Council Hesitates to Force Aron From Planning Panel; Slaying Case Perplexes Montgomery Officials

Ruthann Aron has been in jail without bond for more than two weeks, but the Montgomery County Council still is considering how to take away her seat on the county’s Planning Board.

Since the 1994 U.S. Senate candidate’s arrest on charges that she tried to pay $20,000 to have her husband and a lawyer killed, council members have met twice in private to discuss ways to resolve the situation quietly. Aron’s attorney, Barry Helfand, has declined a council request that his client leave office.

Yesterday, Helfand said that he had received another inquiry from county officials and that he had not yet responded. He planned to discuss the matter with Aron at a meeting in the evening. Asked whether he thought his client was fit to hold office, Helfand said, “Not right now.” But he added that she might be able to sit on the board in the future. Sources said the council has decided to delay a decision until a Montgomery County grand jury decides whether Aron should be indicted on two counts of soliciting murder. Prosecutors say they expect to present their case to the grand jury next week.

According to authorities, Aron was arrested June 9 after she dropped off a $500 down payment for an undercover police officer who was posing as a hit man and whom Aron wanted to hire to kill her husband, urologist Barry Aron. Law enforcement officials said she also sought to target Baltimore lawyer Arthur G. Kahn. So far, County Council members have not commented on the Planning Board issue, calling it a confidential personnel matter. The situation is especially sticky because the law requires that the council show cause before removing Aron from the $18,500-a-year Planning Board seat.

That would involve holding a public hearing, which some council members fear could turn into an embarrassing spectacle. Council members have been seeking a way to avoid a public controversy but have so far come up empty-handed. There also are concerns that if the council acts too hastily or improperly, it could become the target of legal action by Aron, who sued her opponent for defamation after losing the Republican Senate primary in 1994. Kahn had represented former business associates of Aron’s in a successful lawsuit against her, and he testified for the defense in the defamation case against her GOP primary opponent, William E. Brock III. She lost the defamation case, but an appeals court said she could seek a new trial in a decision issued in the days before she was arrested. “We’re concerned about doing it and doing it right,” a council source said about removing Aron from the Planning Board. “This woman will not only fight tenaciously, but she could be suing us.” Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said she did not believe the council is taking too much time in making a decision. “The council probably will have a statement soon,” she said. “There’s a whole variety of issues associated with this situation which we find ourselves in. I don’t think we’re taking a long time.

We’re just reviewing the situation.” Planning Board Chairman William Hussmann has said Aron’s seat will remain vacant unless the council acts to replace her. Hussmann could not be reached for comment yesterday. Although the five-member board can function with four members, a vacancy raises the possibility of tie votes, which could stall the board’s work on land-use matters.

The board has regulatory authority over individual developments and subdivisions. It plays an advisory role on larger county land-use matters. “Any time you have a commission that’s not running at full capacity, especially one involved in such important decisions, I think that there’s a sense of urgency,” said Richard LaSota, the county’s Republican Party chairman. Aron holds one of two Republican seats on the Planning Board. “We would like to see her do the honorable thing and step down so the county can continue doing its business,” LaSota said. “But, if not, we would like to see the council move forward and decide what they’re going to do.”