Owens says she's trying to alter Arundel culture


Dogged by ethics questions involving another top subordinate, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens defended herself yesterday, saying she is trying to reshape a government culture in which personal ties historically have played an important role.

"I've been attempting to change deep-seated practices and the county's culture, and that's very difficult," Owens, a Democrat, told The Sun.

"I expect the highest level of ethical and professional standards of all my employees, from top to bottom," she said. "I want every employee to feel they have an equal opportunity."

But while two Democrats on the seven-member County Council voiced support for her, one of the body's two Republicans said Owens should acknowledge at least the appearance of wrongdoing by some of her senior staff members.

And Kathleen S. Skullney of Common Cause/Maryland noted that some of the recent allegations involve administration officials who were appointed by Owens after her election in November 1998.

"If these are people in key positions, and you've put them there and they obviously don't get the message, how can you possibly hope to change the culture?" said Skullney, the advocacy group's executive director.

Owens did not specifically address a report Sunday in The Sun that a high-ranking personnel official is under internal investigation after an allegation that he rigged a typing test for a female friend who worked in the Public Works Department.

A 19-year-old former part-time county worker said Joseph W. Alton III - a senior personnel analyst and son of former county executive Joseph W. Alton Jr. - allowed her to take a typing test for Alton's friend, a clerk who could not type well. The clerk became a secretary but no longer works for the county.

The former secretary denies the allegation. Alton, 52, is on paid disability leave and has not responded to repeated messages. Last month, Jerome Klasmeier, the county's chief administrative officer, accompanied him to Anne Arundel Community College as Alton explored job possibilities there.

Owens blamed some of her bad press on what she called a "war" among the newspapers that cover her administration. "I think the county is doing very well," she said. "Instead, I feel like I'm in the middle of tabloid journalism."

She added: "That's not to say having personnel problems addressed is not a major priority."

Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, said the appearance of a pattern of impropriety by county officials has damaged the public's trust in government.

"Ms. Owens would do well to acknowledge there have been either wrongdoings or the appearance of wrongdoing - and that it's going to stop," he said. "Condoning it with kind words isn't going to sit well with the public."

After reports surfaced that Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan helped the son of a former councilman after the son's arrest, Owens stood solidly behind her hand-picked chief. Shanahan released, without a bail hearing, the son of former County Councilman Michael F. Gilligan after the son was charged with misdemeanor burglary.

In addition, the county's personnel officer, Randall Schultz - whom Owens hired last year - has been accused by his former secretary of retaliation after she complained to Schultz about his alleged close relationship with another female employee. He denies the accusation.

To Owens' supporters on the council, it is not right to tar the county executive for allegations made against others.

"I think it's unfair to expect the county executive to know every detail of events in every department," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat. "She has so many major issues to manage."

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, suggested that some criticism aimed at Owens is inevitable because of her position. "When you hire and fire and have to make tough decisions," she said, "you make enemies."

But Skullney said the cumulative effect takes a toll on the public's attitude toward government.

"The public does not in a vacuum decide it doesn't trust its government," she said. "There are reasons for public cynicism and public distrust. These situations just simply seem to substantiate the public's ever-present cynicism."

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