One of the smallest budget cuts Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden made has become one of the hottest topics of conversation among county zoning and community association lawyers and, now, County Council members.
Hayden deleted the salary of Deputy People's Counsel Peter Max Zimmerman, who with the People's Counsel is one of two part-time lawyers who serve the county as independent public advocates. The job was created by the voters in 1974 to represent them in land-use issues.
Hayden replaced the deputy's job with funding for a paralegal, a job the remaining lawyer says the office doesn't need.
Administration officials said the cut was made to save money. But others question whether Hayden's real motive was to cripple the People's Counsel.
Several lawyers close to the issue believe the cut was prompted by a controversial memo the People's Counsel office issued in February that criticized a proposed zoning law designed to accommodate the Worldbridge project in Middle River. One lawyer characterized the People's Counsel as "anti-business" and said it has built up opposition over years of representing the public in controversial cases.
The new county executive said he had no ulterior motives. "We looked at the caseload they had," Hayden said, as part of "the overall theme of saving money." The executive said his intent was not to weaken the office.
People's Counsel Phylis Cole Friedman said she doesn't know the reason the salary for the job was eliminated, but she vowed to "see to it that this office and the function of this office doesn't get destroyed."
She said she is upset that the controversy has tinged the office with the kind of political dispute she has sought to avoid.
Hayden eliminated 14-year veteran Zimmerman's $36,377 salary. Instead, Hayden created a $21,000 paralegal, a job Friedman said she will not fill.
Friedman, who is paid $50,445, has held her job since 1984. Hayden's budget contains a 5 percent pay increase, to $52,967, in recognition of the extra work she will be required to do without a second lawyer.
Zimmerman has been offered another job in Baltimore County's Office of Law.
Friedman said that devoting more hours to the job would not help.
"I can't be in three or four places at once. It isn't a function of hours," she said, explaining that she needs another lawyer to do research while she appears in court or to meet with people while she does other work.
Friedman said she was not consulted about the cut or asked if she needed a paralegal.
Hayden aide Nicholas C. Spinnato Sr., however, said Friedman was informed about a possible budget cut before it was made.
Because of a heavy docket of pending cases, she was able to argue before Administrative Officer Merreen Kelly for a partial reprieve. Zimmerman will continue to work as deputy People's Counsel at least through December, but he will be paid from the Office of Law budget. That will give Hayden time to review the situation, Kelly said.
Two County Council members, Vincent Gardina, D-5th, and Berchie L. Manley, R-1st, expressed their opposition to the cut at a budget work session last week.
Gardina said he doesn't think Hayden intended a political assault on the office. "I think they just didn't realize the importance of the office. It's a learning process up here," Gardina added, referring to his and the county executive's newness in office.
John B. Howard, an attorney for Venable Baetjer and Howard who has represented several interests involved in developing the Worldbridge project, said he was not involved in the budget cut, but agrees with it.
"It is certainly nothing at all personal," he said of the cut. "I felt there's really not the need for two people given the level of building activity during the recession. And I'm concerned about the lack of accountability," he said of the People's Counsel.
The county charter gives the person filling the People's Counsel job an open-ended term, concluding only in retirement, or firing, which may be done by recommendation of the executive and approval of five of seven council members.
Howard agreed that the timing of Friedman's opinion criticizing the Worldbridge zoning law upset him. Instead of offering it months earlier, he and former Planning Board member Jack Barnhart said she waited until the citizens' committee revising the proposed law was almost finished with its work. Barnhart headed the committee.
Howard said he made his criticisms of Friedman freely to several county officials, some of whom were also upset. The original law proposed creating a unique zone, which would permit virtually any use of the land, just for the Worldbridge project. Friedman argued that was too broad.
A revised and more restrictive version has now been prepared and Friedman said she has no objection to it.