Baltimore County community leaders oppose cutbacks for People's Counsel

November 18, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

The vacant, burned-out house at the corner of Frederick Road and Holmehurst Avenue represents something of a victory to Richard Decker.

Mr. Decker, president of the Holmehurst Community Association, has fought for four years to prevent the house at 307 Frederick Road from being turned into an office building.

Conversion to an office building would mean more traffic and further deterioration of a residential community already encroached by businesses and commercial growth on Frederick Road, he said.

"You get a few doctors offices in there and the traffic would be horrendous," said Mr. Decker.

He said the house is still standing because the county Office of the People's Counsel took on his case, appealed the zoning reclassification to Baltimore County Circuit Court and later won concessions from the building's owner.

"I have no doubt that if we hadn't had the People's Counsel with us we'd have had a five-story office building in there by now," he said.

But community leaders throughout the county say budget cuts and a proposed reorganization will subject the People's Counsel office to political influence and leave it short-staffed.

Last spring, Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden proposed a budget that replaced one of the office's two attorneys with a paralegal, trimming spending from $114,125 last year to $104,511 this year. The attorney's position was restored for six months, after community groups protested.

But Mr. Hayden has said he will not extend the second position that expires Dec. 31.

Community leaders say the cut will mean minimal savings but will dilute the office's effectiveness and make it impossible for communities that cannot afford to hire attorneys to effectively battle developers.

"A paralegal will not suffice," said Mary Basso, president of the Alliance of Baltimore County Community Councils.

Mr. Decker, for instance, said his group, which represents 52 homeowners, has an annual budget of about $500 and could never afford its own lawyers.

"If they cut the size of the office, it's just another victory for the developers and the politicians," he said.

But Mr. Hayden said he is trying to make the office more responsive and accountable. He said he doesn't like the way it is being run and plans to appoint an advisory committee to "look at what the office has been doing rather than what the [Baltimore County] charter says they should be doing."

He declined to elaborate but added that he would like to see a permanent oversight committee to supervise the People's Counsel.

"All of us have somebody to report to," he said. "Elected officials report to the people, and there are boards and commissions for every agency. They're the only part of government where that's not true."

He said that before he takes any action he will await the report from the advisory committee, which will be put together with volunteers recommended by the Baltimore County Bar Association. He will ask them to report to him by the end of March.

County Council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, said the council formed a committee to look into the Office of the People's Counsel because of concerns last spring about Mr. Hayden's cuts.

Council members Vincent Gardina, D-5th, and Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, who co-chaired the committee, asked a group of community leaders to investigate the issue. The group's report, which supports the People's Counsel in its present form and calls for increased funding, is to be discussed today.

"Few attorneys and no offices in the county government have compiled such an admirable record of achievement," the report says. It adds that Mr. Hayden's cut will cripple the office and "is absolutely beyond comprehension."

But the council also is considering forming a commission to be appointed by Mr. Hayden that would have power to appoint or dismiss the People's Counsel and name a replacement. Mr. Hayden has appointment powers, but dismissal requires council vote.

The people's counsel and many community leaders say the office is well-run.

"They're the only legal counsel available to the average, everyday person," said Margaret Worrall, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council.

Phyllis C. Friedman, who has been People's Counsel since 1984, said that the staff cut will hurt the communities needing the office and that an oversight committee probably would subject it to politics.

The People's Counsel was established in 1974 to ensure that development plans are consistent with county zoning maps and to fight plans that would hurt communities.

Since then, the office has taken several controversial stands. Last year, Ms. Friedman issued an opinion that criticized the proposed rezoning of a 1,000-acre tract in Middle River slated as the site of Worldbridge, a proposed Asian theme park, hotel and conference center.

Worldbridge was later scuttled because the developer lacked financing, but the opinion rankled county economic development officials.

Community leaders say it is the office's autonomy that enables it to deal effectively with controversial issues.

"As long as these developers have any life in them they'll apply for a variance and try to put changes through a community," said Mr. Decker. "You need someone to keep an eye on them."

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