County is rethinking drug panel


Carroll County's narcotics task force could be facing its greatest shake-up in years as the city of Westminster threatens to pull out of the drug enforcement group.

As a direct result of Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo's decision last month to quit handling the task force's evidence, property and finances, the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force is seeking to clarify who will step into that role.

And, since that role will most likely be filled by the county sheriff's office, Westminster will lose its authority to recover the proceeds from the sale of seized property, something the city has done since the inception of the task force more than four years ago.

According to the state's attorney and county financial officials, the county commissioners want to redraft the agreement that enables the task force to exist. Among the points to be settled in a new agreement is what share Westminster will get from the sale of seized goods in the future.

The city would lose only about $10,000 a year if the commissioners eliminated its current 50 percent share of seized property sales. But Westminster officials are also stung by the commissioners' failure to include them directly in discussions of a new agreement.

The agreement delineates responsibilities of the agencies that send officers to the task force -- the city police, the county sheriff's office and the state police.

"If one wanted to take an effective crime-fighting organization and decimate it, one couldn't come up with a better plan than the present Board of County Commissioners," said Westminster City Council President Kenneth A. Yowan.

"Although I never thought I would say this, perhaps Westminster should consider getting out of the task force," Mr. Yowan told his colleagues at Monday night's council meeting.

Chief Leppo told task force and city officials last month that extra work created by the county's 16-month audit of the drug group's finances forced him to step aside as the keeper of task force evidence, property and finances. He said yesterday that he also has been walking a tightrope to keep his bosses -- Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and the City Council -- and the county happy.

"I've been juggling between working relationships with both sides," the chief said. "I have never been opposed to the audit, but it has dragged on and on."

The results of the audit are expected before the end of the month, according to county audit officials. It was ordered by the commissioners in 1993 and is not expected to point to any financial wrongdoing.

Westminster contributes one officer -- Sgt. Andrew McKendrick -- to the five-member task force. His salary and benefits -- about $50,000 annually -- are paid by the city.

Under the previous arrangement, the city received half the proceeds from the sale of seized property as compensation for Chief Leppo's acting as the task force's seizing agent. The other half of the money -- the total amounts to between $15,000 and $20,000 a year -- went into task force coffers.

State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman -- who, along with Chief Leppo, sits on the task force's advisory board -- said yesterday that he and the county are working out a new agreement. He said he has recommended that Westminster continue to receive a cut of the seized property proceeds, but that it should be in the neighborhood of 25 percent rather than 50 percent.

"We are trying to negotiate a split," the prosecutor said yesterday. He said Westminster's pulling out "would be a great mistake" and would hamper drug prosecutions countywide.

Mayor Brown said that if Westminster is to receive no reimbursement for the roughly $50,000 a year cost of the city police officer assigned to the task force, "that would be a strong argument for redeploying that officer within the city of Westminster."

Councilman Edward S. Calwell took the minority view in favor of remaining on the task force. "I think it would be detrimental to the team," he said.

Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein, who chairs the public safety committee, favored withdrawal. "I view it like a business arrangement between the county and the city," she said, adding that if the city receives no reimbursement, "that doesn't make good business sense."

Councilman Damian L. Halstad said he supported pulling out, but felt that Mr. Yowan was too harsh in his criticism of the commissioners. Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr. could not be reached for comment.

Chief Leppo said he remains a "strong supporter" of the task force concept, but should the city pull out of the group, drug enforcement in Westminster would not be harmed.

"It's a win-win for us," the chief said. "Pulling out would give us two guys to fight drugs in the city" -- Sergeant McKendrick and another officer currently assigned to drug control.

The possible exit of Westminster is one of several possible changes for the drug task force. Mr. Hickman said yesterday that he has proposed allowing the county to take all of the proceeds from the sale of seized goods. In exchange, the task force would become a county-funded agency that would have an annual budget approved by the county commissioners, Mr. Hickman said.

Such a move would eliminate the need for the task force to seize and sell enough property to fund its operations. It also would open the task force's books to annual scrutiny by the county's auditors.

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