Dozens of Howard County residents signed up to testify Monday about a bill that would establish new Auditor’s Office guidelines. The bill was introduced in the wake of public outcry accusing the office of overstepping in its investigation into a library event last fall that honored a historically Black sorority’s decades of community service.
More than 80 residents signed up to testify about the bill, but just 18 got the chance on Monday. The council will continue the hearing at 6 p.m., March 27, and take action at its April 3 legislative session.
County Council Chair Christiana Rigby and council member Opel Jones introduced the bill and have called for county auditor Craig Glendenning’s termination because, they say, the auditor’s office report on the October library event contained racially insensitive language and overstepped the auditor’s authority.
Earlier this month, Glendenning sent an apology letter to all five County Council members, the African-American Community Roundtable and the Howard chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. The letter states that Glendenning’s office’s report brought “undue scrutiny” to AKA and apologized for the report’s description of “African American women wearing white dresses” entering the Central Branch library the night of the event and the presence of vehicles with Alpha Kappa Alpha license plates.
“It was inappropriate and unnecessary for my report to call out the dress, gender or race of attendees of the event,” Glendenning said in the apology letter. “I sincerely apologize for making members of the sorority, or the larger Black community of Howard County, feel targeted.”
The report was made after the Auditor’s Office investigated a whistleblower complaint that alleged library system CEO and President Tonya Aikens was using the gathering for personal gain.
In response to Glendenning’s original report, which has since been edited to remove references to AKA, a committee appointed by the library’s board of trustees stated the Oct. 7 event was a proper use of library facilities, expenses were covered by the sorority and that Aikens is not a member of any sorority. The committee did recommend the library system review its policy for closing facilities early.
[ Read the March 6 statement of apology from the Office of the County Auditor. ]
At Monday’s hearing, community members questioned why such details hadn’t been confirmed earlier by the auditor and expressed outrage that the auditor’s staff had staked out the sorority event.
“I was stalked, photographed and surveilled without my permission using county resources by county employees who believed they were on official county business using my tax dollars,” AKA member Laura Crandon said during the hearing. “Who’s next to be falsely accused and stalked?”
Glendenning said in an email Thursday that auditor staff did not take photos at the event.
Jessica Nichols, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, said during her testimony that the Auditor’s Office’s actions were akin to racial profiling.
“This [investigation] spiraled into the same type of racial profiling that my great grandparents, grandparents, parents and I have experienced throughout my life here in Howard County and in the United States,” Nichols said.
The proposed legislation would amend Sections 212 and 213 of the Howard County Charter to to increase the council’s oversight of the county auditor, a position that serves as “watch dog” over the county executive branch and is appointed by the council. Before reviewing an alleged misuse of county funds, the auditor would be required to outline the scope and purpose of the audit to the council and discuss any findings prior to a report’s completion.
Rigby and Jones said council members had not been informed ahead of time that the library stakeout would take place and did not receive a request from Glendenning to authorize an investigation until November. Under Section 213, special audits into county fund misuse must be ordered by the County Council or executive.
“Simply because an office has functioned as the Wild West does not mean that it should continue,” said Rigby, a Democrat representing District 3. “Who ensures the auditor stays within the legal bounds defined by the charter?”
District 1 Council member Liz Walsh, a Democrat, said the bill as written would impose undue political influence on the auditor’s office. Walsh favors creating an independent Office of the Inspector General to oversee fraud and waste complaints, similar to systems in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore counties.
“It’s pretty clear that this bill is intended to censure this auditor,” Walsh said. “It is about [Rigby and Jones’] view of this auditor and what can be done to take away the autonomy that traditionally his office would have.”
Walsh said her office is working on amendments to the bill and would support granting the council temporary authority over how whistleblower complaints are handled until an inspector general is in place.
In a March 17 newsletter, District 4 Council member Deb Jung said the bill could enable the council to dissuade audits involving individuals with personal ties to council members and shield such discussions behind closed doors.
“It is unlikely that any auditing organization in the country is subject to the requirements proposed by [the Howard County bill],” she said.
The County Auditor’s Office weighed in with its own statement Monday on the proposed legislation, warning that if the legislation passes the office would no longer be in compliance with portions of the U.S. Government Accountability’s audit standards, known as the “Yellow Book.”
“Much of the concern centers around independence and the role of the County Auditor’s Office,” the office said. “While budgeted as part of the Council, the Office has historically been able to remain functionally independent of the Council. Inserting the Council into the process will jeopardize that independence.”
[ Read the Howard County Auditor's Office analysis of Council Bill 11-2023 ]
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Amanda Noble, auditor for the City of Atlanta, testified via videoconference Monday on behalf of the Association of Local Government Auditors, of which the Howard office is a member. Noble said the association is against the proposed bill and argued there are other ways to bolster accountability of the Auditor’s Office without threatening its independence, such as undergoing peer reviews and tracking performance metrics.
“To be independent, the audit function should be outside of the reporting line of areas subject to audit, should have operational autonomy to determine appropriate audit scope and procedures, and should be obligated to report audit results without fear of reprisal,” Noble said.
Jones said that while the Yellow Book can inform best practices it does not supersede sections of the Howard County Charter outlining the auditor’s duties.
“We are bound to follow the Howard County Charter, not someone’s standards and practices from some book,” he said.
The bill’s new guidelines would not apply to fiscal analyses conducted by the auditor on proposed legislation and the annual budget. Jones said the changes would instead ensure the council remains the authorizing body for special audits.
“It’s not like we want to start doing his job for him,” Jones said. “It’s just if this auditor is not going to be terminated, if this auditor is not going to be suspended or reprimanded whatsoever, we need to make sure that what’s happening now will never happen again.”
To view past and upcoming council meetings online, visit: https://cc.howardcountymd.gov/Online-Tools/Watch-Us.