THESE SHOULD be happy times for veteran Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray. All three of his Republican nemeses left the council last year. He has ascended, finally, to the chairmanship of that now Democratic-controlled body. Later this year, he will be sworn in as president of the National Association of Counties.
But someone is raining on the Gray parade. Freshman Councilman Allan H. Kittleman hasn't missed a beat in assuming a role often played by his Republican predecessors -- grand inquisitor into Mr. Gray's spending habits.
The council recently approved Mr. Gray's budget for personal expenses, but only after Mr. Kittleman had an aide telephone NACo to verify which expenses it would pay when Mr. Gray attended its functions as president.
Mr. Gray said he was upset that Mr. Kittleman had not simply asked him for the information. But he became angry when NACo officials told him that Mr. Kittleman's aide had misrepresented himself as a Howard County budget official, rather than the aide of a fellow council member.
Mr. Kittleman says his staff member denies bending the truth. But Mr. Gray has a tape recording of a voice mail message in which a NACo official said a person who identified himself as an accountant for Howard County had called to ask about his expenses.
Whomever you believe, the incident does not bode well for a council that was expected to climb out of a bog of partisan acrimony.
Maybe it won't. Maybe Mr. Kittleman, a longtime GOP activist, can condition himself not to jerk his knee at the mention of Mr. Gray's name. Several years ago, private citizen Kittleman publicly questioned Mr. Gray's council expenses. But no illegality has ever been found.
Questions concerning Mr. Gray's NACo expenses suggest the county doesn't benefit from his work with that organization. To the contrary, Mr. Gray said information he obtained at NACo conferences has helped save Howard money through joint purchasing and also preceded his successful effort to enact the county's tough anti-smoking ordinance.
Saving the county money is Mr. Kittleman's goal, too. His fiscal vigilance should be appreciated. Not a penny of public funds should ever be misspent. In keeping an eye on the money, though, Mr. Kittleman and Mr. Gray should not let their relationship become counterproductive. They have too much work to do.
Familiarity breeds contempt
I've often wondered why Mr. Gray seems to bring out the worst in some people. Maybe it's because he's been around so long -- 16 years on the council. You know the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt, and it seems like everyone in Howard County knows Vernon Gray.
But then again, the people who know Mr. Gray tend to like him. Even former Republican Councilman Charlie Feaga, who rarely found himself on the same side as Mr. Gray on anything, liked to call the colleague his friend. They would collaborate when no one was looking.
The race factor cannot be discounted when one considers the enmity Mr. Gray has sometimes encountered. Mr. Kittleman would not be guilty of racism. But there are others, including the man who recently sent the African-American councilman an e-mail that called Mr. Gray "an aberration" trying to overwhelm Howard County with migrants from the inner city.
That dig was a reference to Mr. Gray's efforts to increase the amount of affordable housing in the county. Some people can't see that it is their own children who won't be able to live in the county without a wider range of housing prices.
Mr. Gray says he plans to continue preaching that gospel. This is his final term on the council due to the county's term-limit law. The Morgan State University political science professor will have to decide his next move before the 2002 elections.
He didn't run for county executive last year because a loss would have made him ineligible to serve as NACo president. Perhaps, he, too, thought Mr. Feaga or former Republican Councilman Dennis Schrader would become county executive. That would have allowed Mr. Gray to run against either of them in four years.
The Robey factor
But former Police Chief James N. Robey, after watching Mr. Feaga and Mr. Schrader beat each other up in the GOP primary, took home the victory. Mr. Gray is unlikely to run against his fellow Democrat in 2002. That, however, is a long way off.
For now, with the expense account tiff out of the way, Mr. Gray can savor his position as chairman. He says he remained optimistic even when the Republicans' hold on the council seemed secure.
"I was always hopeful that the Democrats would rise again, phoenix-like, and do those things that are necessary for this county," he said.
He and the Democrats have their chance. Let's see what they do with it.
Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.
Pub Date: 2/07/99