Last fall, members of the Prince George's County Council, tired of fielding complaints about the county budget by themselves at public hearings, put a charter amendment on the ballot to force County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, who fashions the budget in the first place, to hold two hearings of his own.
Hogan took out full page ads opposing the idea in local newspapers, calling the hearings unnecessary, but the amendment passed by better than a 2-to-1 margin.
Now, five months later, as the county budget wends its way toward adoption, Hogan's critics charge he has figured out another way to undermine the hearings -- not providing enough seats.
Union leaders representing 18,000 county employes, and other citizens with budget concerns, say that Hogan has ignored the will of the people by insisting on having his hearings ina room that only seats 49 people, instead of the usual high school auditorium.
When Hogan held his first hearing on Jan. 26 over 300 placard-carrying teachers and other union employes -- and their leaders -- stewed in the basement cafeteria of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro while the proceedings were piped in. Hogan said he tightly controlled the hearing to prevent the usual "circus" by what he called "the education lobby" and other "special interest groups."
Last night the coalition of organized county workers, frustrated over Hogan's tactics, decided to boycott Hogan's second hearing in the same small room, calling it a "meaningless charade." They hoped, in the words of coalition spokesman Steven Bittner, "to make the point that the hearings are a sham."
Only about two dozen persons showed up and, of the 21 speakers, about half spoke infavor of the budget proposals.
Ken Duncan, Hogan's chief administrative officer, said later: "It's heartening to hear testimony from the other side this time." At the previous hearing, he said, "95 percent" of the 65 speakers spoke in opposition.
Hogan maintains that it is his right to hold his hearings on his turf -- a room adjoining his offices on the top floor of the county administration building. He said that the large hearing room on the first floor and high school auditoriums usually used belong to the County Council and the Board of Education respectively.
County Council member Frank Casula, who authored the ballot question that created the hearings, agreed that Hogan has the right to hold the hearings where he wants, but said that is not the way he intended the hearings to be held.
"He resents having the hearings," said Casula. "The people voted 2 to 1 for his to have hearings. If he thinks his manner of gong about the hearings is satisfactory to the people of Prince George's, that's fine," he said. "He's the one that will have to answer to the people," he added.
The union leaders, meanwhile, said that they would save their "circus" for the county councils hearings scheduled for April 22, April 28, and May 5 where they will have more room.