Arundel panel to advise planning office draws fire

Including builders is seen as conflict

January 12, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' creation of a committee made up mostly of developers and engineers to advise the departments of planning and code enforcement has outraged residents and activists, one of whom called the move a "huge conflict of interest."

Owens named to the six-member committee executives from two of the county's largest developers -- Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and MIE Properties -- and two prominent engineering firms. All four companies have building permits pending before the planning department.

"Where is the citizen input?" asked Pasadena resident and activist Marcia Drenzyk. "Where is the environmental input? The people on the Solley Peninsula fought for 20 years to get the county to enforce [BGE] permits, and now BGE is going to get to determine the people who will regulate them?

"It is a direct and huge conflict of interest that any of these people are on this committee because, let's be realistic -- anybody [in the departments] who doesn't or hasn't played ball with them is going to get the far back office."

Owens and her spokesman said yesterday the four executives and two planning officials will advise the departments on "management and personnel decisions," which includes changing employees' "job specifications," and on speeding the permit process.

Later Owens' chief of staff Marvin Bond said the group would not make personnel decisions except to determine "whether the department needs, for example, more planners or less planners, or personnel resources -- whether that means equipment or people -- to make the operation work."

Those named by Owens are Edward St. John, chief executive officer of MIE Properties; Becki Kurdle, director of local government and constituent affairs for BGE; Edward Lowman, president of Harms & Associates, a countywide engineering firm; and Ermis Sfakiyanudis, a principal of Sigma Engineering Inc. Owens also named James Pittman of the county's Department of Public Works and Joseph Rudder, director of planning for Howard County, to the committee.

Owens said yesterday her intention is to improve the department for big developers building subdivisions and homeowners building decks in the back yard. She said she hand-selected the four executives because they are "excellent managers" who can help fix a department rife with slowdowns and redundancies that account for 90 percent of the complaints she receives.

"It is meant to be a problem-solving committee," Owens said. "Their job is to look at how the department is run. Their job is neither to promote growth nor be anti-growth but to help fix the organizational structure."

She said despite the companies' pending permits, she did not see a conflict of interest because she expected the executives to act "independently" and said they will not be advising on matters of zoning or permit law.

She said she has plans for an "environmental component" of the department that she said would help curb environmental violations.

Several council members questioned the need for a committee unlike any other in the county after Owens appointed two new directors to revamp the department. Last week, Owens separated the zoning and enforcement functions and named Dennis Canavan and Walter Chitwood to head the two departments.

"It raises questions as to what will be the authority of the new directors if there is a committee doing the same thing," said Councilwoman Barbara Samorajczyk, who has fought to enforce developers' zoning and building permits since taking office last year.

Councilwoman A. Shirley Murphy, who has fought BGE on fly ash controls for many years, said: "I would have liked to see a community leader or an environmental leader on the committee as well."

Pub Date: 1/12/00

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