James M. Herl, who resigned from the Prince George's County Council eight months ago after pleading guilty to cocaine possession, has been hired by former campaign contributor Danny Colton to pursue a land-use case before the County Council.

Herl's work for developer Colton is the first major effort by the newly formed James Herl Consulting Inc., a College Park firm he incorporated in September.

Herl's activity has prompted complaints by opponents of Colton projects that the county's restrictions on lobbying by former council members are inadequate. Unlike some local jurisdictions, Prince George's does not bar people from lobbying the county during the first year or two after they leave office.

"Jim Herl is right back in there making bucks from the same people he had dealings with while on the council," said John Robinson, a Sierra Club leader who has encountered Herl in his group's fight to stop a Colton development in Riverdale. "This points out the need for stricter laws. There has to be some kind of public accountability for this kind of thing."

A Bowie newspaper columnist recently criticized Herl's involvement with Colton under an article headlined "Ole Boy Network Still Lives On."

Herl said in an interview that he is in full compliance with the county's ethics law and insisted that his activities on behalf of Colton and other clients, whom he would not identify, do not constitute lobbying, a term vaguely defined in official county policy.

"I am not a lobbyist," Herl said. "I'm a consultant in real estate development, land use and government relations. I'm trying to earn a living."

Neither Herl nor Colton would say how much Herl is being paid. Herl described his recent contacts with council members as "casual conversations, just as you would have with anyone you've known for 15 years."

Colton, a Greenbelt-based developer whose projects include the massive proposed University of Maryland Science and Technology Center and the 135-acre Riverside project in Riverdale, said he hired Herl because of Herl's connections both on the council and in the community.

"Because of the position he had with the county, he's one of the very few people who understands how the system works," said Colton, who has used Herl to help draft legislation, talk with council members and attend community meetings on several pending developments. Colton, who made several campaign contributions to Herl when he was on the council, said he consulted his own attorney about possible ethics issues before retaining Herl.

The county ethics law sets no time restrictions for former council members who intend to engage in lobbying or consulting work, but does say they can never appear before the council on "specific matters" in which they "significantly participated" while serving on the council.

On one project, Colton wants the County Council to allow construction of a Wal-Mart discount store on property in Bowie, a use forbidden under its current zoning.

As a council member, Herl voted for a previous rezoning on the property that Colton had requested. The county ethics board has ruled in one case that simply casting a vote in favor of a measure does not constitute significant participation, said Ann Magner, counsel to the ethics board.

Herl has made several contacts on Colton's behalf with Bowie city officials, who last week voted to oppose construction of the Wal-Mart.

Mayor Richard Logue said he was surprised when Colton introduced Herl as his coordinator on the project. "Knowing how strict the regulations are in this city, I was extremely surprised to see him back in the process in such a short period of time," said Logue, noting Bowie's one-year restriction on lobbying by former city officials.

Council member Anne T. MacKinnon, who succeeded Herl, said he approached her about sponsoring legislation that would make the zoning change for the discount store. "Jim said he had a bill he wanted me to consider, that there was a bill floating around the second floor {of the county administration building} and he asked if I would sponsor it," she said.

MacKinnon later introduced a bill, which she said was a modification of Herl's proposal, that would allow construction of a Wal-Mart. After Bowie's City Council voiced opposition to what it called "special-interest" legislation to benefit a specific developer, MacKinnon announced plans to withdraw the bill.

MacKinnon, who recently was assigned by council Chairman Richard J. Castaldi to review the county ethics policy for possible revisions, declined to comment on the propriety of Herl's consulting business. "That's a question for Jim Herl to answer," she said. "He would have to ask himself, 'Did any of my previous actions have any effect on what I am doing now?' "

Herl has not formally registered as a lobbyist with the county or filed any disclosure reports about his activities, county records show. But he said he is prepared to do so "at the time when I do engage in lobbying activities that would be reportable under the law."

Council member Jo Ann T. Bell, a longtime friend of Herl's, said he has sought her advice on development plans for another Colton-owned commercial tract in her district on Walker Mill Road.

"We've never talked specifics. He said he was working on something for Danny Colton and wanted my advice," said Bell, a frequent luncheon partner of Herl's.

Bell also said Herl talked with her last year about his decision to do consulting work so soon after his federal guilty plea. At the time of his cocaine arrest, Herl was strongly criticized by his council colleagues for reflecting poorly on the council's reputation.

"I told him, 'You forgive and you forget.' If he had been convicted of stealing money from the public trust or making money from land transactions, I would be very cautious about dealing with him on land matters. But the fact of the matter is, he didn't. What Jim did, he did to himself," she said.