Bills aim to inform public

Legislation calls for earlier notification of proposed projects

Reaction to jail decision

March 19, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Reverberations continue from last summer's abrupt announcement by Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to expand the main jail in Towson.

Blindsided by the decision and damaged politically by his slow response, County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner is attempting to prevent similar crises. Skinner, a Towson Republican, has proposed two bills to increase public awareness of government projects.

Some critics, however, say the effort is too little, too late.

One bill, scheduled for a vote today, would require earlier preparation of documents that authorize bonds to pay for expensive public works projects.

The timing of that paperwork became a key issue in the debate over the jail expansion.

Years ago, county officials would present the documents in May, at the same time that they finished work on the annual budget. Under Ruppersberger, the deadline has shifted. Last year, the County Council voted on bond referendum questions in July, and they were forwarded to the state elections division to meet an August deadline.

Skinner said the tight timetable prevented him from separating the jail issue from other public projects on the ballot in November. That would have allowed opponents to vote against it without also rejecting funds for senior centers and fire stations. He wants the county to return to the earlier timetable so residents will have more time to study the issues.

A second bill would require an expanded public notification process before projects begin. After being discussed at a council work session last week, the bill is being recast and will not be voted on for several weeks.

"I'm trying to change the attitude and the way of the thinking in the county," Skinner said. "Instead of leaving people out of the loop, they should be part of the discussion. ... In other words, discussion before decisions."

Skinner must also try to change the attitudes of voters in the Towson area who feel betrayed that the first-term lawmaker did not rise to their defense sooner.

Community leaders ask why Skinner did not learn about the jail decision sooner and why he wasn't more effective in asking that the county examine other alternatives.

"My honest opinion is he will not be re-elected," said Don Wright, president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association. "This is such an egregious thing that has happened to Towson, that unless he is a master in damage control, people don't even talk about 2002 and Wayne Skinner. It really did him in."

Some county officials say privately that Skinner's bills are more window-dressing than substance and would not be necessary if he had reacted more swiftly.

Although the bills stem from decisions made by Ruppersberger, the executive supports them.

"Dutch is completely comfortable with the idea of increased notification," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Ruppersberger. "That being said, he feels very strongly that important public projects are amply publicized. He feels the government got a bum rap on the jail issue because that project had been in the pipeline for at least four years."

In July, Ruppersberger announced plans to expand the Baltimore County Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive by about 1,000 beds over 20 years. Neighbors learned of the expansion only after Ruppersberger announced it and were infuriated that no other locations were considered.

Skinner said the jail is one of several public projects in his district that have sparked concern. He said a salt-storage dome on Bosley Avenue near York Road and the new police precinct building in Towson were built without public input, having been exempted by county officials from the public-notification requirements that most development projects must follow.

Skinner's notification bill would have required public projects to be advertised in newspapers and on the county's Web site. But Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz said the proposal didn't go far enough. He suggested that community input meetings be held before decisions by officials to exempt public or private projects from normal development procedures. Skinner agreed to the change.

"What I'm doing now is looking at the bigger picture," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "Rather than take a sophomoric approach, we should take one that is more effective."

Skinner's bill specifying a deadline for bond documents highlighted a potential legal problem.

Council secretary Thomas J. Peddicord Jr. wrote in a memorandum that after reviewing notes from the 1950s, he concluded that the framers of the county charter intended that the budget and the bond bills be handled at the same time.

"It appears to me that the county has been in violation of its own charter," Skinner said.

County budget and finance Director Fred Homan bristled at the suggestion that the shift to July violated the charter. He said his office is so busy preparing the operating and capital budgets that it has left the bond legislation to later -- with little consequence until last year.

Said Armacost: "The notion that there was some reason or conspiracy in putting the bond issues in later is completely ridiculous. Different administrations and different departments do things in different ways."

Others expressed skepticism.

"Mr. Ruppersberger changed the charter and put the office of budget and finance together," said Berchie Lee Manley, a Republican and former Catonsville councilwoman who has been critical of the county's budget process. "Many things have changed under Dutch. They are expedient for him and his agenda, but not necessarily for the constituents."

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