Leading officials bicker inHarford Take-charge style gets Rehrmann into spat with council

September 26, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

As Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann campaigns statewide as the take-charge, get-it-done candidate for governor, that same style is sparking tension back home between her administration and some members of the County Council.

The latest flash point is a $13,203 Legg Mason residential growth study, commissioned by the county, that was completed in February but released to the council -- with portions blacked out -- only after a Bel Air attorney sued to force its release.

In other circumstances, the Legg Mason study -- a complete copy of which the council eventually received -- might have been seen as routine. Its harshest conclusion is that the county overestimated the number of developable land parcels by almost 3,000, mostly in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

But the secrecy surrounding the study's release has raised eyebrows and tempers in Harford, where development is a hotly debated issue and where Rehrmann's statewide ambitions add spice even to local controversies.

"I think it was [Rehrmann's] intention not to share that report with the council and the public," said Joanne S. Parrott, president of the Harford County Council. "It's been a very frustrating process for many of us."

The dispute is an unusual twist in the relationship between the council members, all Republicans, and the Democratic county executive, who generally have worked together in a cooperative, nonpartisan fashion.

In appearances aimed at raising her name recognition around the state, Rehrmann has touted herself as a strong, fiscally conservative manager with a commanding style.

Councilman Barry Glassman said the Legg Mason report is the (( latest instance in which Rehrmann's determined style has backfired.

"On certain things [the administration] kind of makes missteps," Glassman said. "Just the perception of not making full disclosure to the public has caused problems."

Glassman pointed to Rehrmann's quick, controversial authorization of a $400,000 payment to the family of an inmate found dead in the Harford County Detention Center in 1992. The family claimed he had been raped and murdered.

Concern was raised two years ago, Glassman said, when he requested the first draft of a report on county employee salaries and received only a revised copy.

Glassman said of the Legg Mason report, "I believe that they were so anxious to have comprehensive rezoning go smoothly that they were overly cautious with the information they released."

Rehrmann, who declined to comment directly on the Legg Mason study because of the lawsuit filed by lawyer Frank Hertsch, defended her style of governing and said the legislative and executive branches work together as a team to solve problems.

"I'm a strong manager," Rehrmann said. "We have a lot of responsibility vested in the office of county executive, and I take that responsibility very seriously."

Hertsch, who does legal work for several developers, said he filed the suit after requesting a copy of the growth study -- which he thinks has a direct impact on the comprehensive rezoning process -- and being told by the county lawyer that all copies had been returned to Legg Mason.

When he did receive a copy of the report, portions were blacked out, including the estimated number of lots available in the county's development area, a summary of findings and the number of building permits issued in the Baltimore region.

County attorneys have said that the administration was within its rights to withhold information that amounted to advice from Legg Mason. Complete copies of the study were made available to the council and the public after Hertsch obtained a copy from Legg Mason, county officials said.

George Harrison, spokesman for Rehrmann, played down the tension between the administration and the council, saying emotions are running high because of months of dealing with hundreds of comprehensive rezoning requests.

Mitch Shank, a council member from Havre de Grace, said he is upset that council members had to get copies of the development report from Hertsch when they are struggling to make rezoning decisions that affect development.

"If I make a decision based on inaccurate information, I want to know who to hold accountable," said Shank, who added that council members had asked the administration repeatedly for the report. "I would like to know why the county purposely withheld information about the residential housing in the county. What were they afraid of?"

Mark S. Decker, a councilman who represents the Bel Air area, is more sympathetic to Rehrmann.

Despite the delay, the council has gotten the information it needs to consider rezoning, he said.

"I honestly don't feel that Mrs. Rehrmann's political aspirations have anything to do with her running the county," Decker said.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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