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February  23,  2011

Council approves requiring more
specificity on items put before it

County Council unanimously approved a resolution intended to assure that the public -- and, in some instances, Council members -- know what's going on.

The measure requires that "law and Council rules be followed in letter and spirit." Specifically, it directs that, from now on, proposed ordinances and resolutions include enough detail in both their title and legislative summary to make clear their purpose.

Before Council passed the resolution at its plenary session on Feb. 22, it approved at a contentious committee meeting a new procedural rule requiring the Council president to sign any approved legislation within five working days, irrespective of how he or she views the measure or voted on it. If the president is unavailable or for any legitimate reason refuses to do so, the obligation devolves upon the president pro-tem.

It is usual procedure for Council to act on resolutions at a plenary session and on rules changes at meetings of the executive committee. Both sessions are open to the public. Like all of Council's standing committees, the executive committee is comprised of all 13 members of Council.

The matter arose after Council unanimously approved a resolution at its Feb. 8 meeting which lifted deed restrictions on a property in the Bear area which is involved in a controversial proposed rezoning to permit construction of a third unit of the Governors Square shopping center. That resolution, sponsored by George Smiley, who represents the area, referred to the property by its numerical property tax designation and not its location. Because it was included in the meeting's consent calendar, there was no discussion at the session. It had previously been presented at a meeting of Council's land use committee.

Parliamentary bodies use a consent calendar to deal en-bloc with routine non-controversial measures.

After the meeting at which Smiley's resolution was approved, Robert Weiner charged that the process was an attempt to deceive Council about the intent and effect of the resolution. Council president Thomas Kovach refused to sign the measure -- a necessary step before it goes to County Executive Paul Clark for final approval. Opponents of the shopping center rezoning -- which Smiley has tabled -- picked up on their objections and sparked something of a media frenzy.

That set the stage for a verbal donnybrook when the resolution requiring clarity, sponsored by David Tackett, came before the afternoon executive committee meeting on Feb. 22.

Penrose Hollins chaired the meeting after Kovach recused himself on the grounds that his former law firm represents the developer seeking the rezoning. Kovach has not been personally involved in that representation, but said his participation could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Hollins forcefully exonerated Smiley of any wrongdoing regarding the controversial resolution. In that regard, he said, the resolution and its title had been drafted by the rezoning applicant. The actual writing of measures that come before Council by someone other than the sponsoring Council member is not an unusual occurrence, he said.

"Councilman Smiley did not do anything wrong or try to pull a fast one," Hollins said.

Smiley said the resolution's title and content were not changed in any way as it went through the usual vetting before the Planning Board and the Department of Land Use approval process. Because there had been no objections raised regarding the resolution or the deed change it addressed, it was a proper matter to be handled on the consent calendar, he said.

Smiley and Weiner then exchanged rhetorical jabs. Smiley accused Weiner of "running to the press" and "going behind the back of" rather than openly confronting a fellow Council member. Weiner said he was defending the principle of "transparent good government."

Hollins said Kovach's refusal to sign the resolution "threatened the integrity of the [legislative] process" and introduced the rules change. It was approved by an eight-to-five committee vote with Kovach, Weiner, Tackett, Lisa Diller and Bill Bell voting against it.

At the later plenary session, Hollins withdrew an unrelated measure slated for introduction under his sponsorship because its title lacked specificity.

When Tackett's resolution in that regard came before Council for a vote, all members joined him as co-sponsors.

There was no move by Weiner -- or anyone else -- to attempt to rescind Smiley's deed restriction resolution, an idea that he had raised during media discussion over it.

There also was no participation from opponents of the rezoning during the public comment section of the session. Several had come to the earlier committee meeting, but Hollins had restricted their opportunity to comment there when the meeting ran over the allotted time and threatened to interfere with the plenary session's being able to start at its scheduled time.

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