A Matter-of-Fact Attitude to Public

COMMENT

September 03, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Pity Cindy Parr.

The county commissioners hired her two weeks ago to rehabilitate their battered public images by speaking for them -- at least when it comes to the facts. When it comes to opinion, they feel they can still speak for themselves.

Got a question about the size of Carroll's debt, the number of building permits issued in the last nine months, the last time the commissioners employed an independent appraiser to purchase property or the size of the county's contribution to Baltimore cultural institutions? Ms. Parr will provide the answer.

The commissioners believe that since she will be the sole source of information about county government, the public will see the commissioners in a better light.

Anyway, it's not the misstating of facts that has damaged the public perception of Carroll's three highest elected officials. As the old saying goes, their actions speak louder than their words.

To truly improve their public images, Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown, Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates will have make some fundamental changes in the way they are administering this $155 million public enterprise.

Politicians often mistakenly believe that they can change reality with their words. They can give spell-binding speeches and make sincere promises, but at some point, people no longer pay attention to politicians' versions of reality and see it for themselves.

Granted, running a county government is not an easy task, particularly one such as Carroll that has been tugged and pulled by contradictory fiscal, demographic, social and political forces.

Coping with the day-to-day demands of delivering county services in addition to looking into the future and making strategic decisions affecting growth and development is a formidable task.

Even if they are given the benefit of the doubt, Messrs. Brown, Dell and Yates have performed their duties in a disappointing fashion.

They have yet to master the art of collegial decision-making.

Their flip-flopping on the increase in the piggy-back tax last spring was more damaging than the increase itself. The commissioners destroyed a reasonable case to increase the surtax from 50 percent to 60 percent by first rejecting the increase and then vacillating on its size.

By finally setting the rate at 58 percent, they appeared as though they were making a purely political decision designed to soften the political damage rather than balance the county's budget. Once the commissioners had decided to raise taxes, they would have looked much more courageous by making the case for the increase and then sticking to their original decision to set the rate at 60 percent.

It is also painfully obvious to even the casual observer that the three commissioners don't get along. Mr. Dell and Mr. Brown have nothing but contempt for each other.

As for Mr. Yates, at many public meetings he often seems lost and confused and doesn't relate at all to his two colleagues.

Unless Ms. Parr does psychological counseling on the side and can break down the animosity that has built up among the three commissioners, no amount of spin control will convince the public that they cooperate with each other.

More importantly, to improve their collective image, the commissioners will have to begin to make decisions that benefit the general public and not specific interest groups.

It is obvious to everyone that their refusal to enforce the county's livability code is a policy designed to protect the county's landlords, regardless of how irresponsible they may be. No amount of image manipulation will change the impression that Mr. Dell and Mr. Yates favor slumlords over tenants.

The decision to purchase the Telemecanique site and not to consider other sites in Westminster for the school board headquarters demonstrates a closed-minded approach to using public improvement investments to enhance development and growth of the county's largest municipality.

The flight of long-time employees is another symptom of poor management. Many of these professionals are dedicated civil servants who have worked for other boards of commissioners and have been able to carry out their policies and programs. But when offered opportunities outside this county, they have jumped at the chance to leave.

It is possible to argue that this is a natural turnover in county personnel, but the mass exodus from many different departments indicates that more is at work than just better opportunities.

As the chief executive officers of this government, the commissioners should be concerned about a demoralized work force. Yet they are quite happy to see these county employees depart because they believe they are saving money.

If the commissioners want to change public perception, they have to demonstrate that they are competent stewards of this county.

Hiring the most skilled public relations expert in Maryland isn't going to change the reality that Carroll's citizens can see for themselves.

Unless the commissioners begin to act like leaders who are in command of the issues facing Carroll instead of performing like bumbling amateurs, all their spin doctoring won't add one iota of improvement to their blemished public images.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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