Panel faults chief staff; County council says administration ignoring legislature; 2 issues irk members; Financial officer plays down risks, defends decisions


The County Council is voicing frustration with County Executive Janet S. Owens' administration - accusing her staff of ignoring the legislative branch.

Two revelations were of particular concern to council members at their meeting Monday night. In one case, the county missed out on $330,000 in health-related state grants partly because key records were deleted from the computer system. The county has already spent the money and will have to absorb the cost unless the state agrees to a belated reimbursement.

In the second case, the county's chief administrative officer told the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement to begin a $1.3 million computer upgrade even though the council did not authorize the project to start until next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"It marginalizes the council, marginalizes the process," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat.

Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, is so displeased with how the administration handled recent labor talks and negotiations on the $1 billion budget that he wants to change the county charter to give the council more clout.

County financial officer John R. Hammond, who was grilled by the council this year after the release of a critical independent audit, returned to the hot seat to address the fresh concerns.

Hammond told the council that he was "reasonably optimistic" the state would release the $330,000 in grant money, even though the deadline has passed. He plans to meet soon with state budget secretary Eloise Foster.

Hammond said the grant glitch involved "arcane" accounting rules.

The grant money was supposed to be spent or earmarked in fiscal year 1999. But a record of that "encumbrance" was accidentally deleted last summer during the switch to a new computer system.

The error was not corrected by the time the count's 1999 books closed.

As a result, the county no longer could prove it was eligible for reimbursement from the state, and the grant expired after fiscal 1999. The county, however, had spent the $330,000 on equipment and materials for a variety of programs.

'We were stuck'

"We were stuck," said county health officer Frances Phillips, who said she told Hammond's office about the grant problem last summer.

Hammond assured the council that this sort of problem would not recur, saying, "I think we have a fix in place to deal with this issue."

Doubts about process

County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, who works for the council, hedged her optimism. "I don't know if we have sufficient safeguards to prevent oversights like this in the future," she said.

Hammond sounded less apologetic about the second issue: a decision to jump-start the technology upgrade at planning and code enforcement.

The county already has spent $188,000 on wiring and computers, and was asking for $112,000 more before July 1.

Chief Administrative Officer Jerome W. Klasmeier gave the green light for the early start, Hammond said, because it would result in significant savings.

By replacing the wiring now instead of waiting, the county will not have to buy special $350 computer accessories for a fleet of new computers, Hammond said.

"The public is clamoring for services, and here we can provide services in a more efficient manner," he said yesterday in an interview. "Why be stymied by an artificial timeframe established by a budget process?"

He added, "Everybody says run government like a business. But when you do it, they're looking over your shoulder criticizing you. It gets a little frustrating."

'Very disturbing'

But council members seemed unconvinced. Samorajczyk called it "very disturbing" that the administration would begin a project ahead of schedule.

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, said: "I don't necessarily agree with the method used, but I do think it's needed."

A moment later, Samorajczyk withdrew an amendment to delete the $112,000 funding proposal for wiring and computers. After conferring with two colleagues - Republican Cathleen M. Vitale and Democrat Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. - she told Hammond not to let it happen again.

He agreed, and with that, the council approved the fund transfer and several others that will wrap up the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

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