County Auditor Counts Political Savvy Among His Skills

Joe Novotny Has Relied On His Ability To 'Read' Council

May 30, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

Joe Novotny is blowing in the wind.

Blowing, but not breaking. The County Council's chief financial adviser learned long ago how to weather the stormy world of local politics: plant your roots deep, keepabreast of the forecast and know how to bend.

Novotny has advised the seven-member council since 1965. He reviews all government expenditures -- everything from pens and pencils tonew high schools -- then recommends what the council should pay for and what it should cut.

This week he presented his annual recommendations on the county executive's proposed budget for the 26th time.

Anyone who knows Novotny -- those who like him and those who don't -- will tell you that no appointed official survives that long on luck, or even on talent. In politics, you have to play your cards right.

"He's very political," said former councilman Michael F. Gilligan. "He's a good auditor and he knows county government inside and out. His biggest fault is that he's dealing with seven people, and he knows how to manipulate them."

"He's always looked for the four votes. He hasn't survived this long by not being able to read the votes on the council," said one high-ranking county official, who refused to be named for this article.

Former assistant county auditor Daniel Klosterman, who worked for Novotny from 1975 to 1981, noted, "He changes. He goes with the flow. He knows when to back off."

Novotny, one of those big, colorful men whose presence fills a room, does not dispute the politics of his position. Asked if he tries to keep outof politics, he says simply, "You can't" -- not if you want to keep your job.

The knowledge that the council can fire him at will has never been far from Novotny's mind, though he has worried less about that possibility as he has gotten older and especially since he suffered a heart attack six months ago.

Of course, an auditor is supposed to be an impartial fiscal watchdog. He's supposed to make recommendations based on what makes sense money-wise, not on the whims and wants of seven politicians for whom a new school or fire hall might mean the difference between re-election and being voted out of office.

Novotny says he does speak his own mind, despite pressure from council members. "They want my feeling on what I am going to recommend onspecific projects. They say, 'Don't ditch it, leave it alone, it's my project.' I say, 'I can't. Go get three other votes on the council to defeat my recommendation.' "

The auditor cites examples of how he has not been cowed by the council. Last year, he said, he opposed several council members who wanted to cut the tax rate by a nickel. "I said it wasn't a financially prudent thing to do," he said.

During former county executive O. James Lighthizer's second term, Novotnysaid he found enough money to give teachers an 8 percent raise, rather than the 6 percent most elected officials favored. "I had two council people tell me they would fire me if I recommended that. I went out there and made the recommendation for 8 percent."

Others in county government chuckle at such anecdotes, noting that Novotny would act differently if four lawmakers threatened to fire him. Even his longtime close friend, Councilman George F. Bachman, D-Linthicum, acknowledges that for Novotny, four is the magic number.

"If four members on the council ask Joe to do something, he's going to do it," Bachman says.

And who can blame Novotny? the councilman asks. "When you're working with seven political animals -- and that's what we are --some of that is bound to rub off on Joe. I don't see anything wrong with that. By being like that it makes his job easier and makes it better for all of us."

Other current and former government officialsdisagree -- strongly. Novotny skews the auditing process by coming up with ideas, then soliciting four votes to support them, they say.

His worst critics say Novotny's political games supersede his financial abilities; that he abuses his office by not working an honest week; that he vests too much power in his assistant, Ronnie Mixter, whom he groomed; that he knows how to hurt certain departments by pitting the council against the administration.

"He doesn't know what weneed. He hasn't the faintest idea," said one department head, who refused to give his name for fear that Novotny would seek retribution by cutting his department's requests for fiscal 1992.

But Klosterman, an accountant for 23 years, said Novotny knows his business. "Nobody who knows anything about (auditing) could question his expertise,"he said.

Said Gilligan, "He's supposed to be the council's watchdog over the administration, and he does that and does it well. He's always in Dutch with the administration."

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