A citizens committee reviewing Howard County's charter proposed amendments last night that would bar state and county employees from holding elective office, changes that could affect the political future of one of Howard County's most influential politicians.
County Council member C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, would be forbidden to run for county executive and possibly to seek reelection in 1990 under changes being considered by the county Charter Revision Commission.
In the meantime, the issue promises to divide the 15 members of the commission, which is responsible for recommending changes to the document that spells out the powers of the local government. The issue also is expected to split the five-member County Council, which has the final say on whether the recommendations will be on the ballot in November.
The commission proposed last night that a referendum be held on a measure that, if approved by a majority of county voters, would exclude all state and county employees from public office. The commission recommended that the change not apply to existing office-holders for the rest of their current terms.
Gray said this week he would view such an action as a personal attack.
"I very seriously question the motives of the two or three people who have been pushing this. It's very clearly directed at me," he said. "They would be excluding a lot of good people when there is no conflict of interest at all."
In 1982, Gray was the first black person elected to the council. During his first term, he established a reputation as a relatively aggressive lawmaker with a liberal approach to social issues such as housing and health care. Now in his second term, the Columbia Democrat is one of two veteran council members. His name is frequently mentioned in connection with a bid for a countywide office, either county executive or a seat in the state Legislature.
Howard County's 20-year-old charter already includes provisions forbidding candidates for county executive or County Council to hold "any other office or employment for profit of or under state or county government." They were modeled after similar sections in the charters of other Maryland counties and the state constitution that were designed to reduce possible conflicts of interest.
In the case of Howard County Council members, however, the local prohibition has been interpreted as not applying to college professors. In 1986, after an opponent objected to Gray's reelection bid on the grounds that the council member was a state employee, an attorney for the county elections board said that a position in an institution of higher learning did not constitute "office for profit."
The attorney, Charles Reese, said yesterday that he based his opinion, in part, on the outcome of a 1977 challenge involving Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, who was at that time serving on the County Council and teaching full time at the University of Maryland.
"Until a court decides it, we won't know in a sense whether my opinion was the correct one, but I feel comfortable with it," Reese said.
However, some members of the Charter Revision Commission, expected to begin debating the issue last night, said that any lingering doubts should be resolved by the voters with a ballot initiative on an outright ban.
Member Richard D. Neidig, a Columbia lawyer, said he is convinced that was the intent of the framers of Howard's charter when they voted to include the phrase "any other office or employment for profit" in the relevant section. A Court of Special Appeals decision predating Howard's charter lists five standards a government "office" must meet before it is considered "for profit," and that's why the framers added the words "or employment," Neidig said.
"I think it's nothing more than a clarification of the existing language, so everyone knows what it says, rather than a substantive change," Neidig said.
Gray, however, disagreed.
"They have not given me a justification for excluding state employes," he said. "People who work for a community college or a state university do not interact or have any business with the Howard County government."