Dallas Dance conviction spurs call for change from Baltimore County executive candidates

Candidates for Baltimore County executive are proposing a raft of reforms after former county school Superintendent Dallas Dance pleaded guilty to perjury charges this week.

Reviewing ethics laws, publicizing contracts and strengthening oversight procedures are among the suggestions from candidates from both parties.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat running for county executive, said she plans to work with fellow council members to establish a county inspector general’s office that would investigate “any indication of corrupt conduct” in both the school system and county government. She said school system officials need to be held more accountable.

Dance, who resigned last year, pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of perjury for concealing nearly $147,000 he earned from consulting jobs — including payments from a company he helped to win a no-bid contract with the school system. He also provided false documents to the school system indicating that any income he earned from consulting went to the school system’s educational foundation, when it did not.

Prosecutors will ask a judge to send Dance to jail for 18 months when he’s sentenced on April 20.

Calls for reform have come from within county government and from other sources in the wake of the scandal.

Damon Effingham, acting director of the advocacy group Common Cause Maryland, said the school system could undertake several reforms that might prevent — or unearth — wrongdoing by top officials. Those reforms include having a more open process for hiring superintendents, barring top school officials from doing work on the side and requiring contracts to be bid competitively.

“This all needs to be transparent, it all needs to be open,” Effingham said.

Four people are vying for the Democratic nomination for county executive; two Republicans are running in that party’s primary. Incumbent Democrat Kevin Kamenetz is term-limited and is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor.

In Baltimore County, the executive does not have direct oversight of the school system and does not have a role in selecting the superintendent. But the executive has strong budgetary authority and a platform to lobby school officials on policy issues.

Del. Pat McDonough, a Middle River Republican running for county executive, said the executive should use the power of the purse to force reform. In 2013 McDonough filed an ethics complaint about some of Dance’s side jobs that became public. He said his complaint drew attention to the issue of Dance’s outside work and helped lead to Dance’s downfall.

McDonough said he would require the school system to submit to an annual independent audit to make sure taxpayer money is spent well. If he is elected, he said, “there’s going to be some radical changes.”

McDonough’s primary opponent, Al Redmer Jr., said the school system’s contracting process needs scrutiny and needs to be more open and transparent.

A Middle River Republican who is the state’s insurance commissioner, Redmer said proposed contracts should be posted on the school system’s website. “Let’s shine a light on it,” he said.

Others running for executive also want changes in the way school contracts are reviewed and awarded. Democrat Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he advocates a review of the school system’s ethics rules and procurement procedures, and said no-bid contracts — which Dance used to direct work toward a favored company — should be “the exception rather than the rule.”

Olszewski, a former state delegate from Dundalk, said the county auditor’s office should have authority investigate issues in county government and the school system — and he said he would spend money to add staff to the office.

Another Democrat, Sen. Jim Brochin of Cockeysville, advocates an overhaul of the way the school system contracts are awarded. He said ethics rules should be tightened so companies seeking contracts “can’t even buy you a cup of coffee.”

He also said school board members and top school administrators should be required to meet with an ethics lawyer every year to discuss possible conflicts of interests and other issues.

“You’re never going to eradicate graft,” he said, “but you can mitigate the possibilities greatly.”

Kevin Marron of Carney, a Democratic also running for executive, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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