Merdon spot as council chairman deemed safe


May 14, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon may no longer lead a voting majority on the five-member council, but his chairmanship is not in danger.

Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, requested a legal opinion on whether the Democrats could replace him in midyear. The resulting five-page opinion from the county's Office of Law said he is safe, which pleased Merdon.

"There's not a whole lot more responsibility [in being chairman] than being a council member," Merdon said. "I do enjoy running the meetings and setting the agenda. It's an honor to be able to represent the council at public functions."

The question of whether Merdon would remain chairman arose after the resignation of former Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat whose vote led to Merdon's selection as chairman in December. After Rakes' resignation March 31, Calvin Ball was selected to replace him as the Democrat representing east Columbia and Jessup. Ball is likely to vote mainly with the council's two other Democrats, giving them a voting majority.

County Solicitor Barbara M. Cook and her senior assistant, Lynn A. Robeson, said that although the county charter is silent on midterm replacement of the council chairman, legal research shows the intent was not to allow it.

They contend that the charter's drafters in the late 1960s reviewed, and could have adopted, language used in a 1956 model charter from the National Municipal League that described a chairman who would serve at the pleasure of the entire body. Instead, they said, Howard's charter board chose language closer to Anne Arundel County's charter that provides for a chairmanship election once a year.

"This suggests the board was aware that a structure for at-will election of council officers existed and chose not to adopt it," the opinion states.

None of that means that there is suddenly political harmony on the council, however, especially with Merdon and west Columbia councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat, running for county executive.

Merdon complained that he and western county Republican Charles C. Feaga often are not informed about decisions the majority Democrats have reached -- including the idea for moving $3 million from a fire station project in the capital budget to help pay for Clarksville Middle School's renovation.

"It continues a pattern of the county executive of not communicating with all the members of the council," Merdon said.

But former Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the Democrats had no duty to inform Merdon because they did the research and got agreement from County Executive James N. Robey, also a Democrat. Guzzone accused Merdon of having used his position to be "discourteous," a reference to Merdon's refusal in January to allow a direct vote on the original bill to ban smoking in bars and restaurants that was sponsored by Ulman and Robey.

Guzzone also used the council's public hearing on the school budget May 6 to point out that if budget cuts proposed by Republicans in 2003 had been adopted instead of a 30 percent income tax increase, the gap in education funding this year would be nearly $37 million, instead of one-tenth that amount.

"It's clear that Mr. Merdon does not enjoy the support of the [council] majority, but the charter is the charter," said Guzzone. "The good news is that whether or not he holds his position, the new majority will not allow him to play shenanigans with the process."

Merdon vowed to continue his duties as chairman, despite what he termed a chronic "lack of common courtesy" from Democrats. "That has nothing to do with me being chairman, and everything to do with me being a Republican," he said.

Ulman stayed out of it.

"I voted for Guy [to be chairman] in December. We have a chairman now," said Ulman.

Merdon TV spots

Merdon's campaign for county executive began airing last week the first of five television commercials on cable channels, the candidate said. The first is a conventional introductory ad, and the other four feature citizens explaining why they support Merdon -- each for a different reason, he said.

The Republican is spending $1 per minute of airtime for the five-week campaign, he said, which will put a big dent in his budget, although the campaign season is still young.

"I want to establish my record managing growth before people get inundated by all the other campaigns," he said.

GOP `relevance'

In recent years, Republicans have argued that what matters in elections is the individual candidate, not the political party, but that's not the message Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. delivered to more than 300 party faithful at the GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner at Turf Valley on May 5.

"I need 14 [seats] in the House [of Delegates] and/or five in the Senate. We [Republicans] need 19 seats to stop Mike Miller and Mike Busch," Ehrlich said, referring to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats.

Ehrlich went on to give a long list of what he described as his administration's achievements, while denouncing the "aggressive, far-left agenda in Annapolis," including the vote to postpone a state takeover of several failing Baltimore schools for one year. He accused Democrats of "a selective amnesia on electric deregulation [approved] in 1999," and he said election reforms adopted over his vetoes this year are "fraudulent."

He said Democrats have a monopoly on power because of their large majorities in the General Assembly, which he finds frustrating. He wants to change the balance of power while winning a second term as governor.

"I didn't give up a safe seat in Congress to become irrelevant," he said. "This year, Republicans are taking names. We will enjoy permanent relevance," he concluded.

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