Forum reveals split on legal aid 3 county executive candidates differ on funding for office

June 09, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

The three candidates for Howard County executive clashed last night over the controversial issue of whether taxpayers should fund a Legal Aid office.

The forum sponsored by the Association of Community Services of Howard County was held at Historic Oakland in Columbia and attracted about 100 people.

The sharpest exchanges between candidates Charles C. Feaga, James Robey and Dennis Schrader occurred when they discussed whether the county should reopen the Legal Aid bureau, which offered legal advice to the poor before it closed in 1995.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker included $50,000 in his proposed budget for fiscal 1999 to re-establish the office. But last month a bitterly divided Howard County Council cut the money from the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Council members Schrader and Feaga said last night that they would be willing to look at funding a Legal Aid office in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 1999.

But Feaga added that he would "want to see the effects and the results of Legal Aid first."

Robey, a former county police chief, said that he would put the money back into the budget "in a heartbeat. These folks are entitled to representation just like those who can afford it."

"I think $50,000 is peanuts," Robey said.

Legal Aid offers advice to those who cannot afford an attorney. Most of the cases involve consumer bankruptcy, emergency domestic issues and housing cases such as tenant disputes with landlords.

Howard County had a Legal Aid office from 1991 to 1995 when it closed because of federal spending cuts. The closest offices available to Howard residents are in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in Baltimore.

Democratic council members C. Vernon Gray and Mary C. Lorsung criticized the council's three GOP members in May after they cut the $50,000 for Legal Aid, with Gray calling the move "totally unnecessary and mean-spirited."

Feaga and Schrader are seeking the Republican nomination for county executive. The winner of the Republican primary likely will face Robey, a Democrat, in the November general election.

Also last night, the candidates stated their positions on such issues as affordable housing, county transportation services, group homes for the elderly, services for the homeless, programs for troubled youths, domestic violence, race relations and funding for nonprofit groups in the county.

The candidates were asked if they would support efforts by the county Office of Housing and Community Development to promote affordable housing.

Robey said that a "continued commitment to affordable housing is essential. We should make sure that Howard County is not just a place for the rich," that residences being built are "not just $300,000 and up to buy."

But Feaga said affordable housing could best be controlled through the zoning process.

"We've got to look at the land that's available" and make sure that 5 percent to 10 percent of new developments are reserved for affordable housing.

Schrader said that much of the county's "housing stock is aging. We have to make sure that our neighborhoods are of a high quality. Schools and housing must be maintained at a level that people feel good about living in them."

The candidates agreed that group homes for the elderly, the disabled, the homeless and troubled youths are important and difficult issues for the county.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there about group homes," Schrader said. "Housing for the elderly and for folks with disabilities" is not as difficult as "focusing on homes for the homeless and for disruptive youth. That's a more difficult sell."

Robey agreed, adding that Howard County has "traditionally done a poor job about educating the community about what these homes do. This is not just a Howard County problem. We should be looking for a regional solution."

Andrea S. Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc., which runs emergency shelters and offers transitional housing to county residents, said the forum showed that residents have a difficult choice in selecting the next county executive.

"There were a lot of similar opinions expressed tonight," she said. "But it's going to come down to who can be more effective for the human services community. And these are issues that affect all of us."

Manus O'Donnell, Howard's director of citizen services, said the forum provided "a great opportunity for the candidates to hear more about human services. And it was good for them to see so many people here tonight. That really sends a message that people in Howard County are concerned with these issues."

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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