The Prince George's County Council gave preliminary approval yesterday to an enhanced package of ethics bills that had been written off as dead.
After parliamentary maneuvering and under political pressure, the council's Committee of the Whole voted for the slightly amended legislation proposed by County Executive Parris N. Glendening in July to restore "faith and trust" in the integrity of county real estate transactions. The panel's action is a recommendation to itself for formal enactment of the legislation. Final passage is expected within weeks.
The three votes yesterday were overwhelming for the bills designed to curb the council's use of "emergency" legislation and to require hearings before the board of ethics and full disclosure of transactions involving county officials; council approval of any tax breaks to developers; and public hearings before the county disposes of surplus property or agrees to exchange or sell land.
"I was calling them as late as last evening," said Glendening, who had lobbied unsuccessfully in the past for the legislation. "I'm very, very pleased. It's a fairly major victory in terms of reform legislation needed to help regain the confidence of the public," he added.
The legislation was introduced in response to a grand jury report in March that criticized the council and Glendening's office for their handling of land purchases and exchanges. It was amended to incorporate suggestions by Stan Fedder, head of the Citizens Association of Friendly, that there be more detailed public disclosure of council action on land matters.
Fedder was among a group of 70 residents who rallied on behalf of ethics in government in front of the county building yesterday. They carried signs saying, "No More Bills for Your Frills" and "Vote the Bums Out." The rally's organizers demanded a Justice Department probe of several land transactions.
The all-Democratic council acted after an acrimonious morning session at which council member Sue V. Mills, a proponent of the legislation, introduced amended bills. The originals were held in committee two weeks ago.
"This is a sad day for the council and democracy as a whole," said council member F. Kirwan Wineland, who unsuccessfully attempted to block Mills's maneuver.
Some council members insisted that they never intended to kill the legislation and expected it to be discussed yesterday. But council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr., who supported Mills, noted that the original bills were not on the written agenda.
"If you were going to discuss them today, they would be on the agenda," Wilson said. "Who's zooming whom here? Let's be honest."
The council, meeting then as the Committee of the Whole, took up the issue again at the end of a long agenda on unrelated items. The panel voted down Mills's bills, then voted for almost identical legislation.
"I've always had a problem that these pieces of legislation were a knee-jerk reaction," said Council Chairman Jo Ann T. Bell. She suggested the matter be given to a citizens' panel for further study. After her suggestion was rejected, she voted for the bills.
"The people have said something is wrong," Wilson said. "Why are we going to wait six months for a task force before we do something about it?"
Civic activist Fedders said, "I'm really pretty pleased with how it turned out. I honestly didn't expect this stuff to get anywhere today."