Boards play powerful role in county life Dozens of groups make decisions, mold policy

No members are elected

Volunteers work to help government without pay, offices

November 12, 1995|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,SUN STAFF

A shadow government of boards, commissions, advisory panels and task forces in Anne Arundel County wields enormous influence in residents' day-to-day lives.

The county has more than 72 such groups with about 850 members. None was elected. Most do not have salaries, offices or staffs.

Still, they run the county's six senior citizen centers, can make decisions about the safety of residences and can investigate the moral character of certain business people and public officials.

Anne Arundel County is not unique. Across the state, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of obscure citizen panels exercise such influence.

"In some counties, boards and commissions play a significant role. In other counties, less so," said David Sann, a government consultant with the University of Maryland Institute for Governmental Services. "But, in general, the larger the government, the more boards and commissions you have."

Empowering citizens to carry out certain functions of government is a tradition that started with the populist 'u movement in the 1890s, said Hal Counihan, dean of social sciences at Anne Arundel Community College.

Panels governing education, elections and public ethics are common throughout the state. But, through the years, Anne Arundel lawmakers also have created groups, such as the Gas Commission and Board of Electrical Examiners, to monitor the building trades, set construction standards and provide other technical advice.

Rarely does County Executive John G. Gary have trouble finding volunteers to fill vacancies on the boards, said Norman Turley, an aide responsible for tracking appointments.

"It's amazing to me the number of people who are willing to volunteer their time to help the county government," Mr. Turley said. "It's a savings that taxpayers may not be aware of."

How much are taxpayers saving? No one seems sure. In fact, no one knows exactly how many citizen panels Anne Arundel has.

Although the county executive appoints most of the groups -- the governor also makes appointments -- "it's hard to give an exact number," said Mr. Turley, whose duties include sorting out who is doing what for whom.

Mr. Turley hopes soon to have everything on a computer database, but he said his task is made difficult because some groups, such as the Odenton Town Center Committee, have limited tasks and disappear when their jobs are finished.

Others, such as the Severn River Commission, just continue. Some come and go with the officials who appointed them; others overlap political terms.

Until his election last year, County Councilman John Klocko, chaired the Amusement Licensing Commission, a seven-member panel that scrutinizes the character of the owners of the county's commercial bingo halls.

"The reality is, commissions bring a lot of expertise and common sense to the table at no cost to the county," said Mr. Klocko, a Crofton Republican.

Pam Bush of Lothian has high hopes for a study on scenic roads ZTC that she and 14 other citizens have been drafting since March. Their recommendations to the County Council on how to preserve those roads are due Dec. 1.

"I'm just really interested in keeping the character of Anne Arundel County, and the roads are very much a part of that," said Ms. Bush, who is a professional land-use planner with the Maryland Environmental Trust.

Mr. Counihan is cynical about how citizen panels sometimes are used. He contended that most of them have advisory powers only and that it is easy for politicians to ignore them.

"There is probably a basement full of old study commission reports somewhere in the Arundel Center," said Mr. Counihan, ++ referring to the government office building in Annapolis.

Edward P. Mansfield of Riva may not bring so much expertise as enthusiasm and a fresh voice to the county's Mental Health Advisory Committee. The advertising director for Washingtonian magazine was appointed by Mr. Gary this summer.

"I just feel lucky, and I want to give something back," Mr. Mansfield said.

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