Owens-council relations strained

5 members back bill to restrict county on subdivision approvals

`A sense of distrust'

March 01, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Relations between the Anne Arundel County Council and County Executive Janet S. Owens, never a model of comity and cooperation, are showing new signs of strain.

In what could be seen as a vote of no confidence in the 15-month-old Owens administration, five of seven council members recently indicated support for a bill that would require public hearings before the county could waive certain subdivision rules.

And Owens, frustrated by Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk's constant probing on waivers, says she might force council members to channel requests for information through her office or the offices of department heads.

"It's an orderly way of ensuring responsiveness to questions," Owens said yesterday. "That way I know things are being answered."

Owens denied rumors that she had threatened to invoke a provision in the county charter under which council members can be expelled for interfering with the administration. She called the idea "absurd" and "ridiculous."

While council-executive tension hasn't derailed any major initiatives, Owens noted that much work remains. A comprehensive revamping of the county zoning code is in an early stage, and the heavy lifting on next year's budget starts soon.

"It's just pivotal what we're going to be doing the next few years," Owens said.

Signs of discontent are not hard to spot. Some council members complain about poor communication from Owens' office. Owens counters that rank-and-file county workers have been "beleaguered" by frequent requests for information, mostly from Samorajczyk.

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, said she knew things were bad when U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes asked her after a recent event, "What is going on with your council?"

"There is a sense of distrust that shouldn't be there," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican who believes closer interaction between Owens and individual council members would help mend the relationship.

"I've always suggested breakfast because everyone has to eat it, and it's a good time to talk about what's on your mind," Klocko said.

Klocko was a member of the Republican-dominated council when Republican John G. Gary was executive. That council developed a reputation as a rubber stamp for Gary. But while this council includes five Democrats, no one would accuse it of doing bidding for Owens, also a Democrat.

Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat who has criticized Owens on occasion, said the council believes "in a true separation of the executive and legislative branches." And Owens has said a degree of tension is a necessary ingredient in "good government."

But Owens expressed surprise that the first year of her four-year term had not gone more smoothly: "I've joked with council people, saying, `Hey, I'm not John Gary,' " she said.

Owens acknowledged that she and the council have had their differences. Last summer, disagreements over the budget turned personal, Klosterman said.

"Probably for a period of two months -- I won't say we weren't talking, but things weren't on the friendliest terms they could have been," he said.

More recently, the administration privately seethed when the council chose Cathleen M. Vitale to replace the late Cliff Roop as District 5 council member. Though Owens seems to hold Vitale in high regard, some in her administration wondered why the Democratic-controlled council picked the chairwoman of the county's Republican Central Committee over 11 other less-active Republican Party members.

Klosterman is unapologetic about Vitale's selection, saying, "You just have to take a look at who can do the best job for that district."

Even before her election in 1998, Samorajczyk, a Democrat from Annapolis, scrutinized the county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement as a citizen activist. She has continued to shine a spotlight on the agency that oversees development.

It was Samorajczyk who questioned last year the county's granting of a waiver to Koch Homes for an 18-unit subdivision in Annapolis though nearby Riva Road was considered failing. A lawyer for the county replied that the waiver violated county ordinance because it noted that repairing Riva Road would be costly for the developer -- an invalid reason under the code, which forbids cost considerations in such decisions.

Samorajczyk forwarded the opinion to Owens, whose pique was obvious when she responded in a May 25 memo that it was not "productive" for council members to seek legal opinions on parts of ordinances. She suggested that Samorajczyk meet with members of the planning staff and law office together.

Owens said yesterday that inquiries are appropriate, but she said some county employees have said they sometimes feel like targets of a lawsuit.

Owens may have a point, Klosterman said, if council members are treating county employees like their own investigators.

But he took a sanguine view of the strain between the administration and the council, and sometimes among council members. He likened it to a family squabble, a view echoed by Samorajczyk.

"Sometimes we all love each other; sometimes we're annoyed at one or two of us," she said. "In the end we have to pull together. We have a big mission here."

Owens said she would be happy to have more one-on-one meetings with council members, although she and top administration officials spend "endless hours and days" staying in touch with the council, she said.

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