One Board Ends Divisive Era As Another Holds The Course Infighting, Workload Beat Commissioners

December 02, 1990|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

The departing Board of County Commissioners inherited a load of problems when it assumed office in late 1986, many of them remnants of past administrations that responded sluggishly to growth.

John L. Armacost, Jeff Griffith and Julia W. Gouge were forced to embark on a catch-up program to build or renovate five elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding, to borrow more money than ever before for overdue capital projects and to institute long-range planning.

And though the board engineered many accomplishments, it left a number of issues unresolved, including whether the commissioner form of government has become outdated in Carroll.

This board, and the two previous ones, has had difficulty implementing the county Master Plan, updated in 1979 to concentrate growth in nine community planning areas. Growth has outpaced the county's and municipalities' abilities to provide services.

Constituents also were not served as efficiently and responsibly as they should have been, the commissioners admitted.

Griffith says the part-time government in which three executives double as the legislators is inherently inefficient because triumvirates have difficulty making decisions. The situation will get worse as the county grows, he said.

Armacost said government would have run more smoothly had his two colleagues attended meetings more consistently.

Gouge says the present form of government can succeed if commissioners work full time, even though law mandates only two meetings per week. She believes the departing administration fell short of goals, blaming some of the problems on her colleagues' unwillingness to devote adequate time to the job, the board's poor working relationship and failure to discuss issues as a threesome.

"I think it would have been a better Board of Commissioners and accomplished a lot more if there had been time to discuss the issues instead of making fast decisions or no decision at all, or putting them off for so many months that people wondered what was happening," she said.

"I think a lot of day-to-day decisions were put off. Comprehensive rezoning plans have been slowed down. I don't think enough time was spent even on the budget each year by the commissioners talking as a board.

"I think it was really three individuals who did not work together, but basically as individuals."

Records show Gouge spent the most days on the job in each of the four years, either in office or attending outside functions, while Griffith spent the fewest days each year (see accompanying chart). Hours worked are not recorded. Armacost is retired, and Gouge has no other job.

The commissioners' salary has been raised to $30,000, up from $22,000 for the departing board.

Armacost and Gouge publicly criticized Griffith for attending law school during his second term. Gouge said she felt compelled to explain to constituents why meetings sometimes were canceled and appointments broken.

"I don't think it was fair to the two people he was working with and not fair to the public," she said. Even when Griffith was at work, he sometimes tended to other business, she said.

Griffith said he felt "betrayed" by his colleagues. He said he discussed his decision with the other two before committing to law school, but Gouge contends he had already made up his mind.

"The commissioner position is officially part time, and I made a decision to improve myself so I could do a better job as commissioner and professionally," said Griffith, a former college professor who has a Ph.D.

in English.

Despite the bitterness and disappointment, this board made some significant advancements: It passed an incentive program for farmland preservation; created a Department of Natural Resource Protection to coordinate environmental efforts; significantly increased teacher salaries and public schools financing; and addressed the conflict between mining and development.

It vastly improved human services programs, such as drug abuse prevention and homeless shelters, largely through Griffith's efforts; continued development of a nationally recognized water protection program; imposed controversial fees, such as the impact fee, to help pay for growth; and built libraries and senior centers.

But administrative problems persisted throughout, hindering efforts of department directors and their staffs, county employees say.

"Part of the problem is the part-time nature," Permits and Regulations Director J. Michael Evans said. "It's difficult to get all three together as a policy-making group at one time. Then, when we do that, we bombard them. They can't possibly have a good grasp of the issues when we bombard them.

"I'd love to see the commissioners be a full-time job. We're a full-time government. The leaders should be full time as well."

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