Maryland municipal leaders are predicting a gloomy future for town and city governments if a state court of appeals decision that gives county law precedence over municipal law is not reversed.
The forecast follows a court ruling two weeks ago that two fortunetellers in Mount Rainier and Forest Heights could operate in those communities regardless of municipal ordinances that prohibit their activities, because Prince George's County law allows them to work.
Directors of the Maryland Municipal League, which represents 131 municipal governments in the state, held an emergency meeting last week to discuss the ruling. They decided to fight the decision on two fronts: by asking the court to reverse the opinion and by asking state representatives to introduce legislation restoring the status quo.
Before the Annapolis court's decision, "municipal law prevailed over county law within municipal boundaries, except in cases when the county was enforcing state law," according to league executive director Jon Burrell.
"The court is saying that the county prevails over the municipality when there is a conflict in the laws," Burrell said. "We are instructing the municipalities to review their codes and see where there might be conflicts. A list will be forwarded to the court in a request to reverse its decision."
The issue is expected to take center stage at the municipal league's fall convention, which is scheduled to be held in Easton in mid-November.
The court ruled 4 to 3 on the case. In the majority opinion, Judge John C. Eldridge rejected the two towns' argument that county fortuneteller laws are not applicable within their jurisdictions. Eldridge said a state constitutional provision that prohibits counties from making laws for municipalities means only that county governments cannot enact laws that apply solely to one town.
He said that if county statutes did not apply within municipalities, it would have "drastic consequences for many small towns, dependent on counties for many services."
Reaction to the ruling varied from anger to concern to fear. No municipal leader interviewed looked favorably on the decision.
"What this ruling does is revise the historical basis for municipal home rule in Maryland and possibly the entire country," Burrell said. "The constitution is saying one thing and the court is interpreting the constitution to mean something else.
"It (the court) is attempting to create four levels of government -- federal, state, county and municipal -- when in fact there are only three: federal, state and local," he added.
Rockville Council member John Freeland, a former municipal league president and a board member, said he was "very, very upset about the whole thing."
"The court's position shows a very definite lack of understanding of municipal government in this state," Freeland said. "This is not the first time the courts have tried to interfere with municipal authority and in its constant dabbling it has made itself annoying."
Freeland said that most municipal ordinances are more restrictive than county laws. He said the chief points of concern are enforcement codes, such as building, construction and parking codes.
"This ruling can cost the municipalities lots of money," he said. "In effect it means that any citizen of Rockville, for example, can take the city to court over building code requirements, resulting in court expenses and a waste of time to the city."
Mayor Linda B. Nalls of Mount Rainier, one of the municipalities where the suit was initiated, admitted the fortuneteller law was "ancient" and possibly unrealistic, but added that the court's decision was "ridiculous."
"Maybe our law is far-fetched, but the judge could have ruled on it instead of making the decision" a precedent-setter, Nalls said. "Why have the municipalities exist at all? Why not have the county give poor people all the services? Why tax our people if we cannot enforce our law?" she asked.
Nalls said every city would have ordinances that conflict with the county's, "because we were led to believe that our ordinances could be different from the county's as long as they were more restrictive, and we know the concerns of our towns."
Bowie Mayor Audrey Scott does not expect the court to reverse itself, and added, "We are hoping for a legislative solution."
She has asked state Delegate Joan Pitkin (D-Bowie) to draft such legislation. Pitkin, who said she is working on such a measure, believes, "People choose to live in municipalities because they wish a better life. The court's decision in effect has taken away municipal authority and (will take away) the good things that bring people to live in the municipalities."
Takoma Park Mayor Sam A. Abbott said he has had little time to study the judge's decision, but added "I am for government at the lowest level, that is the municipality."
Former Greenbelt Mayor Gil Weidenfeld, the municipal league's district vice president for Prince George's, said he hopes the state legislature "will realize the court's misinterpretation.
"Each municipality is in the position to make ordinances best for its community, as long as the decisions have no impact on the way the county runs its government," Weidenfeld said. "I am certainly upset that the court seems to have diminished the authority of municipal governments."