A lawyer for the people

September 28, 1994

For developers, lawyers are part of the cost of doing business, a cost they can afford by passing it along to homebuyers or tenants. For citizens and community groups, lawyers are also part of the cost of fighting developers. But they're stuck with the bill. That puts them at a disadvantage when challenging development projects, zoning decisions and enforcement of environmental regulations.

The Severn River Association is exploring an idea that works in other counties to give the public a fairer shot against developers: a "people's counsel," a lawyer paid for by the county to represent citizens in cases of special importance. There is no shortage of such cases in Anne Arundel. The Redskins' stadium battle -- for which one of the residents' lawyers is being paid partly with bake sale profits -- is the kind of significant land use issue a people's counsel could handle. So is Back Bay Beach, a controversial development on West River. So is F. Nicholas Codd's proposed house on stilts, which the Severn River Association believes undermines Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law.

A people's counsel would not be available to represent Joe and Mary Homeowner against a neighbor who wants to build a tool shed. As in other counties, the people's counsel would only take on cases recommended by a citizen's advisory board as critical to the public interest. In Harford County, for example, the people's counsel helped Fallston residents in a lengthy battle over a controversial foster care complex. In Baltimore County, the people's counsel fought to keep a chemical processing plant out of one of the county's cherished rural valleys.

Occasionally a people's counsel opposes the county and its lawyers. This may seem silly considering the job is county-funded, until one realizes it would be just another part of the check-and-balance system that keeps one arm of local government from wielding undue influence. Having a people's counsel fight a county attorney is no different from having the county auditor, who works for the legislative branch, challenge the county finance officer, who works for the executive branch.

Creating a people's counsel would require the County Council to pass legislation putting the change on the ballot, then having voters approve it. The question that must be asked of any charter amendment is whether it would make government work better for the people. As already proven elsewhere, this one would.

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