Using budget problems as a pretense, Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden is trying to emasculate the People's Counsel office that has often irritated major developers. To save just $13,000, he wants to replace one of the office's two part-time attorneys with a paralegal, who would not be able to appear in court.
The Hayden plan -- which is on hold until March 31 while further studies are conducted -- has upset many civic groups in $H Baltimore County. "The People's Counsel has stepped on some mighty powerful toes," says Mary Basso, president of the Alliance of Baltimore County Community Councils. "And now those who have been hurt and want their own way have Roger's ear."
An independent People's Counsel office was established by a referendum vote in 1974 as part of reforms that opened up the traditionally closed county government. The main focus of the office was on zoning, which had been the target of allegations of irregularities. That emphasis inevitably produced conflicts between the counsel and developers as well as county agencies when politically sensitive projects were challenged.
In recent years, the People's Counsel has been involved in such sensitive issues as the relocation of Merry-Go-Round (which, due to anticipated delays, moved to Harford County), United Parcel Service expansion and the controversial Worldbridge proposal. In none of these cases did the counsel toe the line favored by the county administration.
After Mr. Hayden, a conservative Republican, took office late last year, he targeted the People's Counsel office for changes. In April, the civic leaders were barely able to convince the county executive to delay for six months a decision to reorganize that advocacy office. But seven months later, the executive returned to his original staffing plan.
Although the Hayden plan would result in marginal savings, it is clear the county executive wants to get rid of an irritant for political reasons. Yet the People's Counsel has functioned as a valuable public watchdog that has enabled community groups to challenge developers and high-priced attorneys on many important issues.
If that office now is unwisely curtailed, citizens' cynicism about government is likely to rise. Mr. Hayden should leave the People's Counsel alone.