The usually quiet and frequently tedious meetings of Maryland's Board of Public Works have turned raucous in recent weeks as Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has made no secret of his displeasure over the cancellation of a proposed highway through the Washington suburbs.
Schaefer (D) has directed much of his ire at a fellow member of the three-member panel, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who pulled the plug on the so-called intercounty connector that would link Interstates 270 and 95.
Schaefer has repeatedly teamed up with the third member of the public works board, state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon (D), in an attempt to keep the project alive, telling the governor, "There are some restraints on you."
Some restraints but not many, according to the assistant attorney general in charge of providing legal advice to state officials. Decisions to build highways rest mainly with the governor, and there's little the Board of Public Works can do about it, said the lawyer, Robert N. McDonald.
Still, that hasn't stopped Schaefer from trying.
"Why don't you just say you won't build it during [your] time? Then, when [we] get the next governor, we'll be able to build something that's needed for the state's economy," Schaefer told Glendening at last week's meeting, according to a Newschannel 8 transcript.
The Board of Public Works meets every two weeks to approve state contracts and oversee some state purchases. It does not usually have contentious sessions. Until lately.
"You don't own this Board of Public Works. You don't own this state," Schaefer told Glendening, who sat only inches away from him. "What you're saying is that we're all supposed to be your puppets, and whatever you say is the way it's got to be."
Although a vote was not taken at the meeting, Schaefer made a motion, joined by Dixon, to order the state Department of Transportation to keep buying land for the highway project.
The board can't do that, McDonald said in an interview after the meeting. "The board's function generally is a review and approval function," he said. "It doesn't initiate or instruct a transaction to go forward. It really doesn't have that authority."
During the meetings, Glendening has refrained from responding in kind to Schaefer. After Wednesday's session, he told a reporter that Schaefer "should avoid taking his grumpy pills in the morning."
Glendening's staff, however, pounced on McDonald's legal opinion that Schaefer might be pushing the board beyond its legal authority. A spokesman noted that Schaefer should have known better after serving nine years on the panel, first as governor, then as comptroller.
"Either he didn't understand the role of the board or he does understand and was 100 percent posturing," Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said. "Neither reflects well on him."
Maryland Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said the state, following Glendening's orders, has stopped plans to buy more land for the highway. Before then, the department had been "active in the real estate market" and at the time of the governor's announcement had been negotiating for six parcels. Those talks have stopped, Cahalan said.
Where Schaefer might get his way is by using the power of the Board of Public Works to prevent Glendening from selling off land the state owns for the right of way. Initially, the governor said he wanted to sell some of the property or turn it into parkland.
But the board has the power to decide what state land should be sold--or not. A legal opinion by another assistant attorney general, Robert Zarnoch, said the board must vote on nearly all land sales by the state and probably could prevent Glendening from getting rid of the 277 acres the governor has said he wants to sell.
Morrill said Glendening agrees with that opinion and, "for the short term," does not plan to market the land.
CAPTION: "You don't own this state," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer told Gov. Parris N. Glendening last week at a Board of Public Works meeting. They are shown at a January session.