be irritated."

In Howard County, another charter government, there are no restrictions on the executive's authority to move money within a department.

Arundel Councilman Joshua J. Cohen, an Eastport Democrat who proposed giving the council four appointments to the Planning Advisory Board, said his amendment was partly a response to Leopold's proposal in January for a fourteen-fold increase in the "impact fees" developers pay for roads and schools serving their projects - an increase that some council members considered excessive.

Cohen said he thought the planning advisory board, which reviewed Leopold's bill, rushed through the process to meet the executive's deadline.

The County Council eventually established an independent impact-fee advisory committee, which recently proposed a smaller, more gradual increase.

"The clumsy manner in which the administration handled the impact fee issue highlighted the fact that the planning advisory board - despite its banner as an independent body - actually is in reality too subject to the internal timelines of the administration," Cohen said. "I think this charter amendment is a step toward more transparency and objectivity in county government."

Friedman, Leopold's top aide, said Cohen's proposal would allow council members to push through building projects that benefit their districts, since the council already makes the final call on development projects during their review of the capital budget.

"You are going to have a majority of the [planning advisory] board horse-trading over the capital budget," Friedman said. "You are going to have the council appointees steering capital projects ... based on the desires of individual districts rather than on the welfare of the county as a whole. It's a terrible idea."

The amendments next face a public hearing early next month followed by the council vote later in the month.

Four of the seven council members are Republicans, as is Leopold.

But Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said he could see the amendment squeaking through the council.

"Usually they don't propose something unless there is a good chance of it passing," he said. "I could possibly imagine five people voting for something that gives the council more power."

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