ONE OF Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's favorite expressions is "perception is reality." It is meant to convey his understanding that how the public feels about an issue is critical, even when those feelings may be unfounded.
But he must have forgotten this adage recently when he agreed to refurbish his office at a cost of $9,005. It's not the amount of money; it's the symbolism.
The decision to buy the furniture was made even as Howard County's top elected official was preparing a new austerity plan. Mr. Ecker called on his department heads to come up with a 12 percent reduction in spending. He further made the point that the cuts would not necessarily be across the board, with some areas getting hit harder than others. Left unsaid was that his department was going to be one of the lucky ones, transferring funds from two other agencies to buy the furniture.
The most symbolic purchase of all is the $1,462 top-of-the-line, high-back leather chair for the executive. (For Mr. Ecker's political sake, it better not be Corinthian leather.) Officials point out that the coasters kept falling off his old chair. In addition is a new conference table and 14 chairs at $500 apiece.
At least Mr. Ecker's interior decorating takes some of the heat off the Howard County school board members who want a 100 percent salary increase. So much for austerity.
Perhaps Mr. Ecker's office did warrant improvements. The furniture was old and stained, hardly befitting the top elected official in the county. Mr. Ecker receives 1,000 guests a year, including dignitaries and executives representing some of the most promising business prospects Maryland's apt to see. An adequately furnished office projects professionalism and puts the county's best foot forward.
But few Howard County residents will ever get a chance to enjoy Mr. Ecker's new digs. Whether this is good use of public funds is something they will have to weigh for themselves. Voters tend to have long memories about this stuff -- President Clinton's $200 haircut, remodeling of the governor's mansion or the perks that felled Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen, among others. Mr. Ecker probably should have heeded his own philosophy about perception and downgraded a bit.