Several members of the Prince George's County Council, in an effort to flex some political muscle against County Executive Jack B. Johnson, are moving to strip him of his power to appoint the attorney charged with monitoring zoning and land-use decisions.
Four council members proposed an ordinance this week that would give the council sole authority to name the so-called people's zoning counsel. Council members David Harrington (D-Bladensburg), Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) and Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) also want to expand the powers of the post and cut its five-year term to four years.
The council members put the bill forward after Johnson tried to oust current counsel Stan Derwin Brown, who was appointed to a five-year term in 1998 by then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry. Within a month of taking office, sources said, Johnson instructed his then-personal attorney Marcell Solomon to tell Brown he was being replaced and to turn all planning documents over to the county planning board.
Council members only recently learned of Johnson's attempt to depose Brown, they said. That attempt -- coupled with Johnson's intensive lobbying effort in Annapolis for legal authority to dump the county's five representatives to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a quasi-judicial agency with taxing powers -- prompted the council members' decision to respond.
The county charter empowers the people's zoning counsel to make certain a complete record exists on all zoning cases. The counsel can summon and cross-examine witnesses, introduce evidence, file exemptions and offer opinions to the County Council on zoning matters. Under the council members' proposal, the counsel also could seek legal injunctions and file court appeals of zoning decisions "to promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of the community."
Dernoga said the changes would put the scope of Prince George's counsel in line with that of Baltimore County's. He said the people's zoning counsel is also appointed by the County Council in Howard and Montgomery counties.
A spokesman for Johnson said the proposal is under review and that the administration had no other comment.
Johnson is seeking sole authority over the appointment of the county planning board, whose members also serve as park commissioners. He has made numerous trips to Annapolis, arguing that the commissioners have no accountability because they were appointed under a previous administration.
Harrington said the current law, which requires the county executive to have cause to remove a commissioner, was designed to maintain a system of checks and balances -- which is why he thinks the council should act on the people's zoning counsel.
"The rationale is to make sure there is someone in place who holds the integrity of the people's position," Harrington said.
Dernoga agreed. In land-use cases, there is always political pressure to get things done, he said.
"We just need to make sure that criteria is being met and to make sure that there is not a power that is being abused," said Dernoga, who fought for the change in legislation prior to becoming a council member.