Week In Review

November 13, 2005

Smoking-ban bill appears in peril

A bill to ban smoking in all Howard County restaurants and bars appears to have little chance of passage because of opposition from three of the five County Council members to such a sweeping restriction.

The legislation, formally introduced Monday night, is scheduled for a vote Dec. 5. A similar bill was approved Tuesday by the Prince George's County Council, which joined Montgomery and Talbot counties in Maryland's growing no-smoking crusade.

Howard's bill is in jeopardy because of several key council members' concern for businesses that spent heavily to create physically separate smoking and nonsmoking areas to comply with current Howard law that took effect in 1996.

The bill, sponsored by County Executive James N. Robey and Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, would give such places two years' grace before taking effect. But the co-sponsors oppose a suggested compromise that would allow smoking to continue in existing businesses indefinitely.

Robey and Ulman say they aren't giving up, believing that the public sees the bill as an issue of public health, not business. They also warn that those who oppose it could run a political risk next year.

"It's premature for me to throw in the towel and say, `Woe is me,' " Robey said. If Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, votes against the measure, "he'll be held accountable" by voters, Robey said.

Some county Republicans accuse Robey -- who is ending his second and final term as executive -- of promoting the bill for political gain in an expected run for state Senate next year, a charge he denies.

Merdon and east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes appear poised to vote against the bill, though Rakes pledged to support the concept as a candidate in 2002.

West county Republican Charles C. Feaga consistently has said he opposes the measure, making a 3-2 defeat likely.

Maryland Section, Nov. 9, Page 3B

County inmate had cut wrist to get aid

An inmate who died of an acute lung infection while in custody in Howard County told the nurse treating him for a suicide attempt that he had cut his wrist so that guards would send him to the hospital for chest pains that had afflicted him for a week.

Medical staff at the Howard County Detention Center instead gave Joseph Edward McGee, 38, Motrin in the infirmary, and guards put him on suicide watch alone in a cell, according to the police file released last week in response to a Sun records request. According to a medical examiner, he died in his cell one day later of acute bronchopneumonia, a type of pneumonia that comes on fast.

McGee, of Baltimore, was the most recent of three deaths at the detention center within six months of each other this year. Medical examiners ruled the other two deaths, those of Dean Cumbie and Wilfredo Hernandez, as suicides, and police did not find jail staff negligent in those cases.

The detention center's director, Melanie Pereira, is to brief County Executive James N. Robey and the County Council on the three deaths next month.

"Although we're confident policies and procedures have been followed, there may be room for improvement," county spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said.

Howard County, Nov. 9, Page 1G

Council would get 44% pay increase

The Howard County Council elected next year would get a 44 percent pay raise if current council members agree with a citizen panel's recommendations to boost salaries that have lagged for years.

The panel's 6-1 vote, if adopted, would increase the new council members' pay to $49,000 a year, up from the $33,800 they get now, while the next executive's pay would jump a more modest 8 percent, to $147,000.

All elected officials in the next term would get additional annual raises based on the consumer price index, the seven-member panel recommended at a meeting this week.

Howard council salaries are the second-lowest in the region -- $2,700 a year higher than in 1998 -- and most Compensation Commission members felt it was time for a big increase. The council rejected any pay increase in 2002, during the recession, though members approved a change in the executive's pay to $125,000 from $98,500, plus annual increments.

"Do I think it's necessary to play catch-up? I think it is. They've been behind for years," panel member Steven Sass of Columbia said at Wednesday's meeting.

Howard's council salaries are just above those of Harford County, which, at $31,000, are the lowest of the seven big metropolitan jurisdictions. Baltimore County's next crop of council members will earn $54,000 each, and Montgomery County's members get $76,654, the highest in Maryland.

Though the vote was unanimous on the executive's pay, Frank Kitzmiller of Dayton, who was appointed to the group by western county Republican and fiscal conservative Charles C. Feaga, balked on the council pay.

Howard County, Nov. 11, Page 1G

A sigh of relief on Main Street

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