Sloppiness seems to be infectious within the offices of Howard County government these days.
First, county officials were unable to produce data to justify their request to spend an additional $510,000 to upgrade a maximum-security wing of the Howard County detention center, even though the jail's director insists that he is having to house ever more violent offenders.
And now officials sheepishly concede that over a period of five years, some 2,000 parking tickets have gone unaccounted for.
County officials say they have no idea what happened to the tickets, although their fervent hope is that they were all merely voided by police officers without being recorded properly.
The other possibilities carry more ominous overtones.
One is that they represent substantial lost revenues to the county, anywhere between $14,000 and $104,000 based on standard parking fines at the time. The other is the possibility that tickets were torn up in exchange for dollars under the table to police officers.
There is no evidence of any of these scenarios at this point. County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he wants to find out exactly what happened. A full investigation is certainly warranted. For the future, the system of handling tickets needs to have stricter procedures -- a change that officials say they are in the process of making.
As for blame, it's difficult to say where it belongs. The problem with the parking tickets didn't start with the Ecker administration, which took office in late 1990.
Perhaps it can be said that officials should have been on top of the situation sooner, but this is not a case of laxness on the part of the auditor who uncovered the problem. Last year, the auditor discovered an $8,000 theft from the police property section, which led to an employee being fired.
Still, when coupled with the lack of data available to justify the jail expenditure, county officials are leaving the impression that someone is not minding the store.
The failure of county officials to come up with reasonable explanations for this lack of information and for the lack of oversight within county government is deeply disturbing.