Fine-Tuning Howard

December 13, 1990

The 108-member transition team of Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker now knows a good deal more about the bureaucracy that he inherited from Elizabeth Bobo. Its initial look at county government has unearthed shortcomings ranging from ineffective communication between departments to costly, duplicative functions. There are tensions between Howard's police department and citizens. Paid and volunteer firefighters share an uneasy co-existence. These flaws are hardly surprising given Howard's meteoric rise from rural outpost to booming suburb.

This early analysis should serve as a blueprint for the kind of productive, sensible change needed to make Mr. Ecker's campaign rhetoric of responsive, community-minded government a reality.

Many of the shortcomings in Howard County government can be traced to the boom years of the mid-80s when the subdivision struggled to keep up with construction demand. Little or no departmental communication between planning and zoning, public works and inspections, licenses and permits, for example, created frustrating logistical nightmares for builders.

The county's public information office spends more time on brochures than with the public. Economic development and affordable housing received short shrift as the county focused on growth issues. Howard's police department, grappling with the rigors of a densely populated service area, is fielding a mushrooming number of brutality complaints and public dissatisfaction is rising.

To correct these deficiencies, the Ecker transition team recommends:

* A review of the police department by a blue-ribbon community panel.

* A panel to probe problems between career and volunteer fire-fighters. An advocate for volunteers would be placed on the fire administrator's staff.

* Transportation and economic development plans, which include elevating the Office of Economic Development to departmental status.

* Identifying opportunities to build low- and moderate-income housing.

These tasks are not only doable, but timely. This is the moment to recalibrate Howard's internal structure now that growth and building pressures are easing. In his inaugural address last week, Mr. Ecker said he prefers to view the challenges facing Howard as "opportunities." His task force's first report gives him a splendid chance to begin delivering on the promise of open, responsive government that helped sweep him into office.

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