The Montgomery County Council, under pressure from the county's business community, yesterday moved to water down a tough law it passed last year that would permit county inspectors to write tickets for code violations.
Council President David Scull, who sponsored the original legislation, which is scheduled to take effect Feb. 11, offered amendments yesterday in the face of a threat by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce to take the issue to the voters through a ballot referendum.
"I do regard this as a step backwards," Scull said. "But in the interest of the smooth functioning of local government and of working things out, I am willing to be the sponsor of these amendments."
Five other council members scrambled on board as cosponsors of the amendments proposed to a bill that passed unanimously over the very same objections they were reacting to yesterday. The only member who didn't join in as a cosponsor was Neal Potter, who questioned whether the proposed changes might weaken the law too much.
The legislation, nicknamed the "tidy neighbors" law, was designed to facilitate enforcement by authorizing inspectors to write on-the-spot tickets making it a civil violation for failing to obey various regulations, such as those that require grass to be cut, restaurants to be clean, dogs leashed and trash put out on a certain day of the week.
Those regulations currently are part of the criminal code, and inspectors have been reluctant to enforce them because of the hassles of a drawn-out criminal proceeding and the distaste for making criminals of violators.
Scull said the civil penalties bill was patterned after laws in Rockville and Takoma Park and other municipalities.
The county chamber, whose members include many small businesses that would be the potential victims of stepped-up inspections, objected that the new law does not provide guidelines and inspectors might run amok writing tickets.
Under the proposed amendments, a person challenging a ticket would be guaranteed the right to a lawyer, to call and cross-examine witnesses, to offer evidence, and to ask for a new trial--essentially all the same rights of a criminal defendant. If the amendments are approved, the procedure, which was supposed to be simplified under the new law, would be as long and as complex as any criminal proceeding.
It was a rare political effort by the county's business community, and the first time any organized group has threatened to go to the voters to overturn a council law. The chamber, in a rare press conference, announced the referendum threat after last November's election.
Chamber president Ronald Resh, pleased with the council's latest action, said "maybe both sides now will listen to each other more during the process."
Two members complained that the chamber's lobbyist, James P. Goeden, had not voiced his objections forcefully enough last year.
"I just never heard the level of concern during the debate that was expressed after the passage of the law," said council vice president Esther P. Gelman. "We never meant to cause such anguish in the community."
Council member Rose Crenca suggested that Goeden "take a course in Lobbying 301," which she said described as "militancy."
Scull said the proposed amendments would not really hamper enforcement, since most people pay their tickets and do not go to court. "What we are losing is an improvement--and a principle," he said.