Mrs. Pendergrass' Dangerous Angst

COMMENT

October 19, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

Shane. Shane. Shane.

Depending on whom you're speaking with, it's a name that spells trouble. The governor has screaming matches with her. Her colleagues on the Howard County Council talk miserably about her behind her back. Even her constituents gave her a so-so nod of affirmation during the last local election.

Shane Pendergrass, in her second term as a Howard council member, is sometimes difficult, often unyielding and steadfastly ideological.

She proved all of that recently when she virtually hijacked Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and the county administration in the 11th hour of negotiations over Coke's proposed construction of a regional headquarters and bottling plant in the county. In the ensuing incident, all parties -- when they weren't feverishly courting Mrs. Pendergrass' favor -- held their collective breath as she pondered what she considered her great dilemma.

And what was she fretting over? Whether to delay for 11 days a decision to reduce the fee the county was going to charge Coke to have a water main hooked to its new facility. The delay would be to have a public hearing. The cliff-hanger would be whether Coke would wait around for a decision or take its substantial marbles and go elsewhere.

Mrs. Pendergrass eventually voted for the fee reduction, minus a public hearing. Unfortunately, that happened only after she made sure everyone who would listen understood the agony she was going through. Let me reassure her that everyone I spoke with felt her agony too, although few would say they didn't resent being made to suffer it.

No one would argue with Mrs. Pendergrass' belief in a truly open public process, not to mention the fact that the Coke project is in the district she represents. The problem is that she failed to realize that the stakes in the Coke matter outweighed the need for a hearing.

"It was very hard for me," she conceded later. "The decision I had to make was between the public process and what I perceived as the public good.

"I didn't like doing it," she continued. "But I believe it was the right vote."

It was the right vote. It was the route she took that was circuitous and potentially damaging.

It was not the first time, however, that Mrs. Pendergrass had injected herself publicly and without finesse into negotiations between the administration and private enterprise.

When Coke was looking tentatively at another site in her district, Mrs. Pendergrass made sure that the alarm was sounded among nearby residents even before Coke had made a decision. In that instance, the fact that there would be a public hearing once Coke officials decided they were serious didn't seem to matter much to Mrs. Pendergrass. When it came time for council members to decide whether to vote in favor of the fee reduction, Mrs. Pendergrass was there again in the middle of the negotiation process.

Not willing to accept County Executive Charles Ecker's assertion that the project could fall through if the council didn't act quickly, she insisted on speaking with Coke officials directly, all the while holding out the possibility that she might insist on a public hearing.

Some would argue that Mrs. Pendergrass was being thorough. Others feel she was overstepping.

"I believed what Mr. Ecker was telling us about Coke potentially pulling out of the project," Councilman Vernon Gray said. "That's the role of the executive: to go out and find business, attract them here and then bring it to the county council. You can't have five council members going out negotiating with businesses."

At some point in the Pendergrass melodrama, even an angry governor saw fit to get her on the phone. According to Mrs. Pendergrass, the governor's argument was blunt. "You can't let technicalities stand in the way of something you think is right," she quotes the governor as saying.

Mrs. Pendergrass said she shouted back at Governor Schaefer, no doubt cementing her reputation as a stickler extraordinaire.

"The governor was only half-right," she said later. "You have to do what you think is right. But I don't think of the public process as a technicality.

"It's a process. A public trust," she added.

Apparently not so much of a trust that right thinking didn't win the day in the end. And that's the way it should have been in this instance.

People are being laid off from work by the thousands. Furloughs have become rampant. Rather than a temporary recession, people are starting to fear that the economy is undergoing a permanent retrenchment.

Some officials have decided that the times warrant bold action. Apparently Mrs. Pendergrass feels the times warrant timidity and equivocation. She said it herself: "The legislative arm of government cannot be trendy. We cannot overreact to a recession. We cannot overreact to a growth spurt."

But that is precisely the risk elected officials must take, particularly when the situation is dire. Mrs. Pendergrass had trouble deciding what was more important: a public hearing that probably would have changed nothing in the end, or a project that would give hundreds of people jobs and boost the county's sagging tax revenues.

In the end, she made the right decision. What's disturbing is that she made such an issue of something that was clear-cut from the beginning.

...

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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