Women's Commission Goes After Power, Legislature

January 29, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

County Executive Robert R. Neall is an abortion opponent. But he says he will not stop an appointed women's commission from lobbying for abortion-rights legislation at the state level.

That is good news for women's activists who hope the Anne Arundel County Commission for Women -- barely visible for much of the 1980s -- is becoming more forceful and influential.

The commission took its most vocal, public stand in years during the 1990 General Assembly session, when it lobbied in support of pro-abortion rights legislation. The 16-member group plans to resume the fight this year -- it took part last night in a march sponsored by the local arm of the National Organization for Women -- but some women's leaders said they feared the commission would back down if Neall opposed them.

"In the past they've deferred to the county executiveand been a little tentative" about taking an activist role, said former councilwoman Carole B. Baker, who worked with the commission on avariety of women's issues. "There was no clear mandate on what theirmission should be."

Now, Neall is spelling out the commission's role.

"The women's commission's role is to be an advocate, saying the things we need to do here. My role is to listen to all the different advocates and balance what they say is needed with what we are able to do," he said.

"I want to give them a defined role. I want them to advise me on new programs and need assessments, to review grant requests. I don't want (appointed government commissions) to be groups of people sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring."

Some longtime commission members confess they did little more than that in the past.

"When I first came on we really didn't do anything. We met and that was about it," said Judy Holmes, the County Council's administrative officer and a commission member for seven years.

"There was a period when they were not a viable group on women's issues," said Michaele Cohen, director of the YWCA Woman's Center in Annapolis, which provides a variety of women's services in Anne Arundel. "They have done a little on domestic violence legislation. On some other issues they have not been as active as they might have been, especially on housing and child care."

Armed with some new members, thecommission became more visible last year when it lobbied in favor ofstate legislation preserving a woman's right to choose a safe, legalabortion. Besides testifying in support of the legislation, members sent pro-abortion rights' films to state legislators.

"It was a gutsy political decision," Cohen said. "For years they were reluctant to take on those issues in that kind of way."

This year, commissionmembers -- not all of whom are adamant pro-abortion rights supporters -- say they are particularly interested in fighting legislation requiring pregnant teens to get parental consent before having an abortion.

Like former County Executive O. James Lighthizer, who also opposes, Neall, a conservative Republican, said he does not object to the commission fighting for abortion rights "as long as they make it clear they're not speaking for Anne Arundel County government or for me."

Neall's reputation on women's issues is decidedly middle-of-theroad.

"I don't recall him taking up the ball and going to bat on women's issues, but I don't recall him doing anything to knock us down, either," said Delegate Elizabeth Smith, R-Davidsonville, who served with Neall in the legislature.

Women's groups that met with Neall before the election were pleased by his apparent willingness to listen to their concerns in a fair, open-minded way. But they were not left with the impression that women's issues ranked top on his list ofpriorities.

"I don't think any of us would say he's a champion ofwomen's causes," said Cohen. Neall's orientation toward business rather than human services, his anti-abortion stance and his vote against a teachers' pension bill do not sit particularly well with women leaders.

On the other hand, Smith said, Neall has a good legislativevoting record on financial support for battered spouse shelters, displaced homemaker programs and public assistance.

Neall's fiscal 1992 county budget likely will be a good indicator of how much importance he attaches to women's issues, women leaders say.

"These are tough economic times," Cohen said. "This budget is going to tell us what he really believes."

Because money is so tight, commission members do not expect to get very far this year with two of their priorities -- before- and after-school child care and a family leave policy for county employees.

"I'd find it unlikely at this time, when we're trying to make so many cuts, that we'd be able to have a family leave policy" for employees who want to take time off for the birth of achild, adoption or elder care," said Scarlett Breeding, a commissionmember and member of Neall's transition team. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to work on it."

Both issues "have significant financial impact," said Neall. A family-leave policy raises operational, as well as financial, concerns because some county departments -- police, fire and utilities -- cannot afford to be understaffed for long periods.

Neall wouldn't comment on some commission members' concerns that he may eliminate their director's $22,500 position. "I'm not saying 'Yes, I would,' and I'm not saying, 'No, I won't,' " he said.

The director, Jean Melton, is the commission's only paid staff member. Commission members serve on a volunteer basis and may be appointed to four two-year terms.

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