High praise for Nolan, nominee for solicitor


March 25, 2007|By Larry Carson

Margaret Ann Nolan had loads of support in her appearance before the County Council as County Executive Ken Ulman's nominee to be county solicitor. But there was one dissenter.

Former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. showed up to tell the already admiring council members that Nolan, his former chief of civil litigation, is "one of the finest attorneys we had in the office. We all benefit when we have high-caliber attorneys" working for the public, he said.

Yale Stenzler, director of the state's Interagency Committee For School Construction from 1981 to 2003, also came to the Monday night hearing to praise Nolan, and a handful of her former colleagues -- as well as current Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler -- sent letters supporting her in the April 4 council vote.

Nolan, who would replace retiring 20-year veteran Barbara Cook, told the council she decided to devote her skills to public law -- government law -- after graduating from law school in 1977. She has worked for the Maryland attorney general's office since 1989, rising to head the civil division four years ago.

In response to a question from Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, about Nolan's ability to represent the county executive and the council, even if they sometimes disagree, the nominee said it would be her job to represent the law, the county and the public, not one official or branch of government.

She said that in representing the state, she spoke for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and the mostly Democratic General Assembly, regardless of her personal feelings.

Nolan used two high-profile cases as examples. One case involved Ehrlich's ban on state employees speaking to Sun writers David Nitkin and Michael Olesker. The other involved whether the state could require big firms such as Wal-Mart to pay a minimum amount for employee health care. She defended Ehrlich's rights as governor in The Sun case and won, and she defended the state's new law affecting Wal-Mart -- despite Ehrlich's objections -- in the second case, and lost.

But one speaker, Ralph Ballman of Ellicott City, was not persuaded. He urged the council to reject Nolan, a fellow Ellicott City resident, because of her willingness to defend the ban on speaking to the Sun reporters.

While Curran applauded Nolan's professionalism in defending the law regardless of his or Nolan's opinions, Ballman said that supporting such a ban should disqualify her. He said his fear is that government tends to exclude citizens too much already, and he does not see Nolan reversing that.

"I just do not see how appointing a solicitor who believes that it is the legal right of an elected executive to selectively ban individuals from the halls of government based on nothing more than the executive's personal dislike for what they say, fits into the citizens' desire to level the playing field and to make the process open and equally accessible to everyone," Ballman testified.

Ballman linked that view to what he considers the county government's favored treatment of developers over the eight years he has lived here, and the inability of citizens outraged by development proposed in the contested "Comp-Lite" comprehensive rezoning bill to put that issue on November's ballot, despite more than 7,000 signatures gathered by a grass-roots campaign. Maryland's highest courts last summer rejected the referendum petition on grounds that it did not explain fully enough to those who signed it what it meant.

"If you believe that such bans are wrong, I ask you to pull the plug on Ms. Nolan's appointment," Ballman said.

Setting priorities

Earlier Monday, the County Council heard complaints from volunteer Planning Board members that the process by which they review the annual capital budget and make recommendations to the county executive is flawed and should be changed.

"We're all new to what we're doing, and we wanted to talk to you guys," said Watson.

Board members said that instead of county agencies having a long-range plan for bricks-and-mortar projects and moving projects along an established timeline, the board is faced with scores of new projects each year, which makes it tough to decide on priorities.

The board is supposed to review new or substantially changed projects each year before the county executive announces a capital budget proposal by April 1, but the members have found that 81 percent of the projects on their list for fiscal 2008, which starts July 1, are new.

"Why is there such a large portion you are hearing about for the first time?" Watson asked.

"Things rise to the top by crisis or changes," replied Linda Dombrowski, a board member who other members said is the panel's budget guru.

"The ideas we hear are good ideas," she said, but often they lack enough detail for the board to fully evaluate them.

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