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First impressions may not bear out on commissioners


OK, SO IT WASN'T a day that will live in infamy. The swearing in of Carroll County's new commissioners last Monday passed without incident, without political grandstanding. Without any effort to instantly raise their own pay.

There is much to hope for from the new three-member board, the first in county history to have a majority of females. Julia Walsh Gouge, the first woman ever elected commissioner, in 1986, is board president.

It's also the first board in a while that represents nearly three generations. And it follows the county tradition of always having experienced commissioners: Donald I. Dell and Ms. Gouge are both serving their third four-year terms. Robin Bartlett Frazier is in her first term.

There was also much hope for the last board, composed entirely of retired men. They had the time to devote to county business, an apparent agreement on managing growth, and the public's demand to provide long-delayed services and facilities.

Misleading impressions

Early impressions were misleading four years ago, as growth-control zealots became property-rights preachers. Anti-tax apostles found the temerity to raise both property and income tax rates. Averred advocates of public pulse-taking to decide issues found no problem in secret voting at the last minute to multiply the commissioners' daily pay -- or to put a vicious dog to sleep.

It was a triumvirate that won public sympathy for its futile struggles for local government laws against the tyranny of the county's state legislative delegation, which alone decides what bills go to the General Assembly.

But the commissioners squandered that support when they gave up the battle for state laws needed to run the commissioner form of government. Two of these three wise men did all they could to kill the home-rule charter movement, strongly clinging to the existing system that had openly rebuked them.

Citizens who voted against charter in the spring referendum because the new system was said to be too costly got a few surprises from the troika.

Waste from penny-pinchers

These penny-pinching pols blithely spent taxpayer money to build new offices for five commissioners -- two-thirds more space than was needed in the new county offices.

They turned down $260,000 in federal and state grants for a Westminster park because they didn't want to spend almost $20,000 of local funds.

Two weeks before their term ended, the lame ducks enacted the infamous 650 percent increase in their per diem stipend, which they later rescinded after widespread outrage at their sneaky abuse of the public trust. That $90 daily lagniappe (combined with the $32,500 annual salary) would have made Carroll's commissioners the highest paid in the state.

But there's more. In wheedling their way out of that embarrassment, Commissioners Dell and Richard T. Yates argued indignantly that they were only trying to catch up with the salaries of their clerical secretaries.

Those devoted centurions of the public treasury have been paying their secretaries something like $60,000 or so a year. Now, heaven knows, there's no underestimating the value of a good secretary. It just seems like you could hire a competent one for something less than that wage.

New board's changes

The new board is trying to restore public confidence in the ethical openness of the commissioners.

They immediately published a schedule of meetings for the first two weeks, set regular consultations with department heads, and pledged to advertise meetings.

Whether that initial openness will continue is uncertain. An apathetic citizenry encourages the kind of "we'll do it when we want" attitude that dominated the previous board of commissioners.

That board held official meetings on a whim, hid important items from the published agenda and showed little regard for public hearings that underpin the democratic system of government.

Appointments to key county boards were made as personal political patronage of the individual commissioners. They balked paying for night meetings of the planning commission that were designed to increase public awareness and participation. They made Max Bair, chief of staff, filter much of their communication with department heads.

Night meetings needed

One major change so far missing from the new commissioners' agenda is holding night meetings, when far more of the public is able to attend.

The irregular daytime gatherings of the three retirees (and hidden agendas) was yet another affront to the public.

Yes, it's a part-time job but it is a public office. There's positive indication of support for the idea among the new trio.

Letting the public see how the commissioners conduct business would be a refreshing change.

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

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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