Attorneys Go To Bat For County

Carroll Legal Office Handling 5,000 Cases

August 07, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

More than 1,000 times a year, government service takes on a whole new meaning in Carroll County.

Faced with unpaid taxes, flagrant zoning violations or liquor law challenges, the county government finds itself in the process of serving -- court papers, that is.

And, to a lesser degree, Carroll residents are serving the countywith subpoenas, complaints and lawsuits.

While far from a full-fledged litigation machine, the six lawyers in the County Attorney's Office are juggling more than 5,000 open cases, 1,200 of which developed in the last year or so.

County government, with its 800 or so employees, touches almost every aspect of a resident's life, from inspecting electrical wiring in a new house to collecting property taxes to providing water and sewer service.

All of that contact inevitably produces conflict.

"I have to look at this office as having the county's interests at heart," said County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck"Thompson Jr. "And the county's interests are the community's interests."

The community doesn't always agree.

Since 1984, some functions of government have rubbed some residents of Carroll the wrong way, if court records are any indication.

For instance, the county commissioners have been involved in more than 230 cases since 1984, while the Board of Zoning Appeals has been involved in 69, the Department of Social Services 36 and the Sheriff's Department more than 860.

"We are busy," Thompson said.

While the vast majority of cases -- which include lawsuits, property transfers, contractual disagreements and the like -- involve no time before a judge, the county is either a defendant or plaintiff in several hundred cases each year.

Some of those cases are routine -- the County Attorney's Office basically acts as the collection agency for the county -- and are as simpleas getting judgments for money.

Thompson said that his office hascollected close to $400,000 in money due the county so far this yearand that in cases involving collections, it has a success rate of close to 90 percent.

"I believe we've been successful in cases we'veprosecuted," he said.

"When it's zoning enforcement, tax enforcement, we're usually successful."

Sometimes too successful, to hear Commissioner President Donald I. Dell tell it.

In May, Dell put the brakes on zoning enforcement, except for responding to complaints from neighbors. He said at the time that the order was in the interestof cutting down on "picayune" harassment of property owners.

The policy of eased enforcement was rescinded in June.

The County Attorney's Office also is the primary lawyer for many county agencies. When the Sheriff's Department is sued, the county attorney is its lawyer. When the Department of Social Services needs legal advice, it can turn to Thompson. And the office even can get involved in cases involving the Bureau of Support Services, a state agency that makes sure child support is paid.

While success in the simple cases is the rule, some cases can tie up time, lawyers and money.

The cost of having a cadre of lawyers on the payroll -- $496,815 this fiscal year -- has more than tripled since 1985, when the cost was $162,050.

Peggy and Irvin Gordon, a South Carroll couple who have had disputes withzoning officials and the commissioners since 1976, say that about the only way to get their point across is through the courts.

"When you talk to the county, you get no response," Irvin said. "So you endup having to talk to them in court."

The Gordons have filed six lawsuits against the county over the years. The most recent was won inCircuit Court, when Judge Francis M. Arnold ruled that the county did not properly notify the Gordons about a zoning violation on their property.

The county also is a defendant in a case that was heard May 17 in a federal court in Richmond, Va., in which the Gordons argued that the way the county passes zoning laws is unconstitutional.

No decision in that case has been issued.

The U.S. Constitution, however, rarely figures in cases involving the county.

"Those typesof cases are very few and far between," Thompson said.

"As an office, we try to ward off problems before we get to court. Very few people go into court and come out of court happy."

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