Seen 'Terminator'? Meet the 'Litigator'

COMMENT

October 30, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

One of the more crippling trends of society these days is the tendency to seek remedies to disputes by filing lawsuits.

For the financial rewards, for the satisfaction of winning, or to simply get our way -- we have litigated ourselves into a mess.

The right to sue is like free speech; you're inclined not to want to curtail it even though some people clearly abuse the privilege.

Locally, Susan B. Gray typifies the perils associated with this litigiousness. Ms. Gray, who is running for Howard County executive, has made a political career out of filing suit against the county.

She has done so on at least three occasions.

Thus far, she has yet to win a case.

The following is Ms. Gray's record of failure:

* Her attempt to block the Waverly Woods development in western Howard County was never ruled on by the Circuit Court because comprehensive rezoning could make it moot. The court is expected to dismiss the case.

* Ms. Gray appealed the county Zoning Board's decisions on comprehensive rezoning of eastern Howard County, but failed to file a memorandum of law in the time required by the Circuit Court. The case was thrown out.

* Ms. Gray asked that the Circuit Court declare the county's General Plan and any comprehensive rezoning be done by bill, but the court said no. Ms. Gray is currently appealing to the Court of Special Appeals.

With so little success in the courts, Ms. Gray has chosen to take her political battle to the court of public opinion.

Opponents of the Democratic executive candidate have been warning for months, and rightly so, that Ms. Gray, if elected, will attempt to make decisions that rob land owners of their property rights. The result will be a spate of lawsuits filed against the county, which it would ultimately lose at enormous expense to taxpayers.

To that charge, Ms. Gray replies: "I intend to break the back of the little cadre of lawyers and developers who hold the county hostage by threat of suit" -- a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black.

When it comes to threats of this kind, Ms. Gray is the reigning potentate.

So committed is she to manipulating the legal system that she recently attempted to drag state prosecutors into a dispute with a local coalition that is running cable television advertisements critical of the charter amendment she has drafted on zoning.

That amendment, which appears as Question B on the Nov. 8 ballot, would not only allow some zoning decisions to be taken to referendum, it would give the county executive veto power over the zoning board.

The Howard County Citizens' Coalition Against Question B includes such groups as the Howard County Economic Forum, the county Chamber of Commerce, the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of Women Voters, the county Farm Bureau and the Columbia Association.

Ms. Gray wanted the attorney general's office to prosecute the coalition because it failed to identify itself in an "authority line" in the commercials as required by law in all campaign advertising.

Coalition members say the omission was inadvertent and have since included the line in the ads. State prosecutors have declined to act.

What really riled Ms. Gray and her supporters was not what was left out of the ads, but what was left in. The ads ridicule the backers of Question B as "that kid who never let anyone play in his tree fort" and the "Invasion of the NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard)."

Those cracks are an allusion to Ms. Gray's elitist ideas, which hold that now that she has her piece of heaven in Howard County, no one else can have theirs. While Ms. Gray insists on being called a "slow growth" advocate, the effects of her policies would virtually stop growth altogether.

The tactics she employs, particularly as they relate to the courts, are nothing less than a sort of legal terrorism. She is seemingly obsessed with getting her way at whatever cost. And, anyone who opposes her, of course, has been corrupted by "the system."

I assume I now reside on Ms. Gray's long list of enemies, where you will also find those respected groups that are part of the Coalition Against Question B.

Not bad company to be in, really.

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

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