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Anne Arundel County Residents Get Runaround

This is the story of two Anne Arundel County residents who sought an answer to one question:  “Are these county bills appropriations bills?”  It took them on an odyssey, across multiple county departments, over many weeks.  These two residents, Karen Delimater and Millard Snowden, separately asked various government employees whether two bills were classified as an appropriation.  To you and me, this appears a reasonable request. 

This story is long because the runaround given to these two concerned citizens was ludicrous.  Some background is in order.

Earlier this summer, Anne Arundel County, MD, instituted a, “rain tax”.  This was in response to Maryland state legislation that required a, “stormwater management fee”.   Some counties implemented this tax and some chose to pay for the mandated projects as a budget item.  Regardless, the people are paying for these projects.

In Anne Arundel County, the rain tax was passed, vetoed, and the veto was overridden.  Since it was so unpopular (county council meetings had few empty seats – a rarity – and the bill was amended over 40 times), the council soon introduced emergency legislation in order to phase in the tax and save a little face.   The county council has a very bad habit of introducing emergency legislation when there is no emergency.  Appended to each piece of emergency legislation, to comport with the Anne Arundel County charter, Section 208(d), is the statement:

And be it further enacted, That this Ordinance is hereby declared to be an emergency ordinance and necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, welfare, and property….

Millard Snowden called the county council office (he has no computer) and asked whether the original rain tax bill and the phase in bill were appropriations bills.  The answer is important for two reasons.  If the phase in bill is an appropriations bill, it was passed in contravention to the County Charter since it was an emergency bill, per section 307(i):

An emergency ordinance shall not levy taxes, create revenue….

Additionally, appropriations bills (e.g. the original rain tax) may not be petitioned to Referendum, per section 308(a) of the County Charter:

No ordinance making any appropriation for current expense for maintaining the County government, or for maintaining or aiding any public institution, not exceeding the next previous appropriation for the same purpose, shall be subject to rejection or repeal under this section.

 A summary on the runaround that Millard and Karen got follow.

  • Millard called the county council office multiple times and asked if these were appropriations bills – at one point, he was advised they were appropriations bills.  When Millard advised that appropriations bills may not be passed as emergency legislation, the answer changed.
  • Millard asked the County Council Chairman, Jerry Walker, the same question (Walker was against the bill.)  While the Chairman said he’d look into it, Millard heard nothing.
  • Millard was advised that Kelly Phillips Kenney, Attorney, of the Office of Law would give him a determination.  When Millard called back, Candy Fontz, Executive Management Assistant, advised that someone else would have to give him that answer.
  • Karen called the County Executive’s office, spoke with Alan Friedman, Legislative Liaison Officer, who stated she should call the Office of Law. 
  • Karen called the Office of Law and was transferred to the voicemail of Nancy Duden, Supervising County Attorney.  Ms Duden called back and left Karen a voicemail stating that the Office of Law is unable to give legal opinions to private citizens. 
  • Millard decided to start the Referendum process; he was advised by someone at the State Board of Elections (BofE) that by filling out the BofE paperwork for a referendum, a legal opinion would have to be rendered on whether this was an appropriations bill.  (The BofE official stated that she thought the county was giving Millard a runaround and trying to run out the 45 day clock.)
  • Millard received the determination, in letter form, from the Anne Arundel Board of Elections that both bills are appropriations bills.

Millard filed his petition for a Referendum on May 28, 2013.  The opinion, dated June 3, on the petition for the phase in bill:

This is to advise you, pursuant to Section 6-206 Election Law Article, Ann. Code of Maryland, that based on my advice as the appropriate legal authority, the county Election Director, Mr. Joseph A. Torre, III, has determined that the use of a petition for the proposed subject matter is not authorized by law.  Specifically, Section 308 of the Anne Arundel County Charter precludes the referral to the voters of ordinances dealing with appropriations matters.

A similar letter was written for the rain tax bill.  Using these determinations, since appropriations bills may not be emergency legislation, the rain tax phase in was passed in contravention to the county charter.  Also, neither was eligible for referendum.

Unfortunately, this odyssey was not finished.

On the same day Millard received the letter from the BofE, he received another, typed the same day, from the Anne Arundel Office of Law.  This letter said, in part,

…once again, …this office cannot and will not be issuing a legal opinion to you concerning the legality of Bill 40-13.  The Office of Law is limited under the Charter to providing advice to the County Executive, County agencies, and the County Council.  We do not provide legal advice to private citizens.  As has been explained to both you and Ms. Delameter[sic], the opinion you seek must be requested from a private attorney and not through the County’s attorneys….

The Office of Law correctly stated their function, per the charter. 

Given that Karen was not a direct party to Millard’s query, she believed her privacy was violated.  She used this as a basis to request a meeting with Karen Cook, Chief Administrative Officer, working under the County Executive.  This meeting was held on June 19.

Please note that the organizational chart for Anne Arundel County lists the voters at the top and the County Executive underneath.

Ms Cook met Karen outside of the meeting room and appeared surprised she brought two people with her (Millard and Pastor David Whitney, Sr. Instructor at Institute on the Constitution).  Upon entering the meeting room, Karen was met by David Plymyer, County Attorney, and Nancy Duden.  Given that the combined salaries of these three County positions is $422,015.36, the County must have thought this meeting very important.

This meeting lasted one hour, fifteen minutes.  Highlights include:

  • David Plymyer told the County residents that if they wanted a legal opinion, they would have to hire a lawyer and sue the County.
  • Karen Cook agreed with the Office of Law, that they wouldn’t give citizens this legal determination.  Karen D. asked if this was the official opinion of the County Executive’s office and Ms Cook stated that it was.  (Please keep in mind the organization chart that shows the County Executive under the voters with the Office of Law underneath the Executive.)
  • The Office of Law stated that citizens should ask the County Council.  When Karen and Millard told them they’d asked, received a wavering answer, and were referred to the Office of Law.  The County Executive also referred Karen to the Office of Law. 
  • Another suggestion from Mr. Plymyer was that Karen and Millard visit with a state delegate, since the rain tax mandate originated with 2012’s House Bill 987. 
  • When Millard produced the letters from the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections, stating that the bills in question were appropriations bills, David Plymyer stated that James C. Praley was not a County employee, therefore he was not the cognizant authority.  (James C. Praley is listed as a County employee, with the title, “Attorney for the Board of Elections”.)
  • Mr. Plymyer’s response?
    • Whatever decision the BofE makes has nothing to do with the Office of Law and the BofE opinion is non-binding.
  • In regard to Karen’s name in that letter:
    • Mr. Plymyer stated that the meeting was on the record and that Karen had no expectation of privacy, nothing illegal, with another party having her name in a letter.  However, Mr. Plymyer did admit that this was a discourtesy. 
    • When Karen stated she should have been cc’d, as is the custom for anyone mentioned in professional correspondence, the public servants agreed that Karen should have been copied.

At the end of the one hour, fifteen minute meeting, Mr. Plymyer stated that Karen and Millard were done a disservice. 

Of course, this was not a legal opinion. 

Notes

The Office of Law tries cases for the County Executive.  According to their own page, they often try these important code enforcement cases:

  • Storage of unregistered vehicles; junk and debris
  • Contempt regarding unsafe porch without a permit
  • Contempt re: storage of unregistered vehicles
  • Storage of junk and debris
  • Failure to comply with approved grading permit plans by unauthorized cutting of trees
  • Replacement of a plumbing system without a permit
  • Storage of untagged/unregistered vehicles
  • Storage of unregistered vehicle (camper)

Elizabeth Myers

Elizabeth Myers is a grassroots activist, certified Constitutionist (US and Maryland Constitutions, Institute on the Constitution), and fed up Marylander. Maryland Legislative Watch was started out of this frustration and the goal is to alert fellow Marylanders to bad (and a few good) bills that normally pass under the radar. Any writing on Watchdog Wire is my opinion only.

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Featured Posts, Government Transparency, Must Read, Politics, Taxes, Transparency
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