Blaming the Scapegoat in Annapolis

January 26, 1995

The reconstruction of Main Street in Annapolis is three months behind schedule and the City Council wants to blame the Historic District Commission.

Some aldermen believe the commission -- which reviews all construction within the historic district and belatedly approved the Main Street project -- has become too powerful. So the City Council is considering an ordinance that would allow the mayor to dismiss members of the commission at will, expand its membership from five to seven, limit members to one three-year term and prevent commissioners from voting on legislation if an organization to which they belong has taken a position on it.

We sympathize with the aldermen's frustrations, and we have criticized the commission for its nitpicking in the past. But we strongly oppose any attempt to erode the independence and authority of the Historic District Commission.

The commission may have its problems. Maybe some members are guilty of obstructionism and ought not be reappointed.

But some of the changes the council is considering would seriously undermine the Historic District Commission's ability to safeguard the city's architectural heritage. The commission ought to be an impartial and knowledgeable body that bases its decisions upon the law. But the commission cannot be impartial if members must vote to please the mayor. Nor can the commission be knowledgeable if members are limited to three years of service.

The call for expanding the commission's membership from five to seven does have merit. The city's preservationist community has asked for the expansion in the past because too often the commission makes decisions with a quorum of only three members present.

We agree that membership should be increased and we suggest that the council also consider broadening the representation on the commission to include residents who live outside downtown's Ward One. Currently three of the five commissioners live in the First Ward, yet the Historic District belongs to everyone.

The Main Street debacle revealed that Annapolis is a fractured and confused city. The solution is not to change the Historic District Commission, however, but to change City Hall.

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