Charter plan rouses debate

Balto. County Council would OK appointments of department heads

Voters would decide in Nov.

Democratic front-runner for county executive part of effort to quash question

July 29, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council is wavering in a bid to expand its power to confirm department heads, as opponents - including a leading candidate for county executive - launch an organized lobbying effort.

All seven council members co-sponsored the bill proposing to amend the county charter, but two - Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, and Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat - have withdrawn their support. The resolution requires the support of five of the seven council members to appear on the November ballot.

Supporters say the amendment, which would give the council a vote on all department head nominations by the county executive, is no slight to anyone now holding those jobs, but would be a safeguard to ensure future appointees are qualified professionals, not beneficiaries of political patronage.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said he has no quibble with County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's appointments, nor does he think any of the county executive candidates would make bad choices.

"I think it's a part of the process in a republic of checks and balances," McIntire said. "I don't really envision any county executive proposing someone that is not appropriate. I'm sure every county executive will try to get the very best people he can. It's a power that may never be used, but it's a safety check."

But opponents, including Ruppersberger and the Democratic front-runner in the race to succeed him, James T. Smith Jr., say they see no reason for the change. Departments are well-managed, they say, and the prospect of confirmation hearings could discourage qualified applicants.

Smith, a former circuit judge and councilman, says the proposal would disrupt the separation of powers in the county and fears that it would be harder for an executive to recruit the best people if they would be subject to confirmation hearings.

"It seems things have worked very well in Baltimore County," Smith said. "If it ain't broke, why look to change it?"

Douglas B. Riley, the Republican candidate for county executive and former councilman from Towson, said he favors the amendment.

"There is a tendency for the council to be relegated to doing constituent service and not to really be involved in the setting of policy, and to have the council actually involved in picking the people who will run the government on a day-to-day basis is, I think, a good and a very healthy thing," he said.

Joseph P. Walters Jr., the other Democrat running for executive, said he is neutral about the idea. He would like to work with the council to address its concerns some other way, but if that cannot be done, he would support the amendment.

The council confirms a handful of officials, including the county attorney and the police and fire chiefs. The amendment, which is expected to be discussed at a work session tomorrow, would broaden its authority to include the heads of all departments established by county charter.

`Soft lobbying'

Smith said he is engaged in a "soft lobbying" effort to persuade councilmen to vote against the resolution.

"No one has really tried to twist my arm or anything," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican who said he has been contacted by two people who said they were calling on Smith's behalf. "It's what I would consider a soft sell - no hard push. That may come."

Smith called a few former government officials to get their opinions and some have joined the lobbying effort. They include former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, who sent councilmen letters opposing the change, and John A. Donaho, who helped draft the charter in the mid-1950s. Donaho has made telephone calls urging council members to vote against the measure.

Many opponents

Elise Armacost, Ruppersberger's spokeswoman, said the amendment muddies the appointment process and dilutes accountability.

"If the county executive appointed a loser, everybody knows who appointed the loser," Armacost said. "When you have eight people involved as opposed to one, it becomes more muddled as to who is responsible."

Proponents of the amendment note that the council approves some appointments, including the police and fire chiefs, possibly the most important of the department heads, and that has not been a problem.

"And if it hasn't worked," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, "is what they're saying that what they should do is take away the council's power in those appointments?"

Donaho said that those appointment powers were not originally part of the charter and that he opposed amendments creating those powers.

Only a question

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat, said he can see both arguments but noted that the council is only considering whether it should be on the ballot.

"I'm certainly willing to entertain the discussion for the purposes of this bill," he said. "I was only asked whether I agree that it should go before the voters, and I don't have any objection to that."

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