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Residents slam Anne Arundel’s reopening approach, call for the revoking of Steuart Pittman’s powers during the first council meeting following break

More than a dozen Anne Arundel County residents criticized County Executive Steuart Pittman’s coronavirus response, called for the removal of his powers, and called for the county’s reopening during the first council meeting in which live audio testimony was available.

The complaints come less than a week after Pittman opted to resist moving the county to Stage Three, keeping movie theaters and performance venues from opening, and preventing large gatherings in indoor or outdoor environments. Pittman said the unexplained rise in cases has made it unsafe to allow additional reopenings.

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Gov. Larry Hogan gave local leaders the option to adopt these new permissions, but many residents said the county’s reopening strategy should align with the state. Testimony was given at the Anne Arundel County Council meeting during its new 6 p.m. time slot.

“I would like to request that Steuart Pittman be stripped of his executive powers and or removed from office the county executive immediately before further unnecessary damage is done to our businesses, our residents and our livelihoods," said Severna Park resident Jennifer Dwyer.

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Dwyer also expressed frustration at the requirement for children to wear masks in public, and the 10 p.m. curfew for establishments that serve alcohol indoors.

Among the critics was Joe Masher, the Chief Operating Officer of Bow Tie Cinemas, which operates the movie theaters in the Westfield Annapolis Mall and Harbour Center. Masher recounted the company’s confusion last week, when they announced they would reopen despite Pittman’s pending decision on whether that was allowed. Masher said they didn’t know the county had a say, and noted that theaters have opened safely in many other states.

Arnold resident Jason Baker also spoke in support of theater reopenings. Unemployment insurance is not enough to pay the bills for his three children, he said. He explained to the council that he doesn’t want any special favors or handouts, he just wants to be able to go back to work.

Many of the residents cited Bill 24-20, in which the County Council granted Pittman executive authority over pandemic response, and said this should be reversed. The council’s Republic minority challenged this aspect of the county’s emergency order in May, though it failed to acquire the supermajority vote it needed to pass.

A spokesman for Pittman’s administration said the county executive’s decisions are about protecting residents and recovering faster.

“None of this is fun. We hate having to do this, but we also want to do what we can to protect our residents and protect our ability to recover from this hopefully sooner rather than later,” said Chris Trumbauer, senior adviser to Pittman. “He wants to do the right thing even if it is unpopular at the time.”

Other residents called for Pittman’s recovery advisory group to either open up to the public or publish meeting minutes.

Trumbauer said the meetings are meant to be a space where Pittman’s outside advisers can speak candidly. Making it public, or publishing minutes would attribute ideas and comments to certain individuals in a way that might hinder the nature of the group, which Trumbauer said has frequently influenced the county executive’s perspective on reopening.

Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, who serves on the recovery advisory group, called again for the group to meet weekly, rather than twice-monthly. Pittman has said he thinks the current schedule works fine, and he does not intend to invite the group to meet more regularly.

Trumbauer said that Pittman is not required to have an advisory workgroup as a part of his executive powers, but he is doing it to gather diverse and varying perspectives before he makes decisions.

“There are some folks who are not doing well, and it’s understandable that they are criticizing and looking for change to make their lives better,” Trumbauer said. “He’s worked hard to try to do the responsible things… It’s not surprising that many people are upset (but) that comes with the territory of being a leader.”

Beyond the 17 people who testified on the topic and a brief description of Pittman’s recovery workgroup from Fiedler, the council did not engage much with the topic of reopening.

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This was the first meeting in which live audio testimony was an option in the nearly six months of the pandemic. Twenty four residents signed up to testify during the invitation to the audience period, and 17 actually showed up to do so during the meeting with only minor technical difficulties.

As the council works to get back into the chambers at the Arundel Center, Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie, said live audio testimony is a way to engage the public before they are able to meet again face-to-face. The council and staff are up against outdated technology as they try to figure out how to accommodate the councilmembers, members of the administration, and the public. It’s unclear exactly when they will be able to reunite in the chambers in Annapolis.

Legislative updates

The council’s meeting following live testimony included discussions on zoning, personnel and public safety legislation.

The council approved a bill from Pickard allowing for easier revitalization and redevelopment in Glen Burnie by allowing developers to acquire multiple adjacent parcels and come up with an idea without being bound by the specific zoning regulations of each parcel. Pickard said she’s been working on the “labor of love” legislation for the past 18 months, and teared up while talking about all the people that helped her do it.

“I feel like it’s my fourth born child right now,” she said.

They also approved a bill that changes the zoning regulations for pawnshops, so instead of having to be at least 300 feet from a residential zone, the pawnshop only has to be at least 100 feet from a residential zone. This bill from Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, will allow a local pawn shop in Pasadena to relocate.

In terms of personnel, the council approved a pay increase for the Anne Arundel County police major rank — a change that was planned for in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget — and a change to ranking for certain county employees in the classified service.

The council amended legislation related to the acquisition of real property by the county and will hear it again Sept. 21. The council also will hear a bill from Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, that would change the way mobile homes are zoned, which they postponed. They also postponed a bill that would change certain definitions within public works, establish fees for meter tests, and allow back billing for customer errors in payment.

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