A Reminder for the Council President


Is Harford County Council President Joanne S. Parrott simply forgetful, or has she purposely forgotten that the council is a seven-member body?

When Mrs. Parrott sent over the draft of the council's 1995-96 budget to the county executive's office two weeks ago, the $1 million draft had been approved by a committee of one: Mrs. Parrott herself. That's the money the council uses to administer its operation, a small part of Harford County's overall $175 million or so budget.

Although she had said in an open meeting that a work session on the council budget would be held, Mrs. Parrott sent the document to County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann without anyone else reviewing it. A work session was, in fact, held after that -- a formality that provoked open criticism from four members.

Councilman Barry Glassman, the council vice president, who has worked closely with Mrs. Parrott, pointed out that the council's budget has always had at least a consensus vote of members in past years.

Councilman Mitch Shank was more blunt: "Now we have no input."

While the council will have adequate opportunity to discuss the budget over the coming months, after Mrs. Rehrmann returns it for review and approval, members were concerned that by then the figure by law can only be reduced, not increased. (The executive cannot cut the council budget request, a protection of its political independence.)

Mrs. Parrott later explained that she had marked the wrong date on her calendar for the budget draft deadline, despite more than eight years as a council member and a legal deadline that has not changed during that time.

No council member wants to advocate an increase in council spending, for fear of arousing voter ire. But it's likely that they might have put some different items into the package.

There was no imagination in the council president's draft. It's the same as last year's version drawn up by the old council -- and the council auditor. That's a personnel cost that's been cut, the former auditor having resigned in December.

This council also doesn't have a council attorney (resigned) or a council secretary (ditto). Just look at all the money in personnel costs that have been saved this quarter!

Mrs. Parrott should also be reminded about last year's campaign, when she made the council budget an issue. Less forgetful citizens will recall that she criticized her opponent for collecting excessive expense money, while pointing to her own frugality.

Mrs. Parrott also said she supported a plan to give each council member a set allowance that could be used as that individual chose, as long as it was a legitimate expenditure. But that decision, she added, would have to be by the council.

Well, that idea is still awaiting a formal proposal. (At the post-deadline budget session, Mr. Glassman called for creating a separate category for each member's expenses, but no move toward a flat allocation.)

The council president's backstage choreography of her select personnel committee (Mark Decker, Mr. Glassman and herself) to make key decisions evokes memories of the secret dealings )) for which she criticized her predecessor, Jeffrey D. Wilson.

Mr. Shank called her to account for failing to give council members a choice in selecting a new county attorney. (The former attorney gave 30 days' notice and Mrs. Parrott said the personnel committee told him not to show up for work.)

The council president and her committee picked a single candidate, and told the rest (majority) of the council members to interview him and vote immediately, yea or nay. Mr. Shank and others balked; members ended up interviewing three applicants for the job.

A new council auditor has yet to be selected, and won't be picked in time to perform the important annual task of analyzing the county executive's budget for council scrutiny.

Instead, Mrs. Parrott (and her committee) saw urgency in hiring a consultant at $3,000 to look at council staff needs. The study comes at a time when at least four of the essential staff positions are unfilled; the fill-in nature of current staff duties will surely skew the study.

Two months ago, Councilman Robert S. Wagner expressed his pique at the hush-hush operations of the personnel committee. With important hiring decisions to be made, council members need to be better informed by the committee, he reminded the council president.

The personnel committee trio, acting as individuals, also moved to replace Councilwoman Susan Heselton on the Local Emergency Planning Commission. Mr. Decker, at the end of a January meeting, abruptly nominated Mr. Glassman to replace her. The surprise nomination, Mrs. Parrott explained, "was very spontaneous, and that's the way things should happen."

Mrs. Heselton, who had previously lost all her other committee appointments and her old office in the courthouse by Mrs. Parrott's direction, found no spontaneity but rather systematic design in the personnel committee's role, and she said so.

At that point, another Harford official experienced a bout of forgetfulness. Mrs. Rehrmann, who had sent a letter appointing Mrs. Heselton to the planning body four years ago, declared that she did not have that authority.

Appointments are made by the state Emergency Response Commission, by recommendation of the County Council, she explained, after the council had already acted.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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