Council Web site sought

Merdon wants more prominent display for council news, is critical of county executive


Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon wants a separate Web site to more prominently display the council's news and activities rather than continue as part of the larger general government site.

In raising the suggestion, Merdon complained that County Executive James N. Robey is using the county's Web site to promote himself politically, a charge Robey rejected.

Merdon was particularly upset, he said, about a news release Robey posted last week describing his reasons for vetoing a council-approved bill to cut the local property assessment cap from 5 percent to 4 percent.

"This was a political article about vetoing the tax cut instead of an article about a majority of the County Council passing a tax cut," Merdon said at a monthly council administrative meeting Monday. Merdon was part of the three-member majority who approved the bill.

"He [Robey] used the Web site to push his administration's agenda, not the county government's. We are an equal branch of government," Merdon said.

Robey said Merdon's complaints represent the councilman's political posturing.

"That's to be expected. It's an election year," Robey said.

"We're not doing anything differently today than we've done the last 7 1/2 years," Robey added.

Among Baltimore-area governments, only the Baltimore County Council has a separate Web site, which was created before the general government site. Council information for Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties is available via a link on their respective general government sites.

Merdon, 35, a Republican, is running for county executive this year. Robey, 65, a Democrat who is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, is running for state Senate in District 13.

Merdon also objected to the Web site's display of a photo of Robey at a recent reading event at Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge. In the photo, Robey was wearing an oversized red-and-white-striped top hat as part of the Dr. Suess-themed event and was surrounded by smiling children in similar costumes.

"It almost looks like a Robey campaign Web site, rather than an official Web site," Merdon said after the council meeting.

Robey said he has posed for those kinds of pictures for years.

"That's my style," Robey said. Merdon could have attended and been in the picture, too, the executive added. Council members routinely appear in government photos featured on the Web site, said Victoria Goodman, the county's communications director.

The computer issue arose as Sheila Tolliver, the council administrator, told three council members that several software innovations being used or considered for use on the general government Web site may also soon be available for the council's Web page. They include streaming video of events and speeches, which is being used to make county planners' positions on the downtown Columbia redevelopment available to viewers. Streaming video for the council, for example, would make County Council meetings available for viewing at any time via computer. Now, meetings are visible only to cable television subscribers.

A proposed innovation called Really Simple Syndication may soon be available, Tolliver said. If adopted, Goodman said, it is a way to deliver information to a desktop computer, rather than requiring a search through the general Web site.

Tolliver told the councilmen that the innovations would be available with the administration's permission.

That prompted objections from Merdon, who said he wants the council to have its own Web site.

Merdon and western county Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who sponsored the tax-cap bill, objected to the idea of getting permission for anything connected to the council's Web page.

But Goodman said "permission" was perhaps the wrong word to use. The administration has never interfered with the council's control of its Web page, she said, while posting the executive's news releases on the general county page is routine.

"They [council members] have total control over their [Web] pages," Goodman said.

The administration's Bureau of Information Services must be consulted before changes are made to the government Web site to see if the changes are technically feasible because the group's staff provides the technical support to run the site. Merdon said later that the administration has never refused a council request.

Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who entered the meeting room just as the computer discussion ended, said later that he saw no need for a separate council Web page.

"It just sounds like extra people and extra money. There's a whole new council coming in [after elections]. Let the new council decide," he said.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also running for county executive, missed the meeting, but later agreed with Guzzone and had a return barb for Merdon.

"I've never heard Chris criticize Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] for all of his TV and radio spots on the taxpayers' dime. If anyone wants to look for [political] promotion, they should look at that," Ulman said.

Merdon said he wants a no-frills, text-only Web site for the council, adding that streaming video and other "new, sexy technology" isn't needed for the limited number of people who visit the site.

Goodman said the government site got 418,000 hits in the year up to February. Of those, 11,446 went on to view the council's page, she said.

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