Council acts against cigarettes

May 03, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

"TC The County Council ignored the threat of a lawsuit from a powerful tobacco lobbyist last night and approved a resolution encouraging all county businesses except taverns to get rid of cigarette vending machines -- especially those accessible to minors.

"The council acted outside its authority and jurisdiction," tobacco lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano said after the 4-1 vote. "There are fiscal consequences for the reckless, illegal action."

Mr. Bereano said he will file a $1.5 million suit today against the county government.

"After the resolution is struck down, I will proceed against the individual council members" who voted for the resolution, Mr. Bereano said.

All council members except Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, voted for the resolution.

The council backed away from a similar resolution in March after Mr. Bereano filed a $1.5 million suit against four of the five council members on the day the legislative body was to vote on the resolution.

In that suit, which was withdrawn after the council backed away, Mr. Bereano called the resolution a deliberate attempt to regulate trade in violation of state law.

Last night, Mr. Bereano said council members are individually liable because they are aware of the case he won before the

Maryland Court of Appeals last September in which the court ruled that only the General Assembly could regulate cigarette vending machines.

Mr. Bereano will use that argument in the suit he was to file today on behalf of Allied Vending Machines and 10 county restaurants.

Council members "took an oath to uphold the law of Maryland, and the Court of Appeals very clearly, very recently, very unequivocally made it clear" that the state has complete jurisdiction over cigarette vending machines, Mr. Bereano said.

"It is the height of irresponsibility as office holders to act knowing you're acting in violation of the law," he said. "I've never seen a political body such as this act in such flagrant disregard for the law. . . . It's going to be fun taking their depositions -- it really will."

When they retreated after Mr. Bereano's first suit, council members received opinions from both the Maryland attorney general and the county solicitor saying they have a right to express themselves on the vending machine issue.

"We can say anything we want to say about anything -- [especially] health issues affecting our citizens and especially minors," Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, the chief sponsor of the resolution, said after receiving the opinions.

"Although we are threatened with personal liability, I am happy to vote for the safety of our kids," Mr. Drown said before he cast his vote last night.

In other action last night, the council approved a bill giving eligible employees a 2 1/2 percent merit raise in the coming fiscal year and a 5 percent merit raise in fiscal 1996. The raises are given on the anniversary of a satisfactory worker's employment. The vote was along party lines with the three Democrats supporting the measure and the two Republicans opposing it.

The Democrats said the 1996 clause in the measure will force the county executive to deal with employee concerns over merit pay. Republicans said that by insisting on 5 percent next year, the council was taking away any possibility of negotiation.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who thus far is unopposed in his re-election bid, was not concerned about last night's council action.

"We'll just look [at the merit pay issue] again next year," he said. "I see nothing wrong with that. Guidelines have to be developed."

Mr. Ecker said he had already been holding discussions with some employees about merit pay. The issue will be aired soon in the employees' newsletter and should "stimulate thinking," "he said.

"One idea is to have one step -- 2 1/2 percent -- that is guaranteed and the other based on performance," he said.

Another idea is to have one step, but with a sliding scale from 0 to 5 percent. "Some might get 5 percent, some might get less," Mr. Ecker said.

Employees testifying at an April 16 public hearing said that scaling back merit raises to 2 1/2 percent would slow their advancement to the top pay scales in county government. They said they had always received merit raises of 5 percent until 1992.

That year, employees went without raises and were furloughed without pay for a week so that the county could cope with the revenue shortfalls brought on by the recession. Employees received raises of only 2 1/2 percent in the current budget because of fiscal constraints. They expected a return to 5 percent raises when economic conditions improved.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said the merit raise bill approved last night will require the administration to come back to the council for permission if any alteration is proposed.

About 80 percent of county employees are eligible for merit raises on the anniversary of their employment. Satisfactory employees continue to receive the raises until they reach the top of the pay scale in their field.

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