Wild meeting called harmful to Arundel

Council skirmish has Owens fearing for county's image

May 23, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens still can't grasp the County Council's nasty skirmish before a live audience and television cameras - a chaotic scene one council member called the "theater of the absurd" and another dubbed "the comedy hour."

The bickering, which has festered behind the scenes for months, spilled into public view at Monday night's meeting, even pulling in the deputy county attorney. Voices rose, fingers wagged and, in a bizarre moment, one councilman suddenly gave a short speech in Spanish.

Owens has seen her share of council scrapes but said yesterday that the vitriol shocked her - and made her worry about the county's reputation.

"I'm concerned about anything that affects the image of Anne Arundel County," she said. "We should be working together to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening."

Ostensibly, the main dispute involved the membership of a new redistricting commission; a second fight turned on the question of how many days a budget amendment must be advertised. But observers agreed that the arguments illustrated deep-seated tension and distrust besetting the council.

As Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle of Linthicum told her colleagues at Monday's meeting, "This is about our inability to build consensus."

Yesterday, amid grim jokes that someone should hand out boxing gloves, Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, expressed hope for a smidgen of decorum as the council was attempting in daylong meetings to wrap up a $1 billion budget.

"It's so sad," she said.

The blowup occurred days after The Sun reported on the poor state of relations among council members. There has been talk, most of it whispered, about aides sneaking into members' offices, voice mail messages disappearing and conversations being overheard.

Three of the seven council members have requested new locks for their office doors, abandoning a longstanding open-door policy. Some members now use secret codes for the phone-message system.

"It's bad," said Del. Mary M. Rosso, a Glen Burnie Democrat in the audience Monday. "That's all I can say."

The squabble over the five-member redistricting commission boils down to this: Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, teamed up with the two Republicans and another Democrat to decide the makeup. That left the remaining three Democrats on the sidelines.

Klosterman's slate not only would give him two of the five picks, but also let the Republicans have two (as opposed to just one Republican on the three Democrats' slate).

Councilman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat who almost always votes along party lines, criticized the Republican-Democrat coalition as "an unholy alliance" in a speech he gave from the podium Monday night.

He was briefly interrupted when Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, let loose a loud laugh and crowed, "This is good!" Murphy ordered him to show respect.

Resuming, Burlison warned that the pact would return the council to Republican control for the first time since 1998 because new district lines would benefit the GOP.

Immediately afterward, Klocko began arguing with him about just how many Republicans sat on the council as of 1998 elections.

During a pause, Klosterman jumped in. The issue, he said, was not about party politics but fair representation. He noted that his Republican-friendly slate had a minority member - Newton Gentry III, an African-American who headed the Planning Advisory Board.

With that, Burlison - a former Missouri congressman who calls colleagues "gentlelady" or "gentleman" - launched into a diatribe about how he, too, supports minorities. Shifting to Spanish without warning, he made a plea for votes.

"Quiero sus votos, por favor," he said haltingly, reading from a prepared text.

When he finished, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat in league with Klosterman on the redistricting commission issue, observed acidly, "This has become the theater of the absurd."

She urged colleagues to "rethink the way we're working together."

At her suggestion, the council put off a vote on the issue until June 4 in hopes of finding consensus.

But that only set off Klosterman, who now saw his handiwork jeopardized by his erstwhile ally's proposed delay.

"This is a joke," he said, pointing out that commission nominees had taken time to attend the hearing. "This shows total gridlock, total inability of this council to function."

He wasn't done. "This is the comedy hour. It absolutely is. ... I'm appalled at what's going on here today."

Later in the meeting, another dispute arose. The issue: How many days budget amendments had to be advertised. The charter requires a "reasonable" amount of time, and Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer suggested five to seven days.

When Klocko pressed for details, Plymyer said he couldn't quantify "reasonable" because courts are divided on the issue. Back and forth they went.

With a red face, Klocko loudly complained of the attorney: "His contempt for this institution is evident."

To which Plymyer replied, "You talked earlier about civility. All you do, any time I answer a question, is scream and holler. If that's your idea of civility, then God help us all."

The exchanges had audience members shaking their heads and speaking of the World Wrestling Federation.

"I've been coming down here since 1968," county Chief Administrative Officer Jerome W. Klasmeier said somberly, "and I've never seen it this bad."

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