Government

Anonymous complaint bill delayed

Dozens testify on providing names in zoning complaints

By ERIN COX

The Capital, 06/16/09

Although about 200 people gathered last night to debate whether the county should abolish anonymous zoning complaints, the County Council delayed voting on the controversial measure.

The topic drew dozens of citizens who implored the council to either uphold or reject the bill that would end anonymous complaints on infractions such as overgrown grass, junk piles in yards, and businesses illegally operating out of homes.

Critics of county zoning inspectors say those employees wield anonymous complaints as a tool to harass citizens, and argue that anonymity is unnecessary.

But environmental and growth watchdog groups say anonymous complaints are a crucial way to uphold laws that protect the county, and eliminating anonymous complaints would lead to open hostility among neighbors.

The legislation was the final initiative introduced by Councilman Ed Reilly, a Crofton Republican who has stepped down from his seat effective today to fill a vacant state Senate seat.

Reilly last night recommended the council wait until two absent council members, who were away because of long-standing summer travel plans, are present to vote on it.

The six remaining council members will take up the issue again at their next meeting, scheduled for July 6.

Tensions ran high as residents who supported the bill accused county inspectors of harassment, suggested most zoning rules should be abandoned, and called themselves "victims" for being turned in to county inspectors for violating zoning laws.

About a dozen people wore red T-shirts that read "Stop The Zoning Gestapo." The wardrobe choice offended several county workers who criticized the residents for using hurtful language.

Representatives from at least five environmental groups asked the council to dismiss the bill and argued that requiring residents who report zoning violations to put their name and address on the record would deter people from reporting anything at all.

Betty Dixon, the director of the county Department of Inspections and Permits, said she surveyed the last 100 zoning complaints to come into her office. Of those, only 18 complainants agreed to leave their names.

The vast majority of complaints investigated by Dixon's inspectors are made anonymously, and county officials say that anonymity provides a buffer that prevents neighborly disputes from escalating.

"It's important for our Department of Inspections and Permits to be able to step into a situation between neighbors - as the government, not on the side of either neighbor," said Alan Friedman, the county director of legislative affairs. "Whether it's about speeding around a school, whether it's about a drug dealer, or whether it's about operating an illegal car lot, the government investigates."

A few residents expressed the opposite sentiment, saying they believe that requiring complainants to attach their name to whatever they report would hold the county together.

"Bringing about transparency by bringing about this bill will help bring about peace and tranquility in the county among neighbors," Annapolis resident Ed Cohen said.

Another resident said abolishing anonymous complaints would help protect the "innocent" neighbors who did not report violations to county officials.

"It takes out the doubt of who it was," said Lisa Tucker, of Pasadena, adding that protecting residents who do not tattle on their neighbors is important, even if the neighbor was breaking the law.

David Mauriello of Severna Park told the council that the bill should be renamed the "Zoning Violator Protection Act."

"The chief beneficiaries of this bill are the zoning violators who will no longer fear being turned in by their neighbors," Mauriello said. "They should not be able to rewrite our laws."

(Revised June 2009)