Businessman Stanley Rosenthal considers himself an unlikely critic of the American political system. He has flown a flag in front of his store for as long as he can remember, and he says his love for his country is as deep as his love for his family.
But last week Rosenthal declared war on the Prince George's County Council. He says that the saga of how he was barred from opening a pinball arcade in downtown Clinton reveals "corruption in our local government that runs very, very deep."
Even if Rosenthal is wrong --as his opponents insist -- the 58-year-old businessman's allegations that local officials and businessmen conspired to stop his "perfectly legal venture" have sparked a heated controversy over government ethics.
As the battle rages, Rosenthal's oppostion, including county officials and lawyers, counters that the would-be entrepreneur was the victim of bad timing and a series of unfortunate misunderstandings.
In mid-May Rosenthal, who also operates an auto parts store in Bowie, leased space at 7911 Old Branch Ave. in Clinton to open a video game parlor on a franchise obtained from Golden Dome Family Fun Centers. He placed a $15,000 deposit on the games and signed an agreement to pay Golden Dome the $47,500 balance in installments of $3,800 a month. In early July, Rosenthal applied for his use and occupancy permit, a procedure that ordinarily takes less than a week and costs about $100. He said he did not apply sooner because he didn't expect any problems.
No one argues that area businessmen strongly objected to the new arcade. "I don't want to have my law offices above a bing-bong palace," said attorney John Wolfgang.
What is in dispute is what happened between July, when Rosenthal applied for the permit, and early August, when, after unusual delays, his arcade was declared illegal under provisions of a new zoning ordinance passed in a County Council meeting the night before his permit was to be issued. Called CB20, the new zoning law forbids arcades in the Old Branch Avenue area.
Rosenthal claims the opposition of lawyers and businessmen with stores near his arcade, including Wolfgang, a delegate to the state legislature, and Wilfred Dyer, a real estate agent, persuaded council member David Hartlove to introduce the new zoning rule.
Hartlove said that he introduced the ordinance after he heard about Rosenthal's arcade and after he had been told of neighborhood opposition to it.
"I've lived and served in this town for 25 years," Hartlove said. "There are very few things or people I don't know about."
But Hartlove called Rosenthal's allegations that the ordinance was designed with his arcade in mind "a damn lie." He stressed that he introduced the measure thinking it would not affect permits "in the pipeline" -- that is, permits for which applications were filed before its enactment, such as Rosenthal's.
Sue Mills, a County Council member, said that Hartlove made no effort to account for the permits "in the pipeline."
"I've been on the council for three years and I've never seen legislation written with a pipeline clause," she said. "It was terribly insensitive treatment of a citizen," Mills said.
"I don't think the issue is arcades," she added. "The issue is, has the county acted in good faith in reciprocity for Rosenthal's actions in good faith?"
Mills said that Rosenthal followed all the correct procedures in obtaining his permit, but county officals burdened him with unnecessary requirements to stall his efforts until they could push through a zoning ordinance that would stop the arcade. For example, she said, Rosenthal was required to supply the use and occupancy permits and site plans of several nearby businesses, ostensibly to check out square footage of the businesses -- a surprising and unusual request.
Seconding Mills on this point is Rosenthal's architect, Abba Polingen, who said that Prince George's County park and planning department official Richard Castaldi was "more than aggressive in pursuing every design detail relating to the project."
"What was surprising was that every time I went in to submit an application, Castaldi had another small problem for me," Polingen said.
Castaldi, who rejected Rosenthal's permit on July 29, said that he is "above corruption," and that no county politician asked him to slow the application process for Rosenthal.
Castaldi pointed out that the Hartlove-sponsored zoning ordinance, passed July 28, was enacted after park and planning review boards twice recommended against its adoption.
Under the new zoning ordinance, Rosenthal would have to apply for a "special exception" to get a use and occupancy permit, a process that requires review by a council-appointed committee. If the committee refuses to grant the permit, the applicant can then take his case to an appeals judge.
But Rosenthal's attorney, John Lally, asserted that Rosenthal should not be required to go through this process. "There was an error of judgment on the part of people in the government," Lally said. "It's as if Rosenthal was at the 99-yard line and the council told him that he had to go to the 150-yard line. That's not the way the law works."
Early this week Lally filed an appeal with the Pince George's County Board of Adminstrative Appeals, a panel of three citizens who hear cases in which a citizen challenges the administrative actions of a government agency.
Clinton businessmen who work near the proposed arcade said they have also retained legal services, but declined to name their attorneys. "We've had the lawyers on standby since we learned that he was moving in," Dyer said. "It's going to disrupt the whole neighborhood. I will fight it to the very end."
According to several county politicians, the case could very well end up in the circuit court, the step after the citizens' appeals board.
While Rosenthal waits for his case to be heard in a session tentatively set for Sept. 9, he laments that a process that ordinarily takes one week and costs less than $100 has stretched into a three-month, $60,000 process. He said he is low on cash and still must pay monthly rent for the video machines and the arcade space.