Fifth District Republican Charles C. Feaga tried last week to get a local Democrat to give free legal assistance to the County Council.
The three council Democrats would have none of it. They instead voted to pay former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti $150 an hour to defend a suit brought against the county and the election board.
The suit, filed by Republicans David P. Maier of Elkridge and Louis M. Pope of Laurel, asks the Circuit Court to declare that the mostrecent council redistricting is constitutionally defective and invalid.
Maier and Pope contend the council erred by creating new council districts with a resolution rather than a bill. County Executive Charles I. Ecker agrees and has chosen not to defend the suit.
Council members see the suit as a separation of powers issue, and feel compelled to defend it. The council voted, 3-2, along party lines to choose Civiletti, because it was he who told the council that redistricting was legally defensible.
Feaga felt the council had already spent too much on outside counsel -- it has paid Civiletti $7,600 so far -- and suggested it ask local attorney James Kraft to take the casefor free. Kraft, a former Democratic Central Committee member, is state campaign chairman for presidential contender Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas.
"I'm not willing to spend any more money," Feaga said. "Jim Kraft spoke out for good, clear government at the redistricting hearings. He might just want to take the case. I would be very comfortable with him. He is an excellent choice."
"I'm appalled at the thought," said Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st. "It is not a good precedent. It's a horrible idea since we sit as the Zoning Board."
To accept or request free legal service could give the impression that an attorney was taking the case free now, in order to get afavor later, Pendergrass said.
In addition, "It's offensive to all but volunteer a county lawyer for free" without consulting him first, she said.
Democrats C. Vernon Gray and Paul R. Farragut also felt that it would be inappropriate for the council to accept free legal help.
Kraft said in a telephone interview that "the comments made by Democratic members of the council are probably appropriate. There could be the perception that this was a quid pro quo. In politics, perception often matters more than reality.
"The issue is more basic than redistricting," Kraft said. "The issue is the separation of powers. The council has a legal obligation to protect that separation of powers."
Kraft said he appreciated Feaga's confidence in him. "If he wants to send me some paying clients right now, we could alwaysuse the business," Kraft said.