Veterans panel may be rejected

Balto. County Council expected to vote against forming commission

Debate includes recriminations

Bill's opponents point to `logistical issues'

October 20, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Barring a last-minute compromise, the Baltimore County Council appears ready tonight to reject a proposal to create a veterans commission, an idea that has split a body that thrives on consensus and sparked one of the most bizarre council debates in years.

Creating a veterans commission is the kind of thing politicians usually trip over themselves to support. But when the idea came up for discussion, the council plunged into a free-for-all of recriminations and flag-waving.

"I thought maybe somebody slipped something in their water," Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, who watched the back-and-forth in silent amazement, said Friday. "I've never seen anything like it."

In the aftermath, Council President Kevin Kamenetz told Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, sponsor of the bill, that he regretted the tone of the debate.

Still, the bill's prospects remain doubtful.

McIntire, Bartenfelder and John Olszewski Sr. have said they will support it. Kamenetz, Kenneth N. Oliver, Vincent J. Gardina and Stephen G. Samuel Moxley said that they can't vote for the bill in its present form. Kamenetz said Friday that he is looking for a compromise but doesn't know whether that is possible.

"It's a quandary as an elected official," Moxley said. "As it stands now, without any amendments it's really something I can't support, just because of the logistical issues. But it will be interpreted that a `no' vote will be a vote against the vets, when in fact that's not the case."

Dennis Rebok, an American Legion member who spoke before the council, said he can understand the council's reluctance to create commissions for every special interest. But veterans, he said, "go above and beyond a special interest."

The proposed commission would be a user-friendly clearinghouse for information, particularly for National Guardsmen and reservists who are called up to active duty, he said.

"You've got the Department of Veterans Affairs, that big scary bureaucratic mess, where even if you know where you're going you have problems," he said. "These guys are concerned about housing, what's going to happen to their families while they're gone, if they get sick, all that sort of thing."

McIntire, a north county Republican, sponsored the measure at the request of veterans groups who said they would like a commission similar to those in Harford and other counties to help raise the profile of veterans and to educate people.

Under the proposal, council members would appoint 11 members to the commission, one from each veterans group in the county, and the county executive would appoint three. The group would meet every two months and prepare an annual report.

Accompanied by several veterans, who were wearing hats and pins from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups, McIntire explained the idea at last week's council work session.

After McIntire gave his pitch, Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, noted that he has nothing but the highest esteem for veterans and believes they deserve respect, admiration and support. However, he questioned who from the county would provide administrative services for the commission and what, exactly, it would do.

"I'm not really sure, other than a feel-good thing, what this has to do with the function of county government," he said.

Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat and the only veteran on the council, said he didn't see the point of forming a commission. He said the group would duplicate what is done on the state and federal levels. He added that because the bill would require commission members to belong to an established veterans group, it would exclude many, himself among them.

That's when things got ugly.

Kamenetz said he worried that if the council said "yes" to veterans, other groups would start demanding commissions.

McIntire, appearing annoyed, said that in that case, councilmen would just have to do what the voters elected them to do: use their judgment.

"Do you think there should be a commission for gay and lesbian rights in the county?" Kamenetz asked.

McIntire stared back for a moment. "I choose not to answer that question," McIntire said.

Kamenetz persisted: "If we don't have any influence over veterans affairs as part of our budget process, which we don't, why are we creating a commission for them? This is not a discussion of disrespect for the sacrifices veterans have made to this country. There is no need to wave the flag or apologize."

"We can all pay lip service," McIntire replied, "or we can stand up and do something affirmative."

"I think this is lip service," Kamenetz shot back.

Harford County's commission provides information to students and others about what veterans groups do and publishes a resource guide for veterans, said Joe Brooks, the acting chairman and a retired Army major general. Although there aren't many county-level issues that have to do with veterans, he said, the group lobbies the state and federal government.

"You've got this veterans commission that has some recognition, so it makes a difference in some of the things you can do," Brooks said.

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