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March  9,  2011

Members of County Council
agree to make up -- sort of

Members of County Council came together long enough to approve a pair of 'good government' changes to their rules, but in the process of doing so left it uncertain whether they will heed Council president Tom Kovach's invitation to "work together as a Council and put this behind us."

“It falls on Council members to make that work,” George Smiley said.

To be sure, the rules changes approved at an executive committee meeting were pretty much of the 'motherhood and apple pie' variety and didn't lend themselves to controversy. But nearly unanimous consent for putting them into the book was accompanied by some questioning of the motivation behind bringing them forward.

One, sponsored by Lisa Diller and approved by an 11-to-one vote, will require that any future changes to the rules be presented in writing seven days in advance and included on the posted meeting agenda. If for some reason that is impractical in a specific instance, it allows for the proposal to be presented with at least six hours notice.

A previously tabled change, proposed by David Tackett and approved unanimously, requires that all legislation brought before Council include in its title and legislative summary sufficient information to make clear its content. The rule also requires including in the summary a reference to any companion legislation and to spell out changes made to the original version by amendments or substitution.

Although the voice votes were taken with what appeared to be a spirit of amiability, there nevertheless was underlying tension during the course of the meeting. Members who engaged in the discussion, however, were careful to maintain a civil tone and skirt any personal references.

Penrose Hollins cast the dissenting vote on the Diller change after telling his colleagues that he considered it to have been "inspired" by a controversial resolution he recently sponsored requiring that all legislation enacted by Council be signed by the president or president pro-tem within five business days. Calling the change "a little excessive," he indicated that he felt it cast aspersion on himself.

Jea Street did not attend the executive committee meeting on Mar. 8, but it was clear to observers that his absence was unrelated to the meeting agenda. A week earlier enough members stayed away from an executive committee meeting to prevent Kovach from mustering the seven-member quorum required to transact any business. Like all of Council's standing committees, the executive committee includes all 13 members.

Hollins said there subsequently was "a lot of false information [disseminated] about what I did and my intent."

The controversy revolved around including a resolution eliminating deed restrictions on a commercial property in Bear that is up for rezoning on Council's consent agenda. As such, it was enacted without discussion and some Council members have claimed without their being fully aware of  its content.

Kovach has refused to sign the enacted resolution on the grounds that doing so could give the perception of a conflict of interest because his former law firm represents the rezoning applicant. Hollins has requested an opinion from the county law department concerning the matter and so far has refused to sign it in his capacity as president pro-tem.

Council's attorney Carol Dulin declined to respond in open session to a question about the legality of the process by which the deed restriction resolution was enacted because she is in the process of responding to a Freedom of Information Act protest lodged with the state attorney general's office.

She also declined to comment on Hollins's request saying, "If and when an opinion is issued it will be determined if it should be [publically] released."

Kovach told the committee that "going forward, I will sign any legislation within five days" in compliance with Hollins's procedural resolution.

Kovach declined a request by Hollins that he be designated co-chairman of the executive committee and preside over some of its sessions. That would mirror the other standing committees, but Kovach said that "it is within the purview of the presiding officer [of Council] to chair an executive committee meeting" and he sees "no reason to deviate from that."

He added, however, that he would agree to Hollins occasionally chairing a meeting or part of a meeting whenever particular circumstances made that appropriate.

After the committee approved Diller's and Tackett's resolutions, Bill Bell said he "would be remiss" if he did not include on the record of the meeting a firm expression of support for Hollins. "Penrose Hollins has always followed the rules of ethics and credibility," Bell declared.

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