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Baltimore County

Baltimore County inspector general reports the county improperly paid $70K for a commercial alley to be repaved

In a report issued Thursday, Baltimore County’s inspector general determined the county improperly paid nearly $70,000 to repave a deteriorating alley in downtown Towson, almost entirely surrounded by businesses.

The alley didn’t meet the requirements for the county’s alley paving program, which is usually reserved for residential areas, according to the inspector general’s report. But the county paid to repave the alley anyway, after the property owner brought the issue to County Council Chairman Julian Jones, the report said.

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Some county officials, though, are pushing back against the inspector general’s findings.

In a letter to Inspector General Kelly Madigan, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers took issue with the report’s description of the paving program, among other items. Nowhere in county law is it specified that alleys have to be residential to be eligible for the county paving program, she said.

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“The Administration unequivocally does not concur with many of the conclusions in your report,” Rodgers wrote.

Officials within the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, including the chief of highway design, raised a red flag about the alley work, according to Thursday’s report. The manager of the paving program also asked to be removed from the project, calling it unethical.

But the repaving ultimately was approved by the department’s director, D’Andrea L. Walker. It was completed by an on-call contractor, rather than put out for bid, as is typical for alley re-pavings under the program, according to the report.

The “spirit” of the alley reconstruction program is that it be used for residential purposes, though there are exceptions, the officials told Madigan. For example, a nearby alley called Watkin’s Way was repaved because it could serve as an important thoroughfare for county emergency vehicles when roads close for the Towson farmer’s market, and it connected to a county-owned parking garage, said the county’s chief of highway design.

This alley, which runs west to east between Baltimore Avenue and Washington Avenue, presented no such justification to be repaved on the taxpayers’ dime, according to the officials. The officials were also concerned that it was more of a private driveway than an alley, connecting parking areas for the surrounding businesses.

According to Madigan’s report, the property owner said he was told upon purchasing all of the commercial buildings surrounding the alley that the county owned the alley, and that’s why he did not make the repairs himself. Madigan’s office determined the alley was owned by the businessman, but all of the repairs were paid for by the county.

Thursday’s report does not name the property owner. The owner did not respond to a request for comment from The Sun.

A fresh flashpoint

The alley has become the latest flashpoint between County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration and his inspector general.

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Asked Thursday about whether county officials gave preferential treatment to the businessman in the case, Olszewski disagreed with the inspector general’s findings.

“If you look at the thorough and complete analysis and response provided by the administration, the administrative officer in Baltimore County, I don’t think that’s the case here,” he said.

Though he has criticized the inspector general, Olszewski said his administration has improved transparency of county government. His administration hired Madigan as the county’s first inspector general, and recently increased her funding so she could hire more staff.

But last year, amid concerns about the inspector general’s investigations, Olszewski proposed a bill before the county council to create an oversight board for the inspector general. The national Association of Inspectors General warned that would effectively “gag and shackle” Madigan, and it was withdrawn. Instead, a commission was created to look into the county’s current laws surrounding the inspector general.

In an interview Thursday, County Council Chairman Jones also took issue with Madigan’s latest investigation into the alley repaving. Thursday’s report asserts that Jones’ involvement “effectively changed the process that had been used” to decide whether alleys would be accepted into the county program.

“The bottom line is this is a lot to do about nothing,” he said.

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Jones said he receives hundreds of requests from residents and businesspeople in the county each year, and tries to assist them as best he can. So, when the businessman told Jones that he’d been trying to get the alley improved for years to no avail, including by approaching the council member who represents Towson, Jones asked the county if it could be done.

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“That was the extent of my involvement,” Jones said.

The inspector general report indicates that Jones called the chief of highway design to ask about the alley. When the chief told him the alley would not qualify, Jones responded with “words to the effect that they did not care and they wanted it done.”

In an interview Thursday, Jones said he never spoke with the chief of highway design.

In the case of the alley, Jones agreed to be interviewed by Madigan about his involvement. But Madigan wanted to record the interview, and Jones took issue with that. So Madigan declined to conduct the interview, saying it’s the office’s policy to record all of its interviews.

“That’s a personal preference of mine,” said Jones, adding that since Maryland requires both parties to consent to a recording, he felt he had the right to refuse.

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Jones has criticized the inspector general in the past for making “molehills into mountains.” Earlier this year, Madigan issued a report stating that Jones had included a campaign donation link in his official emails as a council member, in violation of county policy. Jones told The Sun that he didn’t realize the link had been included, and addressed it as soon as he found out.

Baltimore Sun reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this article.


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