Balto. Co. counsel resigns position

Top attorney's departure comes amid criticism of role in razing of historic house in Hunt Valley

November 05, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun about the resignation of Baltimore County Attorney Jay L. Liner included an incomplete description of a statement by Patrica L. Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Society. The article paraphrased Bentz as saying that Liner never provided a written explanation of why a permit had been issued to allow the demolition of the 19th-century Elizabeth Gardner House. Bentz said that Liner responded to her request with a letter that she said contained erroneous information.

Baltimore County government's top lawyer resigned yesterday amid criticism of his role in approving the demolition of a 19th-century house that preservationists considered a landmark.

County Attorney Jay L. Liner stepped down, and his top deputy assumed the position on an acting basis, said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

Mohler said the executive would not comment on the move because it involved a personnel matter.

However, a high-ranking county employee familiar with the situation said Liner submitted his resignation after Smith imposed "new controls" on his job, including that all of his decisions be reviewed by the county's administrative officer.

Liner decided to resign rather than work under that arrangement, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it involved county personnel.

Reached on his cellular telephone, Liner declined to comment yesterday. "It will all sort itself out," he said. "Right now, I'm just not ready to say anything."

Liner advised a county department last month to issue a permit for the demolition of the Elizabeth Gardner House in Hunt Valley before the time period had elapsed for preservationists to file a court appeal that might have prevented the building from being razed.

The issuance of the permit "usurped the democratic process," County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said yesterday.

Preservationists had unsuccessfully lobbied the county Landmarks Preservation Commission to put the structure on a protected list but were considering appealing a Board of Appeals vote that paved the way for construction.

The structure was demolished days after the Sept. 28 vote, before the Board of Appeals opinion was written and well within the 30-day appeal window.

Smith has not spoken publicly about the Gardner House. But the high-ranking official said the executive was livid when he read in The Sun about the house being destroyed before the written decision of the Board of Appeals had been issued.

In the article, Liner said of the preservationists: "They had their day in court. It's not like they were blindsided or this was sprung upon them."

Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust, said Liner never provided a written explanation of the issuance of the permit, which she had requested.

She took exception to Liner's explanations that he was trying to avoid a legal confrontation with the owner of the Gardner House.

"That's ridiculous," Bentz said. "His job is to uphold the county code, not to keep the county out of court."

Smith has set no time frame for finding Liner's replacement, Mohler said. Deputy County Attorney John Beverungen will serve as the acting county attorney.

As county attorney, Liner served as counsel to the executive and the County Council, as well as to department heads. A lawyer from Pikesville, he was approved unanimously by the County Council in summer of 2004, and he made $149,608 a year.

Gardina, a Towson Democrat, characterized Liner as an "outstanding attorney" who made a bad call.

"The bottom line is the county executive and the County Council have to depend on his accurate advice sometimes to make decisions," Gardina said. "And when there's a problem with the advice that's given and a controversial decision is made, that reflects on the elected officials, and it really can't be tolerated."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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