After two decades overseeing cases ranging from dog-bite complaints to multimillion-dollar housing developments, William T. Hackett is losing his seat and chairmanship on the powerful Baltimore County Board of Appeals.
He and others blame his departure on a carwash -- or at least his vote to approve one in Perry Hall over community opposition.
Whatever the reason, county government won't be the same without the austere, 74-year-old retired steel worker who dresses in conservative suits and then climbs in his pickup truck to drive to work from the bungalow in Chase that he built more than a half-century ago from trees he cut down on the property.
Friends and critics agree that his bluntness and common-sense approach are throwbacks to a time before county government was largely taken over by polished professionals.
"It will be hard imagining the board without him," said lawyer Benjamin Bronstein, who represents developers. "He provided a much-needed continuity over the years."
The Board of Appeals' seven members are nominated by the County Council for the $12,000-a-year job of hearing appeals of county government decisions. The chairman earns $14,000.
Mr. Hackett lives in the 5th District, represented by Perry Hall Democrat Vincent J. Gardina. With Mr. Hackett's current three-year term expiring, Mr. Gardina decided to replace him with Chuck Marks, a retired attorney and officer of the Perry Hall Improvement Association.
Coincidence? Mr. Hackett doesn't think so.
"I understand there are political debts to be paid off, and Vince had the right to put his own person on the board," Mr. Hackett said.
Mr. Gardina reappointed Mr. Hackett in 1992, but the departing appeals chairman said the 1993 Perry Hall carwash decision had something to do with Mr. Gardina's decision to replace him this time around.
But Mr. Gardina, the council chairman, denies it.
"I wouldn't base a decision like this on one single decision," he said. "This is not a negative directed toward Mr. Hackett, who I feel did a fine job on the board."
In the 1993 case, with Mr. Hackett the swing vote in a 2-1 majority, the board overturned the zoning commissioner and allowed construction of a Perry Hall carwash opposed by the community.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Gardina said he would consider the carwash vote when it came time to decide on Mr. Hackett's reappointment. But now he says that was a "spur-of-the-moment comment" rather than a threat of retribution.
Not many people in county government can remember the Board of Appeals without Mr. Hackett. He has served longer than any member since the board was created with charter government in 1958.
Once confined to zoning cases, the board's authority was expanded in 1979 to cover all administrative decisions -- making it a powerful force in the county.
Mr. Hackett was first appointed in February 1975. He was elected chairman in 1981 by his fellow board members, and there hasn't been contest for the job since.
"As a layman, he did a fine job conducting hearings and making rulings on evidence," said C. William "Bud" Clark, a former board member who was on the opposite side in the Perry Hall carwash case.
What some see as firmness and evenhandedness, others see as tyranny.
"I think it was time for him to go," said Dorothy McMann, a longtime community activist in Perry Hall. "He seemed to take the position that business was always right and didn't care about the effects of development and zoning on the community."
Recently, Mr. Hackett outraged residents of the Ivy Hill area who
failed to stop Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. from building a large substation.
"He made snide comments about our witnesses and tried to rush our case through," said Pamela Follo, a community leader. "We worked very hard on our case, and win or lose, we deserved to be treated with dignity."
Mr. Bronstein said critics often are misinformed: "Community groups are asking the board to do things it is incapable of doing from a legal standpoint. Maybe when these requests are denied by Mr. Hackett as the chair, the community views that as being harsh."
Mr. Hackett shrugs off the criticism.
"The burr under my saddle," he said, was a Circuit Court decision nearly two years ago that forced the board to make its deliberations public under Maryland's open meeting law.
"It's just an absolutely wrong decision," he said. "Public deliberation is a farce." He argued that open deliberations inhibit candid discussion.
Although his term expires April 30, Mr. Hackett has agreed to stay another two months.