The six-member Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission voted last week to bring between $60,000 and $70,000 in county bond work back to the state of Maryland. At the same time, the commission completed a politically motivated Prince George's-Montgomery County swap of legal assignments.
The Baltimore-based law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard and Prince George's County attorneys Meyers and Billingsley will take over the business of shepherding the bicounty agency's $100 million annual bond issues through the legal mill.
The wheels for the bicounty deal were set in motion when Nathan Greenbaum, a former Montgomery County government attorney, was appointed the commission's general counsel last month. Commission members, themselves politically appointed, said it was later considered to be a fair exchange that a Prince George's law firm get a part of the new bond business.
Commission members who cast the unanimous vote at last week's meeting said afterward that the decision to shift the legal work from the New York firm of Brown, Wood, Ivey, Mitchell and Petty to the two Maryland firms was both parochial and political.
Chairwoman Ann Landry Lombardi, who is from Prince George's County, said that the choice of Meyers and Billingsley was made "by the political system."
"In conversations that I was not privy to, Meyers and Billingsley was selected to be cocounsel on this one by the executives' offices" in both jurisdictions, she said.
Lance Billingsley said that he approached Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and county attorney Thomas Smith about taking over the commission's bond work when he heard that New York bond attorney Joseph Guandolo was retiring from the firm that handled the WSSC work.
Glendening, who has made it his policy to use county law firms to do county legal business, lent a sympathetic ear to Billingsley, who is a staunch supporter and political ally.
"Lance is the power in the county," one elected official observed. "He certainly has Parris' ear."
Billingsley said that his firm's previous experience as bond counsel for the county's housing authority gave him an edge, as well as his personal relationship with Glendening.
"I was given that opportunity because I happen to be a competent friend," he said.
Montgomery County commissioner Leonard Teitelbaum said that the agreement to hire Billingsley came after the panel selected Greenbaum from the Montgomery County Attorney's office, as general counsel. Greenbaum, 35, succeeded Paul Hefferon, the previous general counsel, who died late last year.
It was considered to be only fair, Teitelbaum, Billingsley and others said, that the next legal adviser hired by the commission come from Prince George's County.
"Basically it was a matter of discussion and give-and-take," Teitelbaum said. "When the suggestion was made of a Prince George's cocounsel, I felt that was an equitable decision as long as the people were competent."
The cocounsel arrangement between Meyers and Billingsley and Venable Baetjer and Howard is an example of the type of local expansion Glendening has said he favors.
Under the preferential system, which Glendening said in 1983 could save the county $100,000 annually because legal charges are lower in this area, county law firms have already been selected to represent the parking authority, the economic development corporation and the housing authority.
Meyers and Billingsley already represent the housing authority. Other firms that have benefited from the local policy include Zanecki, Lally and McDonough; O'Malley, Miles, Farrington and McCarthy, and Knight, Manzi, Brennan and Ostrom.
"This doesn't cost the rate-payers any money," Lombardi said. "What it does is return the power embedded in New York back to Maryland."
Johanna Norris, another Prince George's commissioner, said that she was more concerned in bringing business home than she was in the political ramifications of the decision to hire Prince George's cocounsel.
"If ever there was a time to make a change, this was it," she said.