Rakes leaves his colleagues, constituents confused

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

August 07, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

IT HAS been a tough year for Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes -- and a confusing one for his Democratic Party colleagues and constituents.

From a mysterious bill last spring to move a planning boundary in another councilman's district, through Rakes' undisclosed links to a liquor license applicant, his firing of several special assistants, and seemingly contradictory votes July 28, Rakes is dismaying a growing number of people.

"I have had letters from constituents in his district about his votes," said county Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler, who said she hopes to sit down and talk things over with the 68-year-old councilman.

Party members do not always agree on every issue, she said, "but the bottom line is he was elected as part of a Democratic majority. He's out of step with the majority of his constituents who put him there."

Bill Woodcock, chairman of the Oakland Mills revitalization committee and a Democratic party activist, said Rakes has always supported the village's rejuvenation, but Woodcock said people are concerned about a number of the councilman's votes.

"The only thing that's for sure with Dave's votes is that there's nothing for sure. I don't know who he consults," Woodcock said.

Rakes maintains that he is an independent, effective legislator who has simply made a few honest mistakes. As liquor board chairman, for example, he concedes he should have revealed that an applicant was his campaign treasurer, though Rakes was cleared of wrongdoing by the county ethics commission.

"As chairman of the liquor board and in all of my dealings, my objectivity and impartiality are above board. My record will support that," he wrote to the commission.

Local Republicans either decline to comment or are coming to his defense.

"I'm not beating a guy when he's down," said Brian Harlin, a Republican central committee member who ran against Rakes in 2002.

Ellicott City Councilman Christopher J. Merdon declined to comment, while western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, who successfully lobbied Rakes to vote his way last week, tried to defend him.

"Dave finds it a little hard to explain what he's thinking," Feaga said.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman's comments after the council's July 28 meeting -- that Rakes did not understand the legislation he voted on and that "his constituents should be embarrassed for him" -- were "unkind" and "unfair," Feaga said.

At that council meeting, Rakes reversed two earlier votes and sided with the council's two Republicans, providing the key vote that killed a plan to transfer housing allocations for 100 new units a year from the western county for use as moderate-income housing in the east -- a goal he professes to support.

The vote could also affect a deal the county reached with state planners to restrict development in the west as a way to keep agricultural preservation money flowing from Annapolis, though state officials said the county has until June 2006 to act.

"I think it's going to be problematic with the state, and I think that's a shame," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "Each of us has the right to cast our votes as we see fit to the benefit of the county, and each of us has the responsibility to explain those votes to the public."

Later that day in a Zoning Board meeting, Rakes voted with the majority to deny a density increase for a mixed-use development called Maple Lawn, Maryland, but then he voted to ask for a reconsideration vote on the same issue. He offered no explanations at the time.

In Howard County, council members also serve as the Zoning Board and as the county liquor board.

"My reasoning is that I'm just taking a look at this whole density issue," Rakes said several days later. On the Zoning Board vote, "I'm working my way through, and I see points on both sides. I don't want to engage in a dialogue beyond what I've already said. At this point, I don't want to discuss it."

Asked again later about the votes, Rakes said, "I certainly want to reconsider any way that I can to bring about more moderate-income housing." However, he said that lower-priced housing should be in the western county, too, not just in the east.

The July 28 votes were the latest in what some colleagues see as puzzling actions by Rakes.

Last spring, Rakes introduced legislation to move a planning district boundary on the southwest side of Columbia, in Ulman's district, for what he said was "housekeeping" purposes. Later, he said it was to benefit a church whose leaders wanted to sell their land and relocate. The line eventually was moved just far enough to speed up a planned townhouse office development at Route 32 and Cedar Lane, but not far enough to benefit the church.

In November, Rakes, acting as chairman of the county liquor board, alone supported granting a liquor license to Haluk "Alec" Kantar, for a restaurant in Oakland Mills, despite Kantar's record, which Merdon called "the worst record I've ever seen."

Rakes failed to disclose that Kantar had been his campaign treasurer, and said he was unaware that Kantar officially remained his treasurer at the time of the liquor board hearing.

Rakes also has had staff problems. Each County Council member has one special assistant or staff member. Rakes is on his fifth assistant in less than three years. Two who were fired said they were given no reason.

Melody Higgins, a member of the Democratic central committee, said she is confused about Rakes' votes, particularly the one last week that killed the moderate-income housing increase.

"I don't understand why he wouldn't want to bring moderate-income housing into his district. It doesn't make any sense," Higgins said.

For Tony McGuffin, another central committee member, the issue was preserving western county farmland.

"I was personally disappointed. I'm into preserving farmland. I don't understand his vote on that. I really don't."

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