In the final 20 minutes of Monday night’s Anne Arundel County Council meeting, a Democrat and three Republicans pushed through a change that might be tough for a casual observer to care about.

Council Administrative Officer Laura Corby understood. She wiped away tears as the council inexorably moved toward a 4-3 vote on Resolution 4-24, telegraphed by the number of sponsors.

Was it a petit coup? Was it an undemocratic travesty that stripped Chair Allison Pickard of power over the council staff — an administrator, assistant administrator, and council attorney — and birthed a seven-headed hydra that will create chaos? Rules are the road that governments travel on, and critics say this drastically changes them.

“Please pay attention to who is going to vote for this tonight,” Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien said, addressing the mostly empty council chambers in Annapolis and a few dozen people watching at home.

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Or was it a course correction? Was it an overdue remedy for long-simmering problems in how the staff has operated, with unusually high turnover as just one symptom? It formalizes the long-standing idea, supporters say, that all seven council members have an equal say in how things are run.

“I don’t see this as a radical departure from how the council works,” Councilman Nathan Volke said Thursday afternoon over coffee a few blocks from the Arundel Center.

This has been one of the most cohesive councils in recent memory. Despite the 4-3 Democratic majority, many votes have been unanimous, and there have been no lasting, divisive fights.

Pickard, who voted with fellow Democrats Rodvien and council member Julie Hummer to delay the vote and then against the resolution, predicted this could end that.

“I’ve had many sleepless nights,” she said. “This is a public institution that is in a very vulnerable place.”

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That a rule change could be so fractious is something of a surprise. Starting almost immediately after their election in 2022, the council has been working to update many of its rules. Changes under discussion range from admitting video testimony to filling vacancies on the Board of Education to requiring news media members to maintain decorum during meetings.

However, a draft of those changes has been sitting untouched for months. In January, Democrat Pete Smith teamed with Republicans Volke, Amanda Fiedler and Shannon Leadbetter to introduce Resolution 4-24 with their own update.

It changed council rules governing staff supervision, making the whole council a collective boss with the power to hire and fire. Contract details and performance reviews remain up to the chair, but the change gives one member of a different party an equal role.

The meaning was clear. Tired of waiting, Smith and Co. wanted a change. Exactly why or how things will run now is less so.

None of the four rebels discussed their reasons Monday night, or what comes next. Smith said he assumes the general public doesn’t really care.

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“How we manage and interact with our staff so that we can come up with the best legislative package is up to us,” he said.

The idea that whatever problem existed wasn’t fixable before this is strange, particularly since Smith was the chair before Pickard. The position rotates annually among the majority party — the Democrats since 2018. But there is a lot left unsaid about what got the council to Monday’s fight.

The council administrator has a lot of responsibility. She manages all council meetings, serves as secretary for meetings, keeps all council records and makes sure the council follows all county and state laws. She helps council members and their individual staff members.

At one point, Pickard, Hummer and Rodvien attacked supporters’ silence and the decision to vote without public comment as an undemocratic travesty and a path to sloppy, irresponsible government. Volke rested his face in his hands and visibly sighed.

“I don’t like it when the council discusses personnel in public,” he said two days later. “That’s what this is.”

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Pickard and other opponents of the change say the new rules could require the council to vote on every minor decision.

Need to tell the administrator to schedule votes? Let’s vote. Expense reports for council members need approval? Let’s discuss who had what for lunch during a daylong work session and vote.

Want to hire a new administrator — with Corby’s departure in April, all three staff positions will turn over — let’s discuss the candidates in public. And vote.

Executive sessions aren’t allowed under the County Charter, which would prevent taking personnel matters private.

Volke said the council will rely on the same workaround that it has always used to discuss legislation, build support and deal with conflicts. Emails are sent “blind copy” to all members, and individual groups — always less than a quorum to avoid breaking either the charter or state law — step forward to work things out.

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“This is not rocket science,” Volke said.

That is undoubtedly how Smith, Volke and the others agreed on the rules change; had it drafted by the county’s Office of Law (separate from the council attorney); submitted it in mid-January and decided to push for an immediate vote. Resolutions can be voted on two weeks after introduction without a public hearing.

Whatever the impact on day-to-day business, the change does hand a codified role in administrative decisions to the Republican minority, which is likely to stay in the minority as demographic shifts increase the number of county Democratic and independent voters.

For his part, Smith said the change wasn’t a conflict over Pickard’s leadership. The new rules, he said, will make sure the administrator, assistant administrator and the council attorney are responsive to the whole seven-member council.

County Executive Steuart Pittman’s administration has to be eying this fracas warily.

The rancor comes on the cusp of the most detailed, time-consuming council task — updating land use plans. Comprehensive zoning affects what you can build and where, property values, transportation and environmental protections. It’s a once-in-a-decade process that takes weeks of meetings and, the last time the council went through it, hundreds of amendments.

Then, in May, the council will take up its biggest annual job: the review and approval of Pittman’s budget proposal. It’s another weekslong process, with billions in county spending and revenue on the table. There is already intense pressure to increase salaries as the number of police department vacancies rises.

“This is an important branch of government,” Pickard said Tuesday. “I’m not sure what is ahead because of the lack of coordination. I don’t fully understand the intent of my colleagues.”

Those other rules, Resolution 3-24, are on the agenda. A work session on Tuesday will be the first time the council gets together as a whole since the tumultuous end to Monday’s meeting.

One test could be how quickly the council, en masse, fills those three staff openings. At least two job candidates have dropped out since Monday, not a great sign.

“We’re not going to let things fall apart,” Volke said.

Corby, the council administrator since her promotion from assistant clerk three years ago, has already decided she won’t be part of whatever happens next. She submitted her resignation around when Resolution 4-24 was introduced.

It’s the latest change in what has historically been a pretty stable office. The administrator’s office has gone through two assistants and two attorneys in the last few years.

Corby declined to comment on her reasons for leaving, the vote Monday night or what’s next for her. As administrator, she has become well known to people who work with the council on various issues.

Even in saying she had nothing to say, she got a message across.

“Unfortunately, I cannot talk to you without permission from my seven supervisors,” she said.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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