Rakes' exit may bring shift

His resignation changes council's balance

March 29, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes' sudden announcement that he is resigning his office effective Friday drastically changes the council's political balance, effectively shattering the three-vote majority created just a few months ago when Rakes began voting with the council's two Republicans.

The surprise move, which he made without notice, also comes as a blow to Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, who had counted on wielding that majority at a time when he is seeking the GOP nomination for county executive.

Heading the list of those who could be appointed to serve out the rest of Rakes' term is Calvin Ball, a 30-year old Democrat who lost the party nomination for the District 2 seat to Rakes four years ago. Ball and one other Democrat, former Sun reporter Adam Sachs, 42, are running for the District 2 seat.

The local party central committee has until April 25 to recommend someone for the job before a final approval by the County Council.

Ball said he is interested in the appointment, and he said it could "provide continuity to the next council." County party Chairman Tony McGuffin said, "We're going to follow the rules," but he added that Ball is "very popular. He's obviously the front-runner in the campaign."

Rakes' support was crucial in Merdon's December selection as chairman, and Rakes also provided key support for the Republicans in defeating County Executive James N. Robey's proposal for a smoking ban in all county bars and restaurants after two years. A Merdon-backed bill with a four-year enforcement delay was vetoed by an angry Robey.

If Ball or another anti-smoking Democrat is selected to fill out the term, Robey could resubmit his smoking-ban bill, though neither the executive nor Ball would speculate on that yesterday.

The resignation also weakens Merdon's hand in coming deliberations on Robey's last annual budget, starting next month. Robey, a Democrat, has proposed a 3-cent property tax cut, while Merdon favors cutting the local income tax.

Rakes' resignation is one more puzzling event in a string of seemingly inexplicable actions by him over the past two years.

In early 2004, he pushed a mysterious bill to move a planning boundary in another member's district, and later, as county liquor board chairman, supported granting a liquor license to his campaign treasurer without disclosing the relationship to other liquor board members. That prompted a review by the county Ethics Commission, which cleared Rakes of wrongdoing. The council also sits as the liquor board.

Then in January 2005, Rakes filed a mistake-ridden campaign finance report, which later that year prompted a query by the state prosecutor, though no charges resulted. Rakes said someone complained in an effort to damage his re-election prospects. Along the way, he reversed votes on several issues, seemingly without explanation.

Last summer, angry with his fellow Democrats, he began voting more with the council's two Republicans, killing a move to add moderate-income housing in the eastern county while reducing development in the west.

Recently, he refused to say if he would run for re-election -- yet he attended a Columbia Democratic Club candidates forum and defiantly said he could beat Ball again if he were to run.

This week, he noted only "reasons of health" for his resignation in a short, three-paragraph news release he issued late Monday. He since has been unavailable for comment. He has missed three council meetings and two Zoning Board sessions this year.

But several Republicans speculated that tension with fellow Democrats is why Rakes is leaving.

"My own personal observance is that the administration and his colleagues made life a living hell for him while he was here," said western county Republican Charles C. Feaga. "I have never observed someone so hurt as he was in the State of the County address. I thought they really went after him badly."

In that January speech, County Executive James N. Robey noted the smoking ban controversy as a sign that "as my administration winds down, the rhetoric of the election season is winding up."

Robey said that although opponents claimed they oppose smoking, they "feigned sympathy toward employees and patrons" exposed to secondhand smoke, but were content to allow those conditions to persist for four more years.

Brian Harlin, chairman of the county Republicans and Rakes' opponent in 2002, focused his ire at west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, who is Merdon's rival this year for county executive.

"I think it's absurd the way Ulman treated Rakes," Harlin said, referring to comments Ulman made last summer after Rakes reversed course and opposed a housing bill he had supported. Ulman said at that time that Rakes did not understand the bill and that "his constituents should be embarrassed for him."

"He can't take it anymore," Harlin said of Rakes. He said the Democrats' credo is, "If you don't do what the Democratic Party tells you, we'll get rid of you."

McGuffin scoffed at Harlin's charges.

"He's just making all this up. That's what they do. They say what they want to be true and think if they repeat it enough, people will believe it," McGuffin said.

Robey said all his conversations with Rakes have been cordial, including discussions about the smoking bill.

"I can't recall anytime he and I have ever had any harsh words," Robey said. The executive said his speech criticized the entire council. "I never singled David out," he said.

Robey, Ulman and Guy Guzzone, the other council Democrat, said they are taking Rakes at his word that health problems are forcing his resignation.

Merdon pledged cooperation with council Democrats.

"I want to make sure that the legislative branch is not interrupted by this resignation," he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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