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Harford charter amendment on county property acquisition causing confusion for voters

Harford voters can find additional information about Question A online, at polling places

Harford County voters aren't normally asked to weigh in on changes to internal county government procedures, but a charter amendment on this year's general election ballot, which they must first approve, will change what official is responsible for the purchase, sale or lease of county property.

With sample ballots having been mailed to more than 185,000 voters last week, the amendment, which will appear on the ballot as Question A, is sparking confusion.

Question A will "amend the County Charter by transferring from the Department of Procurement the duties of the purchase, sale or lease of real property," according to the summary on the Nov. 8 ballot. Voters can vote either "for" or "against" the amendment. It will pass with a simple majority of the votes cast.

Some voters already are complaining that the ballot summary doesn't spell out just where the duties are being transferred, nor does the amendment itself.

The duties would be shifted to the supervision of the director of administration, who oversees the day-to-day operations of county government and reports to the county executive, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Monday. The amendment was requested by County Executive Barry Glassman's administration.

In legislation the Harford County Council passed on April 20 to place the amendment on the ballot, there is an introductory "whereas" clause that states: "The purchase, sale and lease of real property is a function more effectively and efficiently managed by the Office of the Director of Administration."

The actual wording of the charter, however, will not state that those responsibilities were transferred to the director of administration. Rather, an existing paragraph concerning the duties of the of the director of procurement, "providing for the purchase, sale or lease of real property by the County in accordance with and in the manner prescribed by the Council by law," will be deleted.

"These are the internal workings of county government with an eye toward efficiency," Mumby said regarding the amendment's intent.

Lots of calls

Elections officials have posted supporting information online at https://harfordvotes.wordpress.com to help clarify the amendment, including a copy of the amendment legislation, explaining:

"We have recently received numerous questions concerning the Harford County Charter Amendment that appears on the ballot. The amendment proposes, '…transferring from the Department of Procurement the duties of the purchase, sale or lease of real property…' to the Office of the Director of Administration." There is a link to the actual legislation as enacted by the county council.

"We do have on our website that it's being moved to the office of administration," Elections Director Kevin Keene said Monday. "We put that right on our website because we were getting a lot of calls."

"The summary accurately depicts what was in the bill that was passed," Keene said.

Supporting information will also be posted at polling places around the county, and elections judges will have the information as well, Keene said.

Early voting for the election, in which voters will also cast ballots in the U.S. presidential and congressional races, begins Oct. 27. Keene said ballots have already been printed, so the language of Question A cannot be revised.

He noted his office has not had to take on any costs beyond what is normally incurred during an election because of the amendment, because all of the ballot information is still on one page. There would be additional costs if the elections office had to put out a multi-page ballot, which other jurisdictions that have many local initiatives on their ballots have had to do.

"It really doesn't affect us in any way, as far as cost or anything," Keene said.

40-year language

The procurement department's duties regarding property have been codified in the county charter since the 1970s, hence the need for voter approval of a charter amendment to change any of them.

The original charter, adopted by county voters in 1972, did not have a procurement section, but some early county council members felt it was necessary to have one. Amid squabbling with the county executive over what powers such a department would have over property and county contracts, the council opted to use the amendment process in 1976. Otherwise, the only way a new county department could be created is by an order from the county executive.

"There are other divisions in the county government that aren't even mentioned in the charter, but this one was," Mumby said.

She stressed that the legal processes involved in purchasing, leasing or selling county property will not change. There also will not be any changes in staffing, and the procurement department will still handle property acquisitions and sales.

When explaining the rationale for the bill to the council in April, administration representatives said the change is necessary because the county's property manager and chief of facilities and operations has been answering to two bosses since she took on the latter responsibilities last year, when the former facilities and operations chief took a buyout and the position wasn't filled.

Erin Schafer, the property manager/facilities director currently reports to Karen Myers, the director of procurement, and Billy Boniface, the director of administration, but she would just report to Boniface if the amendment is approved. Boniface's office already supervises facilities.

The Board of Estimates, which Boniface chairs, would still approve leasing and purchasing property, and the county council will still have the final say on disposal of county-owned property.

Boniface stressed he would continue to consult with the procurement department on property acquisition.

"I always run everything by procurement," he told the council during the April public hearing on the proposed amendment.

A fiscal impact note prepared by the Office of the County Auditor stated there would be "no fiscal impact associated with this change."

"It just made sense, from an organizational standpoint, to have work flow directly to the director of administration," Mumby said.

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