Ehrlich changes course on HotSpot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OCEAN CITY - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he was reconstituting rather than abandoning a frequently criticized anti-crime program that was a hallmark of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his opponent in last year's election.

By maintaining a scaled-back version of Townsend's HotSpot Communities Initiative - which is being renamed Collaborative Supervision and Focused Enforcement - Ehrlich will reap a benefit he frequently accused Townsend of exploiting. Like Townsend, he will be able to build good will as he distributes crime-fighting grants in troubled neighborhoods.

The number of former HotSpot areas will drop from 62 to 47, said Alan C. Woods III, head of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and will include just three in Baltimore, where there had been 12. Instead of a statewide pool of $8 million, the communities will divide $3 million in the coming year, Woods said.

"HotSpots had some success," Ehrlich said in a speech yesterday at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual summer conference, a venue often used by governors to outline their agendas for the coming year. "We have a program we think draws on the lessons of HotSpots."

Also yesterday, Ehrlich announced the formation of a committee to identify ways to make state government more efficient. The panel will be headed by former Gov. Marvin Mandel, 83, who continues to distance himself from his mail fraud and racketeering conviction by building a reputation as one of the state's elder statesmen. This year, Ehrlich appointed Mandel, whose 1977 conviction was overturned in 1987, to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

The efficiency panel will examine four areas - law enforcement, independent state agencies, environmental programs and daily government operations - and deliver its recommendations by Dec. 1. Mandel and Ehrlich said the panel was not charged with saving money in a state where spending is expected to outstrip projected revenues by more than $600 million in the next budget year, but it would look for ways to eliminate duplication and overlap.

One potential idea, Mandel said yesterday, would be to combine several programs that work to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is not based on finances. It's based on efficiency," Mandel said. "The governor has never asked us to look for dollars."

Ehrlich's 45-minute address touched only briefly on the state's budget problems, which many agree will dominate next year's legislative session. The governor repeated his insistence that slot machines be legalized to pay for a $1.3 billion public schools improvement program known as the Thornton Plan. Earlier in the week, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said sales or income taxes should be raised to fund the plan.

"We're waiting for an answer. We're waiting for leadership on the budget, and we're not seeing it," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

But Duncan praised the governor for maintaining a version of the crime-fighting program. "I love the HotSpot stuff," he said. "We urged him to keep the HotSpots going."

Created by Townsend, the HotSpot initiative identified high-crime neighborhoods, and brought together community leaders, police, parole and probation officers and social workers for a coordinated response to crime.

While some studies showed that the strategy was effective in reducing crime, the program and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which ran it, became magnets for criticism. The office was the subject of a federal investigation into whether grants were handed out for political purposes, allegations that distracted the Townsend campaign a year ago.

Edward T. Norris, Ehrlich's state police superintendent, said while serving as Baltimore police commissioner that the HotSpot program should be considered among the "failed policies of the past." Crime-control office workers openly speculated whether Townsend was using the program for "empire building."

Both during and after the campaign, Ehrlich called HotSpots wasteful and highly political.

But after an examination, the governor now says the program can be saved. State officials say they've identified the components of well-functioning HotSpots and have figured out a way to replicate success.

Under an executive order signed by Ehrlich, a memorandum of understanding will be necessary for all areas receiving grant money, assuring that the Department of Juvenile Services, the Division of Parole and Probation and the local police departments will work together.

The boundaries of the grant areas will be more flexible, officials said, so that if an effective strategy pushes criminals out of an area, the resources can follow where they go.

"We're trying to make that money go as far as it can," Woods said. He described the revamped program as "leaner, meaner, collaborative and more focused."

In creating a government efficiency panel, Ehrlich is fulfilling a campaign promise to eliminate waste and excess in state government. The governor appointed 25 people to the committee yesterday, including four subcommittee chairmen: Harford County Executive James M. Harkins for a law enforcement subgroup; former U.S. Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan Sr. for independent agencies; former Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer for environmental programs; and Frederick County attorney and tax court judge W. Clay Martz II for general government functions.

Ehrlich called Mandel "the acknowledged expert of modern Cabinet-style government." In 1972, when he was governor, Mandel consolidated 267 state agencies into 11 Cabinet departments.

His task, Mandel said, will be to examine sub-Cabinet departments and independent agencies, which he said are "starting to proliferate."

The governor said yesterday that the state government had grown "too large" and "too inefficient," and must be streamlined. "If we can do it better, we need to give it a shot," he said.

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