Saving money behind closed doors

October 09, 1992

Traveling on the public tab is one of the perks of being an elected official. With the fiscal constraints in most counties, cutting travel expenses makes a great deal of economic and political sense. Whatever the Carroll County commissioners gained economically by sending only one of them to the bond rating houses in New York, however, they lost politically in their handling of the matter.

Instead of sending all three commissioners to make presentations to the major bond rating agencies this week, Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Elmer Lippy Jr. decided that only one commissioner would make the trip.

Julia W. Gouge, the third commissioner, was not at the meeting. She discovered she wasn't going on the trip the day before her scheduled departure. Colleagues said they forgot to tell her.

What was saved was not tremendous. The cost of the two-day New York trip is about $500 per person, which includes train fare, room, food and incidental expenses.

So by excluding Mrs. Gouge, the county taxpayers may have saved about $500, which will be used to finance some other travel. State officials make similar trips when they are preparing to issue bonds. They save money by scheduling the meetings with the rating agencies on the same day. The state entourage is able to leave Baltimore early, make its presentations and return home in time for dinner.

Perhaps Carroll County doesn't have the clout to dictate the scheduling of appointments as can the state of Maryland, but holding the trip to a day would halve expenses.

Quibbling over a few hundred dollars is not the issue, however. The manner in which Mr. Dell and Mr. Lippy made the decision not to send Mrs. Gouge is the problem. They met and voted in executive session -- which means the public was excluded from the discussion and the vote.

How many other important issues are decided in executive session? Just two weeks ago, the two men held a meeting to drastically alter the forest conservation ordinance.

They were acting in their legislative capacity and had no right under Maryland law to make that decision behind closed doors.

Mrs. Gouge may not have gotten her trip to New York, but county citizens did get an excellent illustration of why the commission form of government isn't as open and accountable as they may have thought.

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