Merdon votes no on council chairman

4 other members grant Democrat Guzzone a 2nd consecutive year in post

`We need a change in leadership'

Republican's remarks in opposing re-election called `campaign speech'

Howard County

December 02, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Republican member Christopher J. Merdon threw down a political gauntlet at last night's Howard County Council meeting by publicly denouncing Democratic Chairman Guy Guzzone's leadership over the past year - and then voting alone against him for another one-year term in the leadership job.

Both men, along with Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, are considered possible candidates for county executive in three years, though Merdon said that is not why he made his unusual move.

Guzzone was confirmed as chairman for a second consecutive year on the 4-1 vote. He and Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler, who took notes in the audience, attributed Merdon's action to his political ambitions.

Merdon said after the meeting that he had expected to be chosen chairman by a 3-2 margin, "up until an hour before the meeting."

In another unusual action, Councilman Ken Ulman, perhaps the council's most partisan Democrat, left the meeting suddenly after the chairmanship vote after receiving a call on his cell phone and saying he had an emergency. His departure proved costly to his bill to restrict roadside vendors, which died on a 2-2 vote along party lines.

Before leaving, Ulman was unanimously chosen to continue as Zoning Board chairman.

David A. Rakes, the third council Democrat, nominated Guzzone for a second term and was chosen to continue as council vice chairman. He denied ever considering a vote for Merdon, though Merdon has been wooing Rakes in recent months. They co-sponsored a bill on moderate-income housing, and Merdon attended Rakes' political fund-raiser Oct. 22, praising him highly to those in attendance, Rakes confirmed.

Rakes said last night that he plans to attend Merdon's Christmas party.

"We've both gained a great deal of respect for each other," Rakes said, since the bruising, partisan budget fight in May over County Executive James N. Robey's income tax increase.

"I do not want to go with the status quo again," Merdon said before voting "no" on Guzzone. "The legislative branch should not be viewed as a rubber stamp for the administration.

"We've had no thought leadership on the County Council," he continued. "We need a change in leadership."

Guzzone said Merdon's vote "is expected from someone already seeking higher office." Fiedler dismissed Merdon's remarks as a "campaign speech."

Kittleman voted for Guzzone - but only, he said, because "I also realize the majority makes the rules, and I am not in the majority." He said he would have voted for Merdon to be chairman if his GOP colleague had the three votes needed to win.

In other action, the council unanimously approved a bill reinforcing the Howard County government's right to receive zoning variances from the council if they are needed for public projects - such as the issue of a 12th high school.

Merdon defended the administration bill, saying that "people most directly accountable to the people should have that vote [to grant a variance]. This body is the most accountable to the public." Guzzone said the bill "really clarifies a practice that has gone on for many years."

But Barry Casanova, a lawyer who said he owns a building lot near the site of the new 12th high school, said the county should have to conform to the same zoning standards as members of the public. "It's just bad when government can do things that citizens can't," he said.

A group fighting the building of a high school across from Mount View Middle School in the western county opposed the bill. The school is under construction and is to open in August 2005, but the group, Citizens for Adequate School Facilities, opposes the location near their homes as too small for a high school.

The residents say that allowing government to routinely get variances to zoning laws opens the door to abuses of rules intended to regulate development.

But school board member Courtney Watson, who attended the council meeting, praised the action: "The school system needs the flexibility to build schools in these rural areas that may not conform to residential zoning, for the public good."

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