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April 28, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 Volume 11

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Any General Assembly wrap-up would be incomplete without a scorecard of the work of the Frederick County Delegation. Normally, this column avoids conflict with other delegation members, and focuses on the back-and-forth with the county. Not this time, kiddies! Ahead: some serious onion peeling!


Up first, the Board of County Commissioners 2008 legislative request. In past years, I've drawn a parallel between the effectiveness of the delegation and the number of the commissioners’ bills that get passed. Not this year!


The commissioner's requested six (6) bills from Annapolis this year.


1.) Solid Waste Franchises;


2.) Mandatory Beverage Container Deposit Return System;


3.) Extension of time to file the Annual Financial Report;


4.) Constitutional Amendment to prevent "takings" for economic development;


5.) Public disclosure of tax returns for out-of-state businesses; and


6.) U.S. Constitutional Convention to address citizenship/immigration issues.


Out of this list of six requests, only two were approved for filing by the county delegation. The solid waste franchise and finance report filing were the only ideas that made the cut this year.


The finance report filing extension bill was really a legislative no-brainer; the commissioners were always late filing their report because Frederick Community College and the Frederick County Board of Education, the two biggest agencies funded by the commissioners, filed their own finance reports after the state due date for the county report.


The story on franchising is another whole drama altogether. To recap, the commissioners would like permission to create contracted trash collection districts in the unincorporated areas of the county. Lest you think they already possessed that ability, all they can do now is to create one single trash district that encompasses the entire unincorporated land mass of the county.


That single act, while probably making it easier to manage the trash business and reducing environmental impact, would put every small trash hauler in Frederick County out of business. Not even this Board of Commissioners would seriously contemplate such a politically short-sighted move. Or would they?


The delegation was split on this with Delegates Galen Clagett, Sue Hecht, Don Elliott, and me, and Sen. David Brinkley in favor, and Delegates Paul Stull and Joe Bartlett, and Sen. Alex Mooney opposed. Since it takes five (5) votes to move a proposal forward, franchising passed on a squeaker. The problem with this bill wouldn't manifest itself until session's end.


The emails opposing the change came in droves, but for the most part, came well after the delegation had voted to move the bill forward. At least one Frederick-area hauler, American Disposal Services (ADS), directed their customers to write to the delegation opposing the bill. They were kind enough to tell people exactly what to say.


Unfortunately, they weren't completely honest in their advocacy. One of the points they stressed to customers is that with franchising, the commissioners would be putting small haulers out of business. The claim makes a really compelling argument, but is simply a lie.


The actual basis for creating franchised collection areas is so the commissioners can protect small haulers. Under a franchised system, the commissioners could create as many franchise areas as there are small haulers, ensuring a contract opportunity for everyone, even ADS.


It's okay to fight to protect your business; it’s even better when you do so honestly.


So, the franchise bill passed the delegation by one vote. When it became obvious that the bill would move through the legislature, some Frederick-area haulers hired an Annapolis lobbyist to protect their interests.


A combination of that lobbyist and Sen. Andrew Harris (R., Baltimore Co.) resulted in a last-minute delaying tactic that killed the bill on Sine Die. I suspect Senator Mooney's involvement, although I can't prove that. In an ironic twist, I doubt he'd object to my accusation, since he hated the bill to begin with.


Who knows, he may use his involvement in killing the bill when he runs against current Delegate Clagett or Commissioner Jan Gardner for his Senate seat in two years!


Speaking of drama, nothing since last year's flap over a county ethics and disclosure bill caused as much trouble as Delegate Clagett's text amendment bill.


The delegation battled this one for several weeks. Commission President Gardner made this her own personal crusade, traveling to Annapolis several times to "work the bill." She brought flip charts, diagrams, and piles of paper. She was accompanied by staff some times, and alone on one notable trip when the threat of ice and snow kept the others Frederick-bound. President Gardner was so invested in this idea that she traveled to Annapolis the night before the meeting to be sure to be there to testify.


That delegation meeting, the one in the bad weather, was one of the more interesting in my tenure in Annapolis. Jan was there in person, but we had County Attorney John Mathias, County Solid Waste Director Mike Marschner, and Commissioner Kai Hagen on a conference call.


At one point, Commissioner Gardner was asked a question, and she deferred to Mr. Marschner. At some point during his answer, Commissioner Hagen took over the business of answering, and continued talking well after the original question was answered. Commissioner Gardner had to inform Mr. Hagen that we'd moved on to another topic.


Looking back, this whole issue may have its roots in a future political battle. Delegate Clagett believes the current commissioners have such an anti-growth bias that it affects their ability to transact routine business. The commissioners, on the other hand, feel that they are on a crusade to control growth in response to the call from the electorate. Both are right, to some degree.


I anticipate a head-to-head political battle between Commissioner Gardner and Delegate Clagett at some point. That will be a donnybrook, a battle royale for the hearts and minds of Frederick. Jan will be the candidate of the average Joe, especially the average Joe who hates growth. Galen will be the business candidate, his successful business reflecting his own belief in a vibrant local business community, including builders and developers, as the best hedge against bad times.


During all of these battles, Delegate Hecht consistently took the positions espoused by the commissioners. She criticized any attempt to pass the Clagett bill, first suggesting we needed more study, then objecting to the lack of a public hearing in Frederick, and finally criticizing all aspects of the process that led to the bill's passage in the House.


Everyone else in the delegation allowed the bill to move forward, and after some technical delays, the bill passed the House by a wide margin.


As I've mentioned dozens of times over the years, bills must pass both chambers to become law. In the case of Clagett's text amendment bill, a late introduction and trouble getting it through the House resulted in the bill being referred to the Senate Rules Committee.


Once there, the bill never saw the light of day. It died in Rules when the clock struck midnight on Sine Die. Some form of the bill, in spite of the commissioners’ and Delegate Hecht's objections, will almost certainly be back next year.


I can't wait…

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