Commissioners Defend Secrecy Surrounding Reorganization

June 19, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

With a terse announcement last month, the County Commissioners told residents of the largest overhaul in Carroll's bureaucracy in more than eight years.

Though the short press release was handed out May 10, only hours before the county offices shut down for the week, the announcement was more than is required by state law.

"The commissioners are entitled to make changes in the organization of the county as an executive body," said George Leahy, an assistant county attorney.

Under state's Open Meetings Law, when a publicbody -- in this case, the elected, three-member Board of Commissioners -- acts in an executive function, its proceedings do not have to be open to the public.

Executive functions include the hiring or firing of employees, the investment of public money or the preparation of the budget.

The reorganization eliminates four departments, downgrades several others and realigns many responsibilities. And while the commissioners say no cost to county taxpayers will result from the shuffling, a complicated rewriting of the budget is expected, the county's budget director said.

The restructuring was worked out over several months behind closed doors, the commissioners have confirmed over the last several weeks. Most of the county's 12 current department heads -- and, thus, most of the county's 825 employees -- were not part of the process until the few days leading up to the public announcement.

"Ask all of the questions you want," the county's public information director, Micki Smith, said minutes after the release was given to the media. "I can't guarantee any answers. I don't even know all of the changes."

While the county conducts much of its business out in the open, the restructuring of departments, bureaus, offices and responsibilities is a hush-hush affair.

Both Commissioner President Donald I. Dell and Commissioner Julia W. Gouge campaignedon a platform that mentioned accessible and open government. Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. openly embraces open government. None of the three sees any contradiction between pledges made during the campaign and the quiet bureaucratic shuffle.

Two prior commissioners agreed, saying such decisions are the absolute prerogativeof the board.

"I don't think it should be announced to the publicbeforehand," said William V. Lauterbach Jr., a commissioner from 1982 to 1986. "These plans are preliminary. I don't see where (telling the public) would accomplish anything."

Former Commissioner President John L. Armacost agrees, saying he "didn't see a reason for announcing to the public" the details of the reorganization.

"We startedworking on this in February, but we needed to get the budget out first," Dell said. "Rather than appoint a committee to discover why something isn't working for two years, it's the commissioners' responsibility to find out why it is not working -- and to make it work. That is what we did here."

The state's Open Meetings Law gives any public body operating in an executive or personnel capacity the right to close its proceedings to public scrutiny.

"In general, a public body may meet in closed session or adjourn an open session to a closed session only to discuss the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, discipline, demotion, compensation, removal, or resignation of appointees, employees or officials over whom it has jurisdiction," the law reads in part.

Also, the law specifically allows closed formal or informal meetings for discussions of executive matters, which include "the administration of a law of the state, a law of a political subdivision of the state or a rule, regulation, or bylaw of a public body."

"I don't think the commissioners are obligated to open those discussions to the public," Leahy said. "My interpretation of this process is that such actions are ordinarily an executive function."

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said news about the restructuring wasnot released to employees before the May 10 announcement for fear the information could "run rampant and become a full-blown rumor." She said informing the public of preliminary changes before county employees "would be foolish."

She said there would have been little purpose in soliciting public comment during the formative stages of the reorganization because citizens are "really not aware of internal workings." She compared county government to a private corporation, saying business executives would not ask stockholders how to reorganize.

"It's important the public be able to comment," she said. "That time will come. We've given our employees time to comment first up to July 1."

Most of the reorganization's details aren't yet public. Butwhile the commissioners have the law on their side, not everyone in and around government agrees that keeping employees or voters in the dark was such a good idea.

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