Ruling sees limit to council authority

Owens' staff members not obliged to respond to questions by council

Attorney consulted amid Parole dispute

July 27, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

A simmering dispute among Anne Arundel County officials over redevelopment of Parole Plaza took a legal turn recently when the county attorney declared that members of County Executive Janet S. Owens' staff can refuse to answer questions from County Council members.

County Attorney Linda Schuett wrote Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk that under the county's charter, the executive's staff has no obligation to respond directly to questions from council members.

The charter, adopted in 1964, gives the county executive complete control of the day-to-day administration of the government, the attorney wrote, and only Owens has to answer such inquiries.

Schuett's letter came after Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. refused to provide answers to several pages of questions Samorajczyk gave him over the $400 million remake of the long-closed Parole Plaza shopping plaza outside Annapolis. Samorajczyk, a Democrat representing the Parole area, has expressed concern about increased traffic and the environmental impact of the project. Rutter is pushing for redevelopment of the site.

Rutter, the former Howard County planning chief tapped by Owens in 2002, contended that the councilwoman's questions amounted to giving him and his staff orders - which would be illegal under the county charter.

Samorajczyk and Rutter then independently sought an opinion from the county attorney, who, though appointed by Owens, also serves the council.

Owens and Samorajczyk, both Democrats, have often taken differing stances on development and other issues. With Owens concluding her second and final term, Samorajczyk plans to run for county executive next year.

Samorajczyk said Friday that she found the county attorney's opinion troubling. "No one ever contemplated that in the creating of the charter ... the executive branch could refuse to answer questions from its citizens," she said.

The council's chairman, Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, also voiced concern, suggesting that if county staff refuse to answer questions from council members, it "could place limits on our ability to protect constituents."

But both Dillon and Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, said that Owens' administration has been responsive to previous inquiries, and believed it would continue to be.

Beidle said that Owens "has the right to enforce the charter."

The county attorney and Matt Diehl, a spokesman for Owens, played down the opinion. They said county staffers would continue to comply with requests for information from council members. Diehl said last week that Rutter would respond to the councilwoman's latest inquiry on the Parole project.

Schuett called the opinion a matter of "policy, not law."

Rutter and Samorajczyk have clashed before. In October, county attorneys issued an advisory opinion at the request of the council member, which stated that Rutter wasn't complying with county laws that limit development based on school capacity.

But Rutter said the ruling would not change how he interprets the law.

Samorajczyk said in December that she lacked the authority to make Rutter abide by the attorneys' opinion, and implored Owens to resolve the matter.

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