The Howard County executive's controversial appointment of homebuilder John C. Mardall as county administrator ended abruptly yesterday when Mr. Mardall announced that he would not take the job because of a potential conflict of interest.
Mr. Mardall, president of BBI Homes Inc., said he was withdrawing because agreements he signed with the county as developer of two subdivisions are pending, which could be seen as a conflict.
No top-level appointment in recent memory has generated as much criticism as Mr. Mardall's.
Civic activists such as Joyce Kelly and John Taylor accused County Executive Charles I. Ecker of kowtowing to the development industry in selecting a homebuilder.
Mr. Mardall, whose firm is in the process of closing down, fought several land-use measures proposed by former Executive Elizabeth Bobo, including the recently lifted 18-month cap on new housing permits.
His sudden departure brought a sharp rebuke from the chairman of the County Council.
"It is a continuing saga of Mr. Ecker's mishandling of a lot of important issues and appointments in the county," said C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd. "It shows what happens when you have on-the-job training in such an important position as county executive. I am shocked. I find it incredible."
Mr. Mardall's agreements with the county involved the Maple Forest subdivision in Ellicott City and Hanover Woods in Elkridge. Under such agreements, a builder contracts with the county to install roads, sidewalks, water and sewer lines and storm drains.
James M. Irvin, public works director, said "minor repairs" were still required in Maple Forest. Little work has been completed at Hanover Woods, but Mr. Mardall was "going to turn the project over to another party," Mr. Irvin said.
In a press release issued yesterday, Mr. Mardall said he no longer had "any significant financial interest in either project, and the outstanding agreements represent legal technicalities."
Still, he said, "there was the opportunity for the public to perceive a potential conflict of interest.
"Rather than risking the possibility of putting the administration in a difficult position or having my reputation tarnished, I have decided to withdraw."
There was considerable speculation about Mr. Mardall's status last week when he did not show up for work as scheduled. Aides to Mr. Ecker said his arrival would be delayed because he had to wrap up business details.
Last fall, Mr. Mardall was a key member of the finance committee for Mr. Ecker's campaign, which received a contribution of $8,042 from the county builders' political action committee.
Mr. Ecker said he appointed Mr. Mardall county administrator -- even though he has no background in public administration -- because he wanted the government "to be run like a business."
Mr. Ecker said yesterday that Mr. Mardall's decision to back off from the $75,000 county job was "a great loss to the citizens of Howard County."
The current county administrator, Buddy Roogow, who was not retained by Mr. Ecker, is scheduled to relinquish his post by June 30.
Mr. Mardall's withdrawal comes at a time when the Ecker administration's nominee to the county Planning Board, Nelson Fenwick of Ellicott City, faces rough going before the three Democrats on the five-member council.
Council Chairman Gray said the chances of the council approving Mr. Fenwick, a member of the county's Republican Central Committee, are "50-50" because of questions about political partisanship and his limited background in land-use issues.