Balto. County Council seeks power boost

Authority to confirm department heads sought

Executive, candidate oppose bill

Members also want input on preservation panelists

April 28, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With a new county executive certain to be elected in November, the veteran-packed Baltimore County Council is looking at ways to expand its authority.

Maryland jurisdictions put considerable power into the hands of their executives, and nowhere is it more concentrated than in Baltimore County, where the executive has sole discretion over proposing spending and complete control over government departments. The County Council's biggest responsibility is land use.

With County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger due to leave office in December because of term limits, council members foresee the possibility that a legislative body considered the most experienced in recent memory will be paired with an inexperienced executive. That presents an opportunity to bring about small changes to enlarge the council's role, members say.

A bill to be discussed by the council at its work session Tuesday would allow the council to appoint seven of the 15 members of the Landmark Preservation Commission.

Another bill being circulated by north county Republican T. Bryan McIntire proposes a charter amendment giving the council the authority to confirm all heads of county departments. To be enacted, voters would have to approve the proposal in a referendum.

Both bills appear to have widespread support on the council.

Neither Ruppersberger nor the two candidates vying to replace him object to the preservation panel bill. But Ruppersberger and Democratic candidate James T. Smith Jr., a former Circuit Court judge, both oppose the idea of a referendum giving the council confirmation powers. Douglas B. Riley, an attorney and the only Republican candidate for county executive, favors the idea.

All three men are former council members.

Although the two proposals are not directly related, they address a common frustration of council members: They're often the first to hear complaints from constituents, but they have little direct authority to do anything about them.

Historic preservation is tied up in land use and development, among the most contentious issues communities face. And department heads are charged with providing government services, so how they perform their jobs has a large impact on residents. But council members have no direct influence on department heads and only deal with historic preservation at the end of the process.

"Rightly or wrongly, we are held responsible, and we should have some input into verifying that you have quality individuals that are going into a position, and they should also realize the importance of the council besides during the month of May, which is budget time," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

McIntire said he doesn't intend his bill as a slight to Ruppersberger, the county executive candidates or any of the department heads. From a political-science standpoint, he said, this check on the executive's power would improve the government.

The Ruppersberger administration has objected strongly to McIntire's proposal, saying it is unnecessary and that it would create problems of accountability.

"We haven't had any unrest or dissent in Baltimore County over the performance or accountability of the department heads, so we're not quite sure where this is coming from," said Elise Armacost, Ruppersberger's spokeswoman. "But it's abundantly clear that the people hold the county executive in Baltimore County accountable for the operation of the government. That being the case, he should have the authority to appoint his own people."

The bill is only being proposed now, she said, so the council can grab more power when a new executive takes office.

Smith said he's dubious about the merits of the proposal and thinks floating an idea in the County Council and putting it on the November ballot isn't the way to change county government. Such a shift in the power structure should come out of a commission, he said.

Riley, however, said he favors the idea as a way to make sure the best people are running the government and to bring operations closer to the people.

"It ensures the county executive is putting in people who are fair and reasonable and not just necessarily political appointees and not necessarily people who just worked on his political campaign," Riley said. "I think that's healthy."

Other counties vary widely in how they handle confirmations. In Anne Arundel, the council doesn't handle confirmations. In Harford, the council confirms all appointed officials. In Howard, the council confirms the county solicitor and the cable administrator. In Carroll, department heads serve at the pleasure of the three county commissioners.

Currently, the Baltimore County Council confirms a handful of positions, including the county attorney, administrative officer and the police and fire chiefs.

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