Defeat looms for people's counsel charter measure

May 17, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Even as community organizations in Baltimore County line up to support a County Charter amendment to make the position of deputy people's counsel mandatory, the measure appears headed for defeat today in the County Council.

If that happens, those same organizations are prepared to petition to put the issue before county voters.

Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, who introduced the resolution to amend the charter, said it doesn't have the five votes necessary for passage on the seven-member council but that she will bring it to a vote to "make sure every citizen of the county is aware of the issue so they can take it to referendum."

County voters created the people's counsel in 1974 to defend the county's zoning maps, to be an independent legal voice, and to be a public advocate in zoning and development disputes. More than once, the counsel's advocacy has angered developers and business people.

County Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said most council members support the counsel but don't think the charter is the place to protect the position of deputy people's counsel.

"That is micromanaging by charter, and that is not what the charter was intended to do," said Mr. Ruppersberger, adding that there are other options such as having the council pass legislation to mandate the deputy position by code.

"I think there is a consensus on the council that the office of people's counsel is vital," he said. "But whether the office is comprised of two attorneys, three attorneys or one attorney and two paralegals is something that the new people's counsel and the county executive's office should determine."

The people's counsel is appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council. The county executive determines the number of positions in the office through his budgetary powers.

Phyllis Cole Friedman, the current people's counsel, has held the job since 1984 and will resign June 1. In her letter of resignation, she suggested making the deputy's position mandatory by law and ensuring that at least two lawyers staff the office.

She also recommended the people's counsel be limited to a 12-year term to minimize political influence in filling the job. The term should expire in the middle of a county executive's four-year term, she said.

Such a term limit would prevent the kind of controversy that erupted two years ago when County Executive Roger B. Hayden cut funds to pay Deputy People's Counsel Peter Max Zimmerman.

Mr. Zimmerman's job was saved after both lawyers in the office took a combined $13,000 pay cut.

According to a report Mrs. Friedman prepared for the council, her office is actively participating in 51 cases on various legal levels, from the state Court of Appeals to the county zoning commissioner.

The charter mandates that the people's counsel get involved in all cases that could change the county's comprehensive zoning map. In all other zoning and development cases, the office has discretion to decide whether to participate.

"I'd say that as a rule, the office is more inclined to get involved in a situation where it has discretion," Mrs. Friedman said.

The people's counsel office currently has three budgeted positions -- the people's counsel, a deputy and a legal assistant. Although the office is independent, the positions are included in the Office of Planning and Zoning's budget.

Merreen E. Kelly, Mr. Hayden's administrative officer, said the three positions will be funded in the 1994 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Mr. Kelly said the administration is taking a neutral position on Mrs. Manley's resolution but that the best way of guaranteeing the deputy position is through the county code, not the charter.

If the council passes the resolution, the measure will be placed on the general election ballot Nov. 8, 1994. A petition to have a referendum on the issue would require 10,000 signatures from qualified county voters.

Mary Basso, president of the Alliance of Baltimore County Community Councils, said that shouldn't be a problem.

"We've got more than enough members to get that accomplished," said Mrs. Basso, whose group represents 15 councils and several hundred community organizations and homeowners associations. Two weeks ago, the group voted to support Mrs. Manley's resolution.

Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Basso said the problem with using legislation to make the deputy position mandatory through the code is that it could always be rescinded by another vote of the council.

"The best way to ensure the office remains independent and to keep it as little politicized as possible is to take [it] out of the hands of the administration and the council," Mrs. Basso said.

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