Council retreats on power play

June 04, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Reining in their efforts to check the powers of the county executive, Anne Arundel County Council members have withdrawn two charter amendments and delayed voting on four others, including one that would force County Executive John R. Leopold to seek their approval when transferring $50,000 or more within a department.

Monday night, after a protracted debate and testimony from officials in Leopold's administration, the council dropped a proposal that would have given them four of seven appointments to the Planning Advisory Board, a committee that helps determine which building projects are funded and whose members are appointed by Leopold, a Republican.

They also scratched an amendment that would have allowed the council to appoint its own attorney instead of being advised by one handpicked by the county executive.

Councilman G. James Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who introduced the latter measure, said he withdrew it amid concerns that it would be perceived as a vote of no-confidence in Jonathan Hodgson, the current county attorney, or Amy Tate, who serves as legislative counsel.

Still, Benoit said, the current system makes for one of the "strangest attorney-client relationships I have ever seen."

Councilman Joshua J. Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat who initially submitted the Planning Advisory Board amendment, said he was swayed by former board members who emphasized the board's value as an "independent sounding board."

Leopold, whose administration has said the changes were an attempt by the council to micromanage government, said yesterday that he was pleased by the about-face and that the remaining amendments "offer grounds for compromise."

The council also postponed voting on amendments that would give it three appointments to the seven-member ethics commission; allot it an extra 15 days to review Leopold's annual budget proposal; and give it the authority to make any bill it passes become law if the county executive fails to sign it within 10 days.

Changes in the charter, the county's founding document, require a veto-proof "supermajority," five of seven council votes. If passed, the amendments would go to a voter referendum on the November ballot.

Alan R. Friedman, director of government relations for Leopold, said the council should wait for the charter review scheduled for 2010, after Leopold's four-year term expires.

"None of these are responses to direct, immediate concerns that could not wait for charter review," said Friedman, who added that Marylanders will be too wrapped up in the presidential elections and a statewide referendum on slot machines to be concerned with changing the county government.

"We believe it is a disservice to citizens by putting them on the ballot in a non-county-office election year," he said.

Council members said charter amendments are frequently passed outside the review process and that the high voter turnout during presidential elections would mean more people would to weigh in on them.

The most heated debate stemmed from the amendment that would force the executive to disclose interdepartmental transfers to the council, which Friedman said could slow down the government and open the door for the council to meddle in executive decisions and overstep its bounds as a policy-making body.

Benoit, who proposed the measure, said the amendment would prevent the council from being surprised by budget changes made by the county executive.

"They are appropriations that we never find out about and the taxpayers never find out about. ... If we are really going to operate this government under the full view of the public, we ought to do something such that we can see monies like this being spent," he said.

Benoit and County Auditor Teresa Sutherland presented a list of 44 such transfers - totaling close to $6 million - that were moved by Leopold's administration last fiscal year without the council's approval. Sutherland pointed to about $2.8 million reallocated within the Fire Department and $580,000 within the Health Department.

"I'm not questioning if [the transfers] are legitimate. I honestly don't know what it was," Sutherland told the council. "But that is a lot of money to be moving around without your knowledge and approval."

Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said he would vote against the measure because such microscopic oversight could weigh on the council's ability to deal with other issues.

"The county government can be very big and clumsy, and I just worry that we are making it even clumsier," he said.

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