Council wants own lawyer

Some members feel county attorney tends to support executive

`More checks and balances'

Schuett backs system, says post would add another legal `layer'

February 05, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Worried that they're getting biased legal advice, some Anne Arundel County Council members want a barrister of their own, someone other than County Attorney Linda M. Schuett.

The elected officials contend that because Schuett, a 22-year law professional, was appointed by County Executive Janet S. Owens in 1999, she and her staff are more likely to write legal opinions that support legislation produced by the administration.

"The problem is that, at times, there's concern that the county attorney is advocating for the county executive as opposed to giving detached legal advice," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Republican from Crofton. "And this is historical, it's not just a current issue."

The concept - allowing the council to have its own attorney, or at least the ability to seek outside legal advice on legislation - isn't new.

In the 1970s, Harford County officials changed their charter to provide separate legal counsel for executive and legislative branches. In Montgomery County, the council hires two full-time attorneys to handle legal issues.

In Howard County, although the county's legal office is not formally divided, elected officials have the right to reject a county attorney candidate, muting some of the politics.

Klocko, a seven-year veteran of county politics, is one of several council members who are backing an effort led by Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat who has never seen eye to eye with the county executive, to get outside legal aid.

Samorajczyk said the law office is slow to respond to the council's needs, and that it has flip-flopped on at least one opinion when it suited the Owens administration. She wants to alter the county charter to "provide more checks and balances."

"Maybe I should run for county executive," said Samorajczyk, poking fun at rumors that she might do that, adding quickly that she doesn't want the job. "I mean, this is just one example of the abuses we see because our government isn't set up for checks and balances."

As they have in the past, council members, four of whom are lawyers, including Samorajczyk and Klocko, challenged an opinion by Schuett's office last month on a telecommunications bill. It was adopted, but not without much debate.

Council members questioned whether the bill - which allows the county to shut down cellular towers if providers can't prove that they won't interfere with local police and fire radio communications - might preempt federal law.

The response they got from the law office was inconclusive.

"While not entirely free from doubt, this office believes that the courts in this jurisdiction may uphold [the law] if it is attacked on the preemption grounds," Lori L. Blair, senior assistant county attorney, said in a Jan. 9 memorandum to the council.

Owens supported the bill based on public safety concerns, but Klocko, who was one of the council members who pushed the preemption query, said that it is an example of a political bias that exists as a result of the symbiotic relationship between Schuett and Owens.

Under the county code, the county attorney serves at the pleasure of the county executive.

"When you know that the administration has an opinion and it was reached with the advice of the county attorney and her office and then we ask for our own opinion, on a nuance or variation, they will support their client," said Klocko, who wants the Charter Revision Commission to study the issue.

Commission members, who are reviewing possible amendments including independent legal counsel for the council, will meet Monday, said Chairman Tom Riggin. At that time, they could receive a report on the topic.

The commission must produce recommendations to elected officials by June 30.

The council would then have until Sept. 17 to debate what issues they want to add to a Nov. 5 referendum.

Schuett, immediate past president of the Maryland Association of County Civil Attorneys, said the county's legal system is the same as those in most local jurisdictions. She said that adding another "layer of lawyers at the expense of the taxpayer really just isn't a good idea."

"We provide the best legal advice for the county as a whole, no matter who asks for it," said Schuett, who practiced law in Baltimore and Annapolis before she was appointed. "We just call them as we see them."

Schuett, who said the issue "comes up all the time," has researched the question. She said she understands the council's frustration, and is aware of a few options that might help.

How the council's legal office might be set up is unclear. It could be that whenever the council needs advice, they could hire an expert, or that legislative and procedural counsel Robert M. Pollock, who worked for the county's law office for 24 years before moving to the council's suite a year ago, would take on new responsibilities.

Added cost, when local leaders are looking for ways to stretch every dollar, is what worries Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum.

"The going rate for lawyers in Anne Arundel County is $250 an hour," Beidle said. "And how do you budget for that, not knowing how often you might contact them?"

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