The Howard County Council began its budget deliberations last week looking a bit like the Cheshire cat of "Alice in Wonderland." With what seemed a self-satisfied grin, the Republican-majority council took punitive action against one of its own, approving new limits on council members' spending.
The move, aimed at former council chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, caps spending on car phones at $1,500 a year and limits mmbers to $200 for transportation, food and lodging for each event they attend. Mr. Gray had been known as the council's most prolific spender, but he was also its busiest member and the one with the widest influence. He is among a handful of county politicians known outside the local borders and also has close ties to Gov. Parris Glendening.
The council's largely symbolic gesture, like the cat, all but evaporates in the face of reasonable consideration. In spearheading the caps, Republican Charles C. Feaga, the council's new chairman, used his own prior spending habits as a standard for setting the new limits. In his former role as a minority member of the council, however, he was also one of the least active.
It is one thing for Mr. Feaga to prove that Mr. Gray's expenses have been unreasonable, unethical or unrelated to advancing county business. It is quite another for him to simply equate heavy use of a car phone with excess. Mr. Gray claims that as a part-time council member who works as a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, his car is his office and the car phone facilitates his fulfilling his duties. He wasn't the only council member to make that point. The car phone restriction is an arbitrary, outdated restriction on a council member's ability to do business.
As for the council's new limit on convention spending, that seems less a problem. It provides for exemptions as long as the council approves them in advance.
These are difficult financial times for the county. It is not surprising that council members would want the public to see them as self-disciplined -- rather, that the members would want to be self-disciplined -- especially when asking the community to make its own sacrifices. But this gesture has largely no impact on the budget and may ultimately hurt constituent service in intangible ways.