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National group weighs in on Baltimore County plan to overhaul inspector general’s office

A national group for government watchdogs is blasting a proposed overhaul of Baltimore County’s inspector general office.

The Association of Inspectors General wrote in an open letter Monday that the changes proposed by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. would “effectively gag and shackle” the county’s inspector general.

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Stephen B. Street Jr., president of the Association of Inspectors General, said in an interview that he felt it was important to raise concerns about the bill early in the process. It’s scheduled to be introduced to the Baltimore County Council on Tuesday.

“This is something that happens everywhere you have an effective inspector general,” said Street, who is Louisiana’s inspector general. “You have folks who say, ‘I don’t think I like this. We’re going to back up and evaluate.’ ”

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Street said attempts to rein in and defund inspectors general are common but rarely are successful.

The position of inspector general is still relatively new in Baltimore County, and the first person to hold the position, Kelly Madigan, has been criticized on issues as varied as how she conducts her investigations to how much she spent on business cards.

Madigan has defended her work and said the changes would strip away her independence and make it difficult to carry out her job investigating corruption and waste.

Madigan said she was “incredibly grateful” to have the support of the national association, which recommends best practices for inspectors general across the country.

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Olszewski’s proposal, if passed, would create a board of county officials and residents appointed by the county executive and the council chair. The inspector general would have to notify the board of proposed investigations and how she or he plans to conduct them, according to a draft of the bill that’s been circulated.

The board would be able to remove the inspector general from office and could alter the office’s budget.

The bill also would limit the types of documents and records that the inspector general can access during investigations.

Street outlined three flaws with Olszewski’s proposal: the oversight board members would lack knowledge about investigations and wouldn’t “provide actual independence” because they are politically appointed; the oversight board would have “excessive authority” over the inspector general and could halt investigations; and the oversight board’s powers could be used to “influence, intimidate or directly hinder” investigations and audits.

“The proposed bill in its present form, should it become law, will deprive the inspector general of the ability to fulfill its mission and the independence that it must have in order to be effective,” Street wrote. “The end result would be the appearance of oversight, which is much worse than no oversight at all.”

Sean Naron, a spokesperson for Olszewski, responded to the letter in a statement Monday night: “The administration, members of the council and the inspector general have all voiced support for an oversight board to provide accountability and fill gaps in the current law. We remain committed to continue working together to ensure the success of this important office.”

Madigan previously said she would welcome the creation of an independent oversight panel, but she said Olszewski’s draft proposal does not create a truly independent board.

Madigan said she continues to oppose the bill because it undercuts her ability to do her job.

“It removes independence, it strips confidentiality and it limits access to records,” she said. “It makes no sense to have a watchdog, someone that is looking out for the best interests of Baltimore County citizens with their Baltimore County tax dollars, to only have access to certain documents.”

The letter was first reported by the Baltimore Brew website.

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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