Across the suburbs, councils standing up to county executives

Miscommunication, tight finances inspire struggles over control

October 12, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore's largest suburban counties, where the county executives carry most of the clout, the counties' part-time councils are testing the limits of their power.

Anne Arundel County Council members, already complaining of being powerless, were shocked to learn this month that the county had hired a new $90,000-a-year manager for a position they didn't know existed.

They passed legislation Tuesday to prevent a recurrence.

Baltimore County Council members have sought the power to reject any new position proposed by the county executive, with whom they have clashed, and they derailed one of his top nominees.

Even in Howard County, where the council members say they are content with the status quo, the balance of power will be debated in the coming months.

Where the politicians have butted heads there are two common ingredients: communication troubles and tight finances.

"You get more of that sort of stuff during tough times," said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.

Most debates over the balance of power center on who controls the purse strings. Children learn in grade school how a bill becomes a law. It's basically the same everywhere.

But how a state or local government passes a budget is a different story. There's little uniformity, so there's room to fight about it.

It is generally accepted, Sanderson said, that Maryland's governor has the most budgetary authority of any in the United States. That power structure largely carries over to the executives in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, as well.

"The executives run the show, and the council is a policy-making body," said Victor Tervala, a consultant with the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service.

It's different from the way local governments operate in many other states, where an appointed, full-time county manager runs the day-to-day government, but that manager must answer to the elected council members.

It also differs from the system used by most of the 17 smaller counties in Maryland. In counties such as Carroll, the powers of the executive and legislative branches are combined in a county commission.

And it's even different from more populous Montgomery County, where the council wields far more power.

In Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, the executive develops a budget, the council reviews it and adopts it. But there is little the council can do to change it.

Battles for control, Sanderson said, typically focus on three issues:

What the council can add and subtract from the county executive's proposed budget. Howard and Anne Arundel county councils can cut money from the budget and then add dollars back to the school board budget. Baltimore County's council can only cut.

Position control, where the council has authority over not only how much money a county department gets, but also how many - and what type of - employees it gets. None of the three counties has this power, though Baltimore County sought it this year and Anne Arundel passed legislation seeking it Tuesday.

Line-item veto, which allows the county executive to cut parts of a passed bill - a power that pertains to more than just budget issues. Only Anne Arundel's county executive has this power.

Though squabbling over control can turn public, as it has in Baltimore County, it often goes undetected.

Anne Arundel County Council members lamented last week that hundreds of residents will pack their chambers for a vote on new development. But only five people watched as they debated usurping some authority from County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"This is much more important," said Anne Arundel Republican Edward R. Reilly of Crofton.

The debate has not always followed partisan lines.

In Baltimore County, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is a Democrat, and so are six of the seven council members. When the Anne Arundel County Council voted Tuesday to give itself increased oversight of Democrat Owens' budget, two of the council's three Democrats supported the bill.

Instead, budget and communication problems ignited power struggles. "In some circumstances the communication is not quite as good as it should be," said Anne Arundel County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican.

Tervala, the Maryland government consultant, said power struggles are typically personality-driven, and several former county executives agreed.

"I don't think the structure is nearly as important as the people involved and whether they have an earnest desire to make the system that exists work," said former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.

The friction can increase when there isn't much money to go around, said Sanderson of the counties association. If fewer programs are funded in a budget, it's more important to the politicians who decides what makes it into the spending plan, he said.

Council members in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have said their goal is to win more checks and balances on the size of government.

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