Council Has Its Interviews Where The Sun Don't Shine


May 12, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Oy vey. I should have known better. I had such hope. Such faith. A brand new council, with a fresh mandate from the people to sling wide the doors of government and let the sun shine in.

But I was, well,let's say, a little carried away. Like I said, I should have known better.

These days, it's not long before even the best-intentioned elected officials thumb their nose at the public trust. Sometimes they don't even know they do it. They just get into this haughty state of mind.

It's four months since a new council was sworn in, and I'm afraid that day is here.

During the past several weeks, your new council -- virtually all of whom campaigned to throw out the good ol' boys so we can have good open government -- have not been practicing what they preached.

They've been conducting private interviews with thecounty executive's nominees for department heads and with lawyers from firms vying to be the county's bond counsel.

At least once, three council members -- one shy of a voting quorum -- met to interview a nominee, council members confirmed. And on a couple of instances, pairs of council members met for the private interviews.

There is nothing in the law or county charter to prohibit this.

They did notviolate the letter of the state sunshine law, which prohibits quorums of elected and appointed officials from meeting privately to discuss most business. However unintentionally, though, they did violate its spirit.

Council members' reasons for conducting the private interviews, during which you would expect some probing questions about vision and management experience and personal ethics, are peculiarly elitist.

Here's District C Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno: "We couldn't ever do it all publicly. It would just be too time-consuming to interview these people in public."

The inference in that reply is that Joe and Sally Public would be bored to bloody tears at a council session, listening to these nominees explain their vision for running county departments and the policies and programs they would encourage elected officials to pursue.

Well, Joe and Sally Public might be bored. Or they just might be all ears and get a pretty good insightinto which council members asked interesting, well-researched and probing questions and which displayed a distinct lack of knowledge about governmental issues and needs.

Wouldn't want that to happen now,would we, council chums?

And Joe and Sally Public might be intrigued to listen in on a county attorney nominee's

philosophy about sediment control regulation enforcement or a procurement director nominee's thoughts on preferential treatment for Harford-based companies.On hearing these responses, they might even have a few intelligent questions of their own to offer.

But, egads, that would take up more time.

There is also the inference from Pierno's response that the best-qualified people to hear a potential department chief's responses to probing questions is an elected official and only an elected official. Thomas Jefferson is turning over in his grave.

Pierno, a Democrat, is a first-time elected official, so let's cut her a breakas a greenhorn on the learning curve.

But let's hear from anothercouncil member, one with years of seasoning in local government -- Jeffrey Wilson, the Republican pride who sits as council president.

Wilson is good at espousing a doctrine of egalitarianism, buthis words -- "I'm all for open government" -- sound a bit hollow today.

His reason for the private interviews: "There are a lot of things thatshould be asked only in personal interviews . . . such as rumors. Asking about rumors would be sort of like opening a feather pillow."

To which I say, rip the pillow wide open and let the feathers fall as they may.

If a candidate for a job as chief of a county department can't handle the pressure of public probing of his or her philosophies and background, they are not cut from the stone I would think you'd want bearing up under the intense pressure of managing a major county government department.

Wilson and Pierno argue that privateinterviews between nominee and council members are needed to protectthe reputation of the nominee should something troubling about theirbackground or resume arise.

As Pierno put it, "We might have a hard time getting good candidates for these jobs if there was the possibility that we'd tear them apart in public."

Which is exactly whatthe council planned to do with Patricia Perluke, the first nominee for economic development director, if Rehrmann refused to pull her nomination. The council wanted her dropped after we disclosed that she had padded her resume.

I guess the council's policy is: If we don'tthink we like a nominee, we'll interview them in public and destroy them. If they look OK, we'll chat up in private and make like pals.

Sound elitist? Does to me.

By my count, six nominees were privately interviewed by council members, as were lawyers from the two law firms Rehrmann has nominated for bond counsel.

The council confirmed all six of the department head nominations. It torpedoed the firstlaw firm Rehrmann wanted for the county's bond counsel, though we don't know the questions asked and answers given that led to this decision because they weren't spoken in public.

Several council membershave already launched private interviews of Rehrmann's latest nominee for a cabinet job, James Fielder. The real estate agent and former radio station owner is her nominee for the economic development director's post.

It's far too late to get the interview process into the right arena.

I guess you and I could be philosophical about it. They are green, learning the ropes.

But I sort of feel like a parent who has high hopes for a child, only to have him come home from school one day and say he's gotten straight D's. You think to yourself,"Well, there's tomorrow for improvement."

But the thought tugs atyou still: This is not a good sign.

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