People's Counsel Board Could Use Some Advice Itself

THE OBSERVER

September 22, 1991|By Mark Guidera

The People's Counsel Citizen's Advisory Board is one of those government-bred entities with a name that makes the eyes glaze over and thespirit yawn.

Despite its dull name and relative obscurity, the seven-member all-volunteer board is enormously important. It decides whether citizens will get free legal representation to fight proposed projects in their neighborhoods -- be they communications towers or a shelter for abused children.

The problem is that the board operates without any written guidelines to help determine which cases should be fought and which should be passed up by People's Counsel Robert F. Kahoe Jr. This has led to some recent decisions in which seemingly similar cases were treated differently.

Worse still, the board has no rules requiring members to recuse themselves from decisions on requests for legal help on projects that may affect their homes or businesses. In a recent case, one member took part in a vote to fight a project his own community association strongly opposed.

It's time for the County Council, whichappoints the board, to establish guidelines for the board to ensure that it selects cases fairly and without conflict of interest.

Thepurpose of the board, established in 1976, is an admirable one: to provide free representation for citizens in county zoning cases. If you've hired a lawyer recently, you have some grasp of the money saved getting free legal representation, particularly for something as laced with legal complexity as a zoning issue.

Companies planning big projects have the benefit of either paid staff lawyers or a budget for legal expenses to advance their case for zoning approval. They consider this the cost of doing business. The average county resident does not have such financial resources, but their case may be very legitimate.

As Richard W. Cockerham, the advisory board's chairman, says, "Nothing is perfect. But it's better to have a people's counsel than not to have one."

Nothing is perfect. But the board's decision-making needs to be more consistent.

Cockerham and Kahoe say the board and people's counsel select cases to fight based on two principals.

* Cockerham says the board favors cases in which a large numberof residents show an interest. In other words, the squeakiest wheelsget the grease.

* Kahoe says he generally takes only cases he thinks he can win. In other words, likely success bears more weight thanmerit.

These principals have led to some interesting inconsistencies among cases taken and cases rejected.

Consider: In July 1989, Kahoe agreed to fight a proposed 500-foot communications tower near the Harford County Airpark in Aldino. A group of Churchville residentsasked Kahoe to fight the project, arguing it would conflict with thehistoric character of their communities, lower property values and create health and safety hazards.

A year later, a small band of Monkton residents asked people's counsel to help fight a 280-foot communications tower near the historic My Ladys Manor area. Their request was turned down.

Kahoe, a Bel Air attorney who has served the people's counsel for eight years, won the Churchville case before the Zoning Hearing Examiner and on an appeal by the company that wants to build the tower. He's still fighting the case in the state Court of Special Appeals.

The Monkton residents aren't so lucky. Bell Atlantic Communications' request to build the tower in the middle of some of the most historic and bucolic land in all of Maryland was approved by the zoning hearing examiner.

I don't know about you, but to me it seems inconsistent and unfair that one group of residents fighting a communications tower in an historic area would get people's counsel help while another group fighting a similar project would not.

As for the need for rules that would prevent conflicts of interest from arising in board decisions, here's a story to think about:

Minutes from the Aug. 27 meeting of the People's Counsel Advisory Board show that Salvatore Glorioso and 42 other Fallston-area residents came to the meeting to ask the people's counsel to fight a proposal to build a shelter for abused children near Fallston.

Glorioso presented a petition with signatures from 58 citizens. He also read a statement making six points about why they opposed a proposal to build the shelter on Harford and Reckord roads.

Glorioso is president of the Fallston Meadows Community Association, which is a member of the Greater Fallston Association, an umbrella group for area homeowners' associations.

A motion was made by advisory board member Steve Scheinin, and seconded by Harriet Tranberg, to recommend Kahoe accept the case. The motion carried unanimously.

Here's the hitch: Scheinin, a lawyer who served as campaign chairman for Councilwoman Joanne Parrott, is president of the Greater Fallston Association. That community grouphas been an opponent of the project.

Cockerham, the advisory board president, says he was unaware of Scheinin's position with the community association. Scheinin apparently saw no conflict of interest inhis taking part in the vote on the request.

Obviously, if a lawyer can't see this as a clear-cut conflict of interest, then it's time the County Council spell out guidelines for him and the rest of the board.

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