The imperial bureaucracy

March 23, 1995

In the past three months, the information flow from the bureaucracy of Carroll government -- never a torrent -- has diminished to a trickle. Inquiries about the most innocuous of state grants, tourism statistics and environmental and planning matters are routed to department and bureau directors or not returned at all.

Strangely, the behavior of the bureaucrats contrasts with the county's commissioners, who are accessible and, so far, have made a genuine effort to respond to news inquiries.

The appearance of the bunker mentality among the bureaucrats coincides with last fall's reorganization of Carroll's government. By naming Robert A. "Max" Bair as county chief of staff, the commissioners centralized administration and the flow of information. Mr. Bair, who has long considered the press a meddlesome irritant, now has tight control over information that flows from the departments to the commissioners and out to the public.

County department heads have imposed their own controls as well. Michael Evans, county director of general services, distributed a memo late last year that "press communications are to be through my office" and any subordinate who speaks with the press must do so "in the presence of the bureau chief or me." The result: Routine requests for information about development, building permits, environmental regulations and storm water management are not answered promptly because Mr. Evans and his bureau chiefs have duties more pressing than answering mundane questions.

Aside from the inefficiency of having directors field questions that others could easily answer, the policy also lowers the quality of information. Many department heads aren't familiar with all the technical details their subordinates handle. As they relay the information, they may neglect to mention facts or misunderstand certain nuances.

When government officials make information inaccessible, they may think they are getting back at reporters, but they are actually denying information to the public. Not only do the taxpayers pay their salaries, but the public has a right to know the information the bureaucrats are withholding. Since government is conducting the public's business, the people and the press should not have to wage pitched battles to find out what is going on in the bowels of the bureaucracy.

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