Cook's renomination hits snag in council

Members aim to question longtime county solicitor

Howard County

February 09, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Barbara M. Cook has been Howard County government's top lawyer for so long, her reappointment to new four-year terms has become routine - except for this year.

The County Council tabled her nomination when it came up for a vote at a legislative meeting Tuesday, and the members want to have a closed-door meeting with her before the vote.

The reason is not clear, though a group of Elkridge residents complained bitterly during last year's election campaign that they felt Cook's office was not helpful to them in a controversial zoning case. There have been some private rumbles of discontent among council members since that incident, sources close to the council said.

"Barbara has served a number of administrations and has done a very good job," said Raquel Sanudo, chief administrative officer under County Executive James N. Robey.

Robey submitted Cook's name to the council.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone said the members "were expressing our responsibility over a very important position." But he refused to elaborate on what he said is a personnel matter.

Cook, 60, who has been county solicitor since March 1987 and was an assistant solicitor for eight years before that, said, "As far as I know, they would like to interview me like they would any other appointee." Each new County Council is a little different, she said.

Two council members - Columbia Democrats David A. Rakes and Ken Ulman - are newly elected. In 1999, however, when three of the five members were new, Cook was approved without a delay, Sanudo said.

Rakes said he felt "the timing of the action we took [tabling the appointment] was unfortunate," but he also refused to discuss a personnel matter.

His east Columbia-Jessup district includes the Dorsey site of a proposed 175,000-square-foot warehouse that has upset nearby residents.

Residents resentful

In trying to insist on enforcement of setback rules that would help buffer their homes from the warehouse, the residents spent more than $10,000 to hire a lawyer and worked to defend current zoning standards - something they felt the county should be doing for them.

The site is along railroad tracks on the Howard-Anne Arundel County border, south of Route 103.

The developer sought the variances to allow the building to be 60 feet from homes instead of the normal 150 feet because half of the 16.3-acre site is wetlands, forcing the building onto a smaller spot.

In 2000, the residents prevailed at the Planning Board and the Board of Appeals. But later, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals returned the case to the county in a decision that criticized the Board of Appeals' decision, which was written by a lawyer in Cook's office.

The court noted "an absence of adequate factual reasoning" in the ruling that made it impossible to decide the case.

The Board of Appeals voted last month to reconsider the variances requested by the developer, Dorsey Rock LLC - putting the residents back where they started.

Sally Voris, a community activist involved in the dispute, was so angry about it last fall that she worked to defeat Robey's re-election, appearing at a news conference in October for Republican Steven H. Adler to complain that despite all the community's efforts, it felt ignored and unsupported by Cook's office.

Last week, Voris said her group had met with Rakes, who went to Dorsey to see the site. "We did impress on him that we want the county to enforce its own law," she said.

Cook, who earns $124,000 a year, oversees a staff of 24 and administers a budget this year of $2.2 million.

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