Ah, Heady Drama Of Council Meetings

COMMENT

February 21, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The first thing you have to understand is that, appearances to the contrary, the Harford County Council room is not designed to segregate the sexes like some assembly of the Islamic republic.

True, the three female members sit on one side of the bench, in a variation of purdah, while the men sit on the other side, the presiding clergyman seated in the middle to preserve the separation.

Actually, it's just that Mesdames. Heselton, Parrott and Pierno happen to represent Districts A, B and C. Messrs. Glassman, Wagner and Barker come from Districts D, E and F. The Rev. Jeffrey D. Wilson, the council president, holds the center position as arbiter and compere for the evening.

It's also not a function of Mr. Wilson's occupation that the council meetings begin with a prayer. That has long been the practice of this assembly, like so many of the elected bodies that preside over banishment of prayer from the public schools. This is known as the "do as I say, not as I do" rule, which is well known to children, defendants before the bar, and the motoring public.

When members of the public rise to speak on legislation before the council, they are individually honored with what sounds like a one-gun salute. The hair-trigger springs slam the seat bottoms straight up with rocket velocity. The resulting bang is evocative of toilet seats falling in a public restroom.

Part of that reverberating effect can be traced to the exquisitely understated finish of the stucco and cinder block walls and concrete ceiling of the chamber. It no doubt reflects the budget-conscious austerity practiced by the county's representative ascetics, but it has been known to prompt the suggestion that the Magnificent Seven spend a working session some Saturday installing sale-priced luan paneling over those gray, pocked pillars.

The checkerboard ceiling continues the Berchtesgaden-bunker motif, a pattern of concrete squares that often captures the imagination of the rear audience in the midst of yet another closed dialogue between the administration officials and the council members up front. In the middle of these squares are square lights, some of which are turned on. The pattern of off-lights and on-lights is probably designed to save on the electric bill (austerity motif redux) or maybe no one's yet figured out how to change the bulbs.

Yes, the council's deliberations often seduce the audience into episodes of aprosexia. (Look it up before you snicker. It doesn't mean what you think.)

While the County Council is sometimes accused of being the rubber-stamp of the county executive, because many of the bills seem to originate from Eileen Rehrmann's office, it has recently taken decisive steps to dispel that image.

For starters, the council is ordering new stationery. Each member may now have personalized writing paper to express her own views, not to be construed as the collective wisdom of the body entire. Letterheads listing all council members were used by individual members, until some complained that it gave the appearance that the whole council had taken a stand. Heaven forbid.

It's true that the council verbally asserts its independence from time to time. Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, the senior member of the seven, publicly rebuked the county employees who told callers that the County Council was to blame for passing a whopping increase in septic tank construction fees. She demanded that callers be told that the county executive was responsible for proposing the higher rates that the council approved. The buck stops over there! No representation without taxation! and so forth.

If you plan to attend the council meetings, be prepared to pass through the metal detector: Big earrings have been known to set off the alarm. Then, you wander down the fire escape back stairs to the bottom floor meeting room.

Meetings are scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., the first three Tuesdays of the month. Public hearings are slated an hour or more beforehand and invariably last a lot longer. For that reason, perhaps, there is a bank of snack machines just outside the chambers, where the weary can refresh themselves with a can of cranapple and a bag of pork rinds.

On many a night, the conversations in the hallway are far more lively than those on the dais inside, as everyone can clearly hear through the soundproof-less doors. It's not that anyone is barred from speaking on council issues; some attendees, indeed, manage to speak twice on the same subject.

For stay-at-homes, the show is reprised over Cable Channel 15 the following day at 6 p.m. The taped TV version has its advantages: No hallway colloquies in the background, no moon shots of the waffle-iron ceiling, and you can really hear what the speakers are saying. But if you miss the atmosphere of the live show, you can always run to the bathroom and slam down the toilet seat or grab a can of cranapple out of the fridge.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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