Behind the scenes, official skulduggery

On Arundel council, whispers, door locks, secret phone codes

May 10, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Council members have long had their quarrels. But lately, some have gotten downright snarky at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

The litany of whispered allegations is enough to impress a junior high clique: Aides slinking into members' offices unbidden and snagging ideas for new legislation. Voice mail messages mysteriously vanishing. Private conversations being overheard by an ear pressed against a closed door.

Three of the seven council members have requested new locks for their office doors. Some now use secret codes for the phone message system. And all have something to say, it seems, about the sorry state of intra-council relations - though usually off the record.

"There are a lot of rumors and innuendo, a lot of paranoia and mistrust," said Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat and one of the few council members willing to talk freely about this specter of "childish" behavior.

"Nobody trusts anybody," he added. "If you can't have privacy in your own office, what's it coming to?"

County Executive Janet S. Owens wonders. She's concerned because the council has important matters before it. A proposed $1 billion budget, for one. Countywide rezoning, for another.

"I don't know if it's personality clashes or differences in values [and] temperaments," said Owens, who like five of the council members is a Democrat. "For heaven's sake, the majority of us were elected on similar platforms."

The rising tension has coincided with a drop in communication, insiders say. Klosterman points the finger at fellow Democrat Shirley Murphy of Pasadena, who became chairwoman in December, succeeding him. But Murphy says it hasn't helped that Owens won't meet with the council's vice chairwoman because of past political skirmishes.

In any event, Murphy denies she's operating incommunicado: "I'm not hearing any grumbling. I try to keep everybody abreast as best I can."

If Murphy's critics are right, she got a taste of her own medicine Monday night. That's when Klosterman sandbagged her, joining with the council's two Republicans and another Democrat to wrest control of redistricting from Murphy and the others. The quick-set coalition came in with its own list of nominees for the five-member committee that will draft new district lines and propose changes to the county charter.

"It was just a surprise," Murphy said glumly.

"Strange politics" was all Owens would say.

Divided council

Klosterman has taken advantage of the council's 3-3 schism to maximize his sway. He glides back and forth. On the same day he teamed with Republicans to pack the redistricting committee, which is still subject to a vote, he fought one Republican on proposed zoning changes.

At the moment, Klosterman is the swing vote, but loyalties on the council are as sturdy as sand dunes in a hurricane.

Take Murphy and Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle of Linthicum. While the two Democrats often vote together now, last fall their multilayered flap prompted state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno of Glen Burnie to convene a meeting to calm the turbulence.

The council has built-in sources of tension, too. Its members are elected by constituents in separate districts with their own interests. And people drawn to politics often have healthy but easily bruised egos.

Historically, the County Council has hardly been a bastion of comity. Heated conflict was the norm in the 1970s and 1980s between Virginia Clagett, a refined and educated woman from South County, and Edward C. "Buddy" Ahern, a rough-hewn sort from Pasadena.

"Everybody has their little spats," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who heads the county's legislative delegation and worked as a council aide for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s.

But she said members usually left the discord on the dais. One power broker, the late Wallace R. "Chunky" Childs, would "chew you out" for voting against him, Love recalled, but then ask, "Well, are we going out for sundaes?"

Doors no longer unlocked

Even current council members, most of whom were elected in 1998, shared a measure of bonhomie. Once upon a time, they left doors open and felt no need to use optional voice mail codes. "When we were first elected, doors were left open almost all the time," said Beidle, who added that she would find it "appalling" if any snooping was, in fact, occurring.

"Now almost all the doors are closed," Beidle said. And three members have changed their locks: Murphy, Annapolis Democrat and Vice Chairwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, and Severna Park Republican Catherine M. Vitale.

"They wanted their own keys," said Judy C. Holmes, the council's longtime administrative officer, careful to stick to the facts and avoid conjecture. But the story behind the keys seems murky.

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