Friday, August 31, 2007

Legislative Update: community meetings, police employment and electronic signs

Three bills that I am co-sponsoring are scheduled for a public hearing and vote this coming Tuesday night. These bills affect community meetings, secondary police employment, and electronic signs. (Note that because of the Labor Day holiday, the Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night instead of Monday.)

Community Meetings Bill

County law requires a developer to hold a community meeting before submitting a new subdivision or development plan. The meeting is "for the purpose of allowing the developer to present information regarding the development, and allowing the community to ask questions or provide comments (Sec. 17.2.107)."

The law requires the meeting to be held at an ADA-accessible facility "reasonably close" to the development site. In practice, this usually works out as intended. On a handful of occasions, however, the developer has creatively interpreted the term "reasonably." Earlier this year, for example, a developer held a meeting for a proposed development in Crownsville at the Eastport/Annapolis Neck Library, a good 30 minutes and two zip codes away.

To correct this loophole, Bill No. 62-07 requires that developers hold the community meeting "within five miles of the development site." On that rare occasion when the five-mile limit is impractical, for instance in rural South County, the five-mile limit may be waived but only by the Planning and Officer.

County Executive John Leopold and Council Members Jamie Benoit, Cathy Vitale and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

Police Secondary Employment Bill

Anne Arundel County police officers have long held secondary jobs at restaurants and other businesses around the county. This secondary employment provides a quadruple benefit: first, it enhances public safety by putting more uniformed officers out into the community; second, it accomplishes this without spending taxpayer dollars; third, it provides business owners with well-trained personnel to enhance security and safety at their establishments; and fourth, it provides a reasonable way for police officers to earn additional income.

Several years ago, the County's Ethics Commission opined that it was a conflict of interest for police officers to work secondary employment at establishments that sold alcohol. The reasoning was that the officer might feel compromised if he or she observed an alcohol violation, because the establishment, not the government, was paying for him or her to be there. In other words, according to the opinion, an officer could be reluctant to make an arrest or take an action that might disrupt the establishment's revenues.

When the opinion came out, the police chief at that time, Tom Shanahan, disregarded it. He continued to allow police officers to work secondary employment at restaurants that served alcohol. An Ethics Commission opinion is strictly advisory and Chief Shanahan was within his authority to disregard it.

Earlier this year, the new police chief, James Teare, made a decision to prohibit secondary employment at establishments that served alcohol. Even though such employment was not prohibited by law, Chief Teare wanted to be consistent with the Ethics Commission's opinion.

As I indicated above, secondary police employment provides several benefits. I believe these benefits are greatest at an establishment that serves alcohol. When the bartender yells "last call" is when the presence of a uniformed officer is most helpful. The officer can provide a deterrent effect for unruly patrons as they head to their cars, and also provide an added level of security for the remaining employees who are closing up after the customers leave.

Bill No. 59-07 will amend the law to clarify that police officers can indeed work secondary employment at establishments that serve alcohol and also at bingo parlors. It draws the line at bars, and only permits secondary employment at restaurants whose primary business is not alcohol. I support expanding this provision in the future to allow secondary employment at bars as well, but the police union is requesting only the current language. For now the police union just wants the law to affirm what had been the practice for many years.

It bears mention that the nature of secondary employment has been misconstrued in some of the press coverage. Contrary to what was reported in one article, officers may not work as bouncers or assist in the operation of the business in any way.
Secondary employment allows an officer to be paid to remain onsite, provide a calming presence, and respond in a police capacity when necessary.

County Executive Leopold and Council Members Ed Middlebrooks, Ron Dillon, Cathy Vitale and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

Electronic Sign Bill

You have probably noticed more and more electronic signboards with moving images popping up around the county. As these signs become more affordable, we can expect to see more businesses erecting them.

I am concerned about this trend for two reasons. The first is public safety. Our eyes are naturally drawn to moving images, especially bright, electronic red dots. The whole purpose of these signs is to attract attention. Every driver is responsible for driving safely, but the fact is that we have too many distractions while driving already. Even if I am driving responsibly, do I want the driver next to me to be reading a moving sign instead of paying attention to the road?

The second reason is aesthetics. I admit that this is getting into a personally subjective gray area. Glitzy signs can be attractive and they do have their place, but not in Anne Arundel County. Our county still has a unique, attractive character and we should be doing what we can to preserve what makes us special. My concern is that ten years from now, these signs will be everywhere and we'll look more like the Las Vegas Strip than the county we know and love today.

Although the Chamber of Commerce opposes this ban, I believe that in the long run it will be good for our local economy. Strong design guidelines establish a sense of place and help attract new businesses to an area. Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (not the one from The Tonight Show) has written extensively on this issue. (Lessons in Community Development Learned from Traveling is a brief piece he wrote in 2005 about development in San Antonio.)

Bill No. 63-07 establishes modest limitations on how electronic signs display their messages. The bill prohibits "... moving picture or video images, moving electronic images, (and) moving, flashing, or scrolling text messages..." The bill does not ban electronic signs, nor does it require businesses to take down any electronic signs they already have. Instead, it simply requires that an image remain static for at least five seconds.

Councilmember Jamie Benoit and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

To Testify

The Council Meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Arundel Center. Anyone wishing to speak may sign up beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information visit the County Council's webpage.