It was announced as a standard press conference to begin at 7:30 p.m. New Carrollton Mayor Jordan Harding would discuss the status of the city's controversial plan to annex the Metro triangle and two neighboring residential communities.
Hours later, with eyes reddening as the clock approached midnight, Harding was still meeting with three members of the press - repeatedly emphasizing that the City Council had not held closed meetings on the annexation plan and that "everything was above-board and clear."
Since August, when the City of New Carrollton formally announced its plan to annex the "golden triangle" and the communities of West Lanham and West Lanham Hills, "there's been an awful lot of press about annexation and opposition and the citizens' reactions," Harding began from his seat at the head of a conference table in the City Hall's small meeting room.
When he spoke of opposition, the mayor glanced significantly at the uninvited guests - really broker James Rogers, leader of Metro triangle business interests, a handful of New Carrollton residents who sat through almost the entire press conference last week.
Rogers sat silently, pursing his lips tighter and tighter in anger as the evening wore on. Only two or three times did he speak to take issue with the mayor.
"The City of New Carrollton so far has not responded to attacks, preferring to wait until we got more information together to proceed along logical lines," the mayor said. "We are starting our counterattack."
Harding said the discussion would focus on three items - the status of the annexation, a new set of figures on projected revenues to be gained and the city's answer to a lawsuit filed in opposition to the annexation.
During the four-hour news conference Harding:
Released a new set of projected revenue figures that showed annexation would net New Carrollton almost $200,000 a year instead of approximately $300,000 annually as originally anticipated.
Vehemently denied that the City Council held closed meetings on annexation and charged that the lawsuit filed against the city involves a strategy of "impugning the dignity and reputation of city officials and is not going to work."
Insisted that the city "encourages and demands referenda so that the people of the two areas would make the decision on annexation."
Said he intended to hold individual meetings with business people from the Metro triangle and plans to go before an executive session of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce to explain the annexation.
Presented an "annexation schedule," including a public hearing Nov. 21 at St. Christopher's Church and a city-wide advisory referndum Dec. 4, with the final action by the City Council no earlier than Dec. 6.
Promised that the City Council will be morally bound to act in accordance with the results of the advisory referendum on the annexation questions, even though they will not be legally bound to do so. He called any charges that the council will not act in accordance with the people's wishes "a bunch of bunk."
A thickset, balding man, Harding was elected to his fifth term as mayor of the 14,000-resident city in May. A skilled and charming politican who works as a grievance hearing examiner for the International Communications Agency. Harding varied his delivery from bulldog gruff to Southern-accented sweet.
Harding said he feels "very, very strongly" that the lawsuit opposing annexation, filed in the Prince George's County Circuit Court by three Metro East property owners, a New Carrollton resident and a West Lanham resident, is an effort to kill or delay annexation.
The suit alleges that the mayor and council violated Maryland's sunshine law requiring openness in government by making decisions on the proposed annexation at claudestine meetings "in such a manner as to keep their activities and interests in secret from the public."
While Harding said he didn't want to make a public announcement about annexation plans "until we had all the facts together," he stressed that all city meetings are open to the public.
Until the public announcement in August, annexation was discussed at small advisory workshop meetings rather than the regular City Council meetings, said Harding.
If the council had started debating annexation upstairs in the City Council chambers in the spring, he said "it could have gotten to be the biggest cotton-picking donnybrook in the world and could trigger all kinds of speculative actions."
"Advisory workshop meetings are open to the public," he stressed. Charges that City Hall doors were locked during these meetings are "a bit crazy," he said. "We keep the door locked to keep kids out. And anyone who wants to can tap on the door, and we let people in."
The mayor also denied the suit's charges that the city falsely labeled as "legal fees" $11,000 that actually was paid for a survey of the land proposed for annexation.
The money was listed as legal fees because the city attorney arranged for the surveying work as part of his legal service to the city, Harding said.
When a reporter presented the mayor with a transcript of the minutes from a City Council meeting where a citizen asked specifically what the money was paid for and was denied a concrete answer, Harding had no comment.
The evening's most startling revelation was the mayor's announcement that the "impact of the annexation will not be as severe as the public has been led to believe."
In an effort to "put to rest this bugaboo of the Metro East," Harding presented figures supplied by the county department of economic development that showed the assessed valuation of the triangle property was $23 million less than originally anticipated.
According to the county figures, estimated assessed valuation of the triangle property, after five years of development, will be $29,104,400. Previous city estimates, based on figures supplied by Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, the property's former owners, showed the triangle's assessable base potential as $32 million.
The city now expects to net $191,840 in revenues from the annexed land rather than the $280,000 originaly anticipated. If annexed now, before the Metro East commercial complex is developed, the city would only net about $10,000 - "not what I'd call a rape of prince George's County," Harding said.
"We were basing our prognostications on the information released two years ago because there were no other, what we felt, good figures on which to make that kind of prognostications," Harding said.
At that point, broker Rogers interjected that Shell Oil Company, which bought the land last year to sell as finished lots, could have supplied more exact figures.
In response to business complaints that the city will be taxing triangle property without offering any services, Harding said he felt annexation would benefit Metro businesses. However, he declined to say what services New Carrollton will provide to the triangle until the city "gets bettr revenue figures," noting that "we're talking about projections, and anything can happen to projections."
The communities of West Lanham and West Lanham Hills, however, will receive a broad range of services, including a twice-weekly refuse removal, contract police services, street lighting snow removal, sidewalk and street repair, traffic and parking control and beautification.