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An inspector general is asking tough questions? That’s a good thing. | COMMENTARY

From left, Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr, Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Inspector Kelly Madigan announce last December a joint report examining the local water system. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
From left, Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr, Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Inspector Kelly Madigan announce last December a joint report examining the local water system. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said Spiro Agnew served prison time. In fact, the former Baltimore County executive agreed to resign from the vice presidency to avoid jail time as part of a federal plea deal. The Sun regrets the error.

Three months ago, Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan produced an eye-opening report that detailed how the county had squandered a million dollars on a program that was intended to feed the disadvantaged, but ended up going to finance wasteful extravagances — like an enormous, climate-controlled greenhouse in Hunt Valley that cost three times its anticipated price and was never put to proper use. Ms. Madigan’s scathing review likely didn’t make her especially popular in political circles; uncovering waste, fraud and abuse in government seldom does. And last week, Baltimore County Council members raked Ms. Madigan over the coals as they considered her office’s budget for the coming year.

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At least one criticism was clearly valid: Ms. Madigan’s office deserves its own independent oversight board. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and council members ought to create such an entity at the earliest opportunity. Having the IG answer to the council or county executive is not sufficient, given that either or both, as well as their political allies, could be in the crosshairs at some point in the future (if they haven’t been already).

As for many of the others criticisms, a grain of salt is deserved.

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The most common complaint from several dissatisfied council members is that Ms. Madigan is “intimidating” and “scares people.” There may well be some truth there. After all, she spent 15 years as a state prosecutor putting corrupt people in jail. It’s not her job to make friends, but to hold government employees accountable, which may not always make for an easy relationship.

Another complaint claims she has targeted county employees who are female and Black. Unfortunately, we have no data to either prove or disprove this assertion. By law, the county IG can only investigate cases that are brought to her attention, which raises questions we don’t have the answers to, including: Are complaints more apt to involve women and/or people of color? Does Ms. Madigan spend more time on those incidents or less? Are they more likely to result in punitive action? Surely, an oversight board can make an informed judgment.

What can easily be lost amid the concerns, however, is that Baltimore County government deserves the scrutiny. This is, after all, the home to Spiro Agnew (county executive from 1962 to 1966) and his successor, Dale Anderson (county executive from 1966 to 1974), both of whom ended up in federal court on corruption charges. History suggests bribery is not exactly unknown in the county seat, nor is its less criminal cousin, wasteful and inefficient spending. The office of the inspector general is practically brand new, Ms. Madigan having been appointed the first in that role just two years ago. There are apt to be growing pains, not the least of which are from politically connected county employees unaccustomed to having their email scrutinized (a common practice by employers in the private sector, incidentally).

The brouhaha runs roughly parallel to the recent criticism of Ms. Madigan’s counterpart in the city, Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming. After she looked into city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s travels and private investment and found shortcomings there, Ms. Mosby’s supporters, including her lawyer, raised concerns about political and racial bias (Ms. Mosby is Black). Again, we lack data to support these assertions. It’s possible the region is suffering a sudden plague of overzealous and biased inspector generals, of course, just as it’s also possible that such accusations have become the fallback position of politicians discomfited by scrutiny.

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More telling, perhaps, is that, while a few County Council members might be unhappy, they have not chosen to cut the inspector general’s budget, which at $354,000 is about one-fifth the size of the city’s. It probably ought to be larger. While there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between the amount spent on investigating and the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of government, it’s far more comforting to imagine an energetic pit bull serving as a watchdog of the public good than an underfed poodle.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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