The Howard County Council discussed last night at a public hearing how members should keep track of their reimbursable expenses.
At issue was a resolution sponsored by council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat whose expenses sparked a controversy several years ago.
Gray, part of the first Democratic-controlled council since 1994, wants to remove a provision in the county code adopted in 1996 that requires individual council expense budgets and separate votes each year on how much money members may spend for expenses, including travel.
In January, at Gray's suggestion, the council approved raising the in-county expense budget from $4,800 to $7,000 per council member. He also budgeted $3,965 for travel expenses for himself for the fiscal year starting July 1, compared with $1,200 for each of the other four members. (President-elect of the National Association of Counties, Gray is due to be sworn in at the group's annual convention in St. Louis in July.)
Last night, several Republicans said Gray's resolution would mean a return to the old system under which individual spending could be difficult to trace.
Before 1996, members withdrew expense money from one account and it was difficult to tell who spent what.
Boyd K. Rutherford, an attorney and member of the county Republican State Central Committee, said the proposed change "would make it more difficult to track individual expenditures of our elected officials. I don't understand what the motives are."
"I really think we're trying to hide certain expenditures," said Darrell E. Drown, a Republican former councilman.
As his two Democratic colleagues sat silently, Gray denied that would happen. He insisted that each member remains accountable through receipts and the required specific descriptions of how money is spent.
Gray discounted the criticism and noted that only $40,000 in expense money is at issue, compared with the council's $1.8 million budget. He said that the council's overall budget has risen only $1,400 in eight years.
"We have a new majority on the council. Maybe they're upset they lost the election," he said about the Republicans.
The council has a work session scheduled for next week to discuss the bills addressed at last night's public hearing, and a vote is scheduled April 5.
Pub Date: 3/16/99