Even as the Harford County Council is planning a move back into the Bel Air structure commonly referred to as the "Black Box," a move that's easy to defend, some of the reasons cited by council members for returning to the building seem a bit self-important.
Members of the county council would do well to remember that the legislative branch of the county's charter government operated out of a basement office in the Harford County Courthouse for most of its existence. Only when the needs of the local judiciary necessitated taking over the basement chambers did the county council vacate the courthouse. Even then, the council's departure came with some gnashing of teeth on the part of a few council members.
Space for the council was found in the "Black Box" at 212 S. Bond St. after that building was purchased by the county government; previously it had been operated as an office building and a portion of the structure was once home to, of all things, a Chinese restaurant.
Unusual tenants aside, the "Black Box" proved a good fit for the county council if for no other reason than the room converted for use as the public meeting chamber is roomy and, owing to the window-oriented design of the building, it sends the message of the public's business being conducted in the open.
The council's marriage to the "Black Box" was one of convenience, but also it was one that worked until some structural issues with the building were identified. The building was vacated last year until a structural survey was completed. The survey determined a few relatively minor reinforcements were needed, and it appeared a relatively small problem was magnified beyond reason. (The timing on this finding of structural problems was convenient as it coincided with an effort on the part of the Craig Administration to sell the idea of a major county governmental center building, a proposal that has since made its way into planning limbo.)
The bottom line with all this is the county council — indeed, the county government as a whole - has operated with a substantial degree of success out of private office buildings converted for use as government office buildings. Keep in mind the county government building was once the Equitable bank building, though that was decades ago.
The notion has been put forth that the county council needs an appropriately grand public edifice to showcase where the public's business is conducted and for that reason the council's move back to the "Black Box" needs to be made post haste. The Black Box is a fine location for the county council (though the less common nickname for the glistening black structure, namely the "Darth Vader Building," is cause for some pause), the county council doesn't need an august building to highlight the importance of the council's function.
The American National Government, in the form of the Continental Congress and later the House and Senate, was a movable feast for many years before any grand structure was built in the federal District of Columbia. By the time grand buildings of Washington were planned, the new form of government already had made its mark on world history by establishing a public regency rather than one based on royal birth.
This public regency grew out of both formal institutions modeled on the English House of Commons, as well as on the more informal institutions of community government that met in churches and common halls to debate and decide issues of community concern.
While the county council's function is an important one, it must be remembered why it is important: The council is entrusted with large sums of public money with the idea that the money will be well-managed for purposes of furthering public education, recreation, safety, sanitation and locomotion. Though rather rudimentary, these tasks are necessary to sustain civilization.
If they are managed poorly from a grand building, the public is not well served. If they are managed competently from a nondescript office complex — as has been the case for much of the history of the county council — the public is far better off.