While Thomas Hamilton, director of the Montgomery County's office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs (OLTA), sat silentM, members of his staff voiced anger at a proposal to transfer their agency to the domain of the much-larger Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
Hamilton told reporters that he had been forbidden by county officials to speak at the county council hearing on the reorganization plan. Hamilton claimed that he was "officially gagged" by a letter received from William Hussmann, the county's chief administrative officer. "On August 3, I was advised that I would not be allowed to speak," Hamilton said.
Hussman acknowledged that he had sent Hamilton a letter stating that Hamilton would have to get his approval to testify. Hussman said Hamilton did not ask for such approval but if he had, it would not have been granted.
Hussman said he would not let Frances Abrams, head of the DEP, speak either. "I don't think the organization of government should be decided by people who have responsibility for the organization of government," he said. "If you let them talk, they'd just reorganize the whole thing around themselves."
Hamilton, in an angry statement earlier in the day, said that the move was an effort to abolish the office. Directing his attack at County Executive James P Gleason, he said"Mr. Gleason is a Republican. His constituency is composed of businessmen, including landlords. In 1972, Gleason vetoed the bill that created the office. What this bill really does is abolish this office.
The move, proposed by Gleason, would put the Landlord-tenant office, with its 16 employees, under the jurisdiction of DEP, which has 282 employees.
The OLTA enforces legislation concerning security deposits, licenses for apartment complexes, and other items pertaining to tenants and landlords. The DEP enforces housing standards and inspects dwellings in the county to make sure they meet those standards. They also admisnister animal protection controls and environmental regulations.
I do not believe animal control has anything to do with landlord-tenant affairs," OLTA employee Nikki Ewald testified.
The OLTA employees and representatives of several tenant associations who spoke before the council said that the office would not be effective under Mrs Abrams.
"In the past five years, the DEP has not filed a single suit on housing matters," said Charles Howe, president of the Blair Park Tenants Association, "whereas OLTA has been in court numerous times."
Under the proposed move, which Hussmann says will save no money but will foster efficiency, an office of landlord-tenant affairs will still exist. But Abrams will be the boss, and Hussmann will not have to mediate between Abrams and Hamilton.
Proponents of all sides of the issue said they believed the problems among the principals probably provoked the decision to move to OLTA.
"It's probably a personality conflict between Tom(Hamilton) and Fran(Abrams)," council vice-president Elizabeth Scull commented after the hearing. "I think Mr. Hussmann is tired of being in the middle."
Hussmann said as much during his testimony. "As far back as April of 1974, I've been the mediator," he said. "When Fran took over as head of DEP in 1976, conflicts broke out and I was called into mediate."
"The DEP was created in 1972 to consolidate agencies and to enforce housing and sanitation codes," Hussmann explained to the council. "The move would eliminate a number of problems which occur when two agencies must coordinate their affairs without having one an authorityover the other. Currently, there has been a problem of overlap."
Hamilton said he was skeptical about the continuation of the OLTA office as a real office. The directorof DEP will receive complaints (from tenants) and desseminate them among people she feels are qualified to look into them," Hamilton predicted about the way the landlord-tenant law would be carried out under the proposed system. "Anything seems to go and nothing seems to be clear."
Opponents of the move claimed Gleason's proposal was an effort to get rid of Hamilton, who would be subordinate to Abrams if the office moves. "It appears to me, and I told this to both Abrams and Hussmann, that this proposed legislation is a face-saving device to remove Hamilton from office," said Ruth Lederer, the president of the Montgomery County Tenants Association.
Hamilton said Abrams would be totally incompetent at managing the added functions of the office of landlord-tenant affairs.
Hamilton also said DEP has its own organizational problems. "They don't keep good files. I defy someone to go there and find their occupancy certificates. They've all been lost or destroyed."
Hamilton claims that DEP has been too slow in their own housing investigations. "Since 1973 I have been complaining to Hussmann and Gleason about the inadequate level of inspections by DEP," Hamilton said. "In 1973 they were so far behind in conducting inspections that only 10 per cent of the apartment complexes in the county were licensed. In 1974 only one third were licensed."
Abrams denied that the state of her office was in as much disarray as Hamilton claimed it was. "I would be very surprised to find that the occupancy files were lost or destroyed," she said. Abrams said the slowness of inspections in 1973 was due to beginning inspections for the first time under the new Montgomery County law which called for inspections every two years.
Abrams admitted that she did not have extensive knowledge of landlord-tenant issues such as rent control. "I would have to rely on division heads for particular problems," she said. "I have a staff that has expertise for dealing with those issues. The reason I'm here is because of my managerial skills. I know something about a lot of things. I would have no trouble picking up the salient points of rent control."