An Auditor Who Can Count To Four

COMMENT

September 05, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Anne Arundel County Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland couldn't let County Auditor Joe Novotny's press conference Tuesday end without reminding him of something.

"Do you agree you work for this council?" he said, not once, but over and over again, sounding very much like Perry Mason grilling a murderer.

The auditor rolled his eyes.

The last thing Mr. Novotny needs is to be reminded who his bosses are.

"I've been told that before," he said with a sigh. "I've been told that before."

Most of us have enough trouble with one boss. He has seven, and that is the crux of the feud that erupted last week between him, Mr. Holland and Councilwoman Diane R. Evans.

Mr. Novotny is a more influential figure in county government than most citizens realize. He has been reviewing government expenditures -- everything from note paper to new schools -- and advising the council on what should or should not be included in the budget since 1965, which makes him one of the most experienced veterans in county government.

He has not survived that long on luck.

He survives because he never forgets he has seven masters and that keeping his job depends on keeping a majority of them happy. By his own admission, his central strategy involves discerning what four of the seven want and finding a way for them to get it.

If that sounds political, it is. Neither Mr. Novotny nor even his detractors have ever made any apologies for that. "If he wants to exist," says one former council member (not a Novotny fan), "he has to look for the four votes."

Last week, however, that philosophy came under public attack from Mrs. Evans, who accused him of being more of a "power broker" than a fiscal analyst.

During a press conference convened by Mr. Novotny to defend against charges that he failed to warn the council about a controversial 1989 pension bill that could cost the county millions, Mrs. Evans attacked Mr. Novotny's performance -- especially his tendency to act as a political weather vane.

"I can count to four," she said, "and if I can count to four, why do I need your assistance with anything?"

It is tempting to take Mr. Novotny's side in this debate, simply because Mrs. Evans' attack was so cold and shrill.

However, there is something illogical about an auditor tailoring his recommendations to a decision that has already been made.

This is essentially what Mr. Novotny did in 1989, when the pension bill came before the council. He said he had reservations about the bill, but he declined to express them in public because he knew a majority of the council supported the measure.

"Was I going to do any good by making a battle out of this" if four council members were committed to voting for the bill? he asked.

Ironically, if the auditor has resorted to politics, the fault lies as much with Mrs. Evans and her colleagues as it does with Mr. Novotny.

The county charter set up the auditor's office as a "watchdog" over executive branch spending. It placed it under the legislative branch to guarantee its independence from the county executive.

Nothing was ever said about his independence from the council.

"He is a creature of the system he was created by," a former County Council member said. "He was created by four votes, survives by four votes and advises by four votes . . . It's very fine to say he should fall on his sword and go on principle, but the man's livelihood depends on four votes" -- and neither Mr. Holland nor Mrs. Evans waste an opportunity to remind him of that fact.

Mr. Novotny claims that both politicians have threatened his job when he did not side with them on certain projects. In fact, just last week at the press conference, Mrs. Evans warned him never to interfere with projects she supports in her district -- hardly consistent with her cry for an independent financial analyst.

Mr. Novotny is expected to retire from county government in the next year or two.

Perhaps his replacement will redefine the auditor's position. Perhaps he or she will show it's possible to keep this job while remaining above the political fray.

That will never happen, however, unless the council members are willing to give the auditor the independence he needs.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Ann Arundel County.

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