ONE BOARD ENDS DIVISIVE ERA AS ANOTHER HOLDS THE COURSE INFIGHTING, WORKLOAD BEAT COMMISSIONERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The departing Board of County Commissioners inherited a load of problems when it assumed office in late 1986, many of them remnants of past administrations that responded sluggishly to growth.

John L. Armacost, Jeff Griffith and Julia W. Gouge were forced to embark on a catch-up program to build or renovate five elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding, to borrow more money than ever before for overdue capital projects and to institute long-range planning.

And though the board engineered many accomplishments, it left a number of issues unresolved, including whether the commissioner form of government has become outdated in Carroll.

This board, and the two previous ones, has had difficulty implementing the county Master Plan, updated in 1979 to concentrate growth in nine community planning areas. Growth has outpaced the county's and municipalities' abilities to provide services.

Constituents also were not served as efficiently and responsibly as they should have been, the commissioners admitted.

Griffith says the part-time government in which three executives double as the legislators is inherently inefficient because triumvirates have difficulty making decisions. The situation will get worse as the county grows, he said.

Armacost said government would have run more smoothly had his two colleagues attended meetings more consistently.

Gouge says the present form of government can succeed if commissioners work full time, even though law mandates only two meetings per week. She believes the departing administration fell short of goals, blaming some of the problems on her colleagues' unwillingness to devote adequate time to the job, the board's poor working relationship and failure to discuss issues as a threesome.

"I think it would have been a better Board of Commissioners and accomplished a lot more if there had been time to discuss the issues instead of making fast decisions or no decision at all, or putting them off for so many months that people wondered what was happening," she said.

"I think a lot of day-to-day decisions were put off. Comprehensive rezoning plans have been slowed down. I don't think enough time was spent even on the budget each year by the commissioners talking as a board.

"I think it was really three individuals who did not work together, but basically as individuals."

Records show Gouge spent the most days on the job in each of the four years, either in office or attending outside functions, while Griffith spent the fewest days each year (see accompanying chart). Hours worked are not recorded. Armacost is retired, and Gouge has no other job.

The commissioners' salary has been raised to $30,000, up from $22,000 for the departing board.

Armacost and Gouge publicly criticized Griffith for attending law school during his second term. Gouge said she felt compelled to explain to constituents why meetings sometimes were canceled and appointments broken.

"I don't think it was fair to the two people he was working with and not fair to the public," she said. Even when Griffith was at work, he sometimes tended to other business, she said.

Griffith said he felt "betrayed" by his colleagues. He said he discussed his decision with the other two before committing to law school, but Gouge contends he had already made up his mind.

"The commissioner position is officially part time, and I made a decision to improve myself so I could do a better job as commissioner and professionally," said Griffith, a former college professor who has a Ph.D.

in English.

Despite the bitterness and disappointment, this board made some significant advancements: It passed an incentive program for farmland preservation; created a Department of Natural Resource Protection to coordinate environmental efforts; significantly increased teacher salaries and public schools financing; and addressed the conflict between mining and development.

It vastly improved human services programs, such as drug abuse prevention and homeless shelters, largely through Griffith's efforts; continued development of a nationally recognized water protection program; imposed controversial fees, such as the impact fee, to help pay for growth; and built libraries and senior centers.

But administrative problems persisted throughout, hindering efforts of department directors and their staffs, county employees say.

"Part of the problem is the part-time nature," Permits and Regulations Director J. Michael Evans said. "It's difficult to get all three together as a policy-making group at one time. Then, when we do that, we bombard them. They can't possibly have a good grasp of the issues when we bombard them.

"I'd love to see the commissioners be a full-time job. We're a full-time government. The leaders should be full time as well."

Because county government has grown so fast during the past two administrations -- expanding from five to 12 cabinet-level departments since 1983 and from 382 to 623 employees in the last five fiscal years -- the commissioners have been overwhelmed, several staff members say.

"The commissioners are so busy, trying to see them has been a problem," Assistant Planning Director Marlene Conaway said. "We have a standing meeting Tuesdays; I can't say how many times it's been canceled. There are so many big decisions to make. Although these commissioners worked hard, there wasn't time to do everything."

The incoming board -- Gouge, Elmer C. Lippy Jr. and Donald I. Dell -- has decided to meet three days a week instead of two.

Gary B. Blucher said he often had difficulty arranging meetings with the commissioners during his two years as president of the county chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. He said he also believed county staff had been overburdened, causing projects and studies to be delayed.

Several department directors advocate creating an executive assistant position with more authority. County departments should report directly to that administrator, who would oversee projects and handle more of the day-to-day business of government, they say.

Armacost said he's convinced all necessary business can be accomplished if commissioners attend every meeting on the agenda.

Several department directors say too often they were unsure about policy because the commissioners sometimes offered three different opinions or otherwise failed to reach a consensus.

Gouge and Griffith agreed that the commissioners stumbled in efforts to establish clear policy goals.

"At this point, we have no single vision for where the county's headed," Griffith said. "That's a problem, because if you don't know where you're going, you don't know where you'll end up.

"We are somewhat rudderless even if we have three strong, activist commissioners, and we haven't had that."

Gouge said she often didn't know how her colleagues would vote on an issue until a motion was made, and they didn't understand her positions.

Sometimes she thought all three were united, only to be surprised by split votes, motions that died and sometimes three differing opinions, she said.

"That's rather ridiculous," she said.

Gouge, a Republican, said being forced to moderate between the conservative Republican Armacost and the liberal Democrat Griffith posed another obstacle. She said she believed each voted strongly along party lines and expected her support. No matter how she voted, she said, one or the other was angry.

"The reality is, I'm glad the four years are over," she said. "It was a hard four years, trying to be a negotiator."

Armacost also had difficulties with his colleagues, who often didn't take kindly to his conservative views on spending. He said that when he served as commissioner from 1982 to 1986, the board was a model of fiscal responsibility, dropping the property tax rate from $2.04 to $2.03 per $100 of assessed value. Armacost enjoyed having former Commissioner William V.

Lauterbach Jr. as an ally during those years. Griffith was the third commissioner.

However, the following board "overspent" on the capital and operating budgets, specifically on the Board of Education, he said, raising the tax rate to $2.35.

However, some argue the tax rate was kept artificially low for years while problems mounted. The entire capital budget for the two administrations from 1978 to 1986 was $129 million; this board approved $164 million in projects. The school budget increased by 43 percent from 1982 to 1986, compared with 75 percent under the departing commissioners.

The large budget increase for public schools -- from $31.8 million to $55.5 million over four years -- "diluted what we should have given to other areas of the county," Armacost said.

School board members and Superintendent of Schools R. Edward Shilling praised the commissioners for their financial support. But they said the education system, underfinanced for years, merely broke even.

"They were taking care of growth, but there weren't very many steps forward in program improvements," board member Cheryl A. McFalls said.

Members cite per-student spending and teacher-to-student ratios as areas needing improvement.

Shilling commended the commissioners for recognizing that the state could not keep pace with school construction needs.

But the August 1988 moratorium on residential development -- an outgrowth of overcrowded schools -- clearly indicated that several Boards of Commissioners lagged in providing facilities needed to meet enrollment increases, said Blucher, of the Home Builders Association.

The County Planning and Zoning Commission imposed the moratorium on residential subdivision approvals until the commissioners agreed to build schools.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°