Tidal Wave Of Paperwork Gives Officials Sinking Feeling

Thousands Ofdocuments, Not All Scintillating

August 04, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

From the outside, 225 N. Center St. looks like any Colonial revival,late 1970s office building.

But inside, it's three stories full of paper, paper, paper.

And on all of that paper are, invariably, words.

Hundreds, thousands, a sea of them. Sometimes on both sides.

Most of those papers cross the desks of the county commissioners at least once.

For relative political neophytes Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy, the crush of bureaucratic wordiness has proved almost suffocating.

"It's like a blizzard in there," said Lippy, who reads and then signs so many memos, proclamations, orders and resolutions that he has taken to dropping the "Jr." at the end of his name to soften the wear on hisright hand.

"There's an awful lot to read," Dell said recently, in between signing memos and receiving armfuls of studies, audits, agendas and letters.

An awful lot.

While no one seems to know the total volume of words passing under the glazed eyes of the county's top officials, a little math might provide a clue.

If each piece ofpaper can hold roughly 250 words, and if, as estimated, some 1.5 million single sheets of paper; 40 100-page internal studies; 10 150-page consultant studies and more than 5,000 pieces of correspondence cross the commissioners' desks yearly, then the three are looking at nearly 380 million words.

By comparison, an average newspaper articlemay contain 600 to 1,000 words.

A trashy summer novel, maybe 125,000 words.

And that trashy summer novel about money, adultery and murder by the beach is certainly a lot more interesting than reading about sewage seepage rates into the Patapsco watershed.

To more speedily comprehend what passes under his eyes, Lippy embarked several months ago on a self-taught speed-reading course.

He says he's noticed a difference.

"It seems to be passing a little faster," he said.

It may be worth noting that it was Lippy, just weeks into his term, who introduced the "Paper Doll Award" for recognizing efforts in the reduction of paper use.

That first award was given to a newspaper; no one else -- in the County Office Building or elsewhere -- has earned the award.

Lippy isn't the only top official frustrated by the entanglements of the 8 1/2-by-11-inch monsters.

Dell, who professes to signing more documents than he ever has before in his life, recently forgot that he put his signature, much less ran his eyes over, a controversial memo rescinding a controversial zoning enforcement policy.

"What memo?" the commissioner president asked reporters after they requested to see the memo. "We sign so many of those things, you sometimes forget what you sign, write or read."

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, the lone incumbent of the three, is used to the paperwork. Well into her fifth year on the receiving end of the paper-pushers, she has learned how to maneuver through the barrage of words.

To be sure, the commissioners aren't the only county officials inundated with paper and words.

That's why in May, the Department of Human Resources and Personnel Services offered a one-shot, seven-hour speed-reading course to county employees.

"Yeah, I'd say that Isee a lot of paper," said Julie Keefer, a secretary in the Human Resources Department, a department more than once referred to by its director as the "Office of Paperwork."

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