Squabbling consumes two leaders' attention Commissioners Dell, Brown clash often

November 05, 1995|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,SUN STAFF

Almost a year after taking office, a clash of politics and personalities has two of Carroll's three county commissioners openly feuding on everything from policy to management styles.

County government ran more efficiently when he was in charge, Commissioner Donald I. Dell said last week, charging that Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown is too concerned with the public's perception of him.

Mr. Dell, the only holdover commissioner, said he is unhappy with changes made after the board took office in December. He was president of the previous board but now often finds himself shut out.

"I don't like the system," he said. "The staff is not getting direction. Somebody needs to make the county work.

"They [the other two commissioners] say they're not going to sit around a table all day. I'm here to do county work. I'm not here to do ceremonial things."

Mr. Dell said Mr. Brown spends too much time honing his public image. Mr. Brown complains about the number of hours the commissioners work, Mr. Dell said, "but he can do his radio shows, TV shows and press conferences. It's not what our job is."

Mr. Brown responded, "I don't think it's helpful at all for him to try to communicate with me through the press."

Mr. Brown, who never shied from press coverage as mayor of Westminster from 1989 to 1994, said it is important to meet with the press regularly.

"I do you [reporters] a service and the public a service by looking you in the eye" and answering questions, he said.

Mr. Brown is the only commissioner who regularly attends the weekly news conferences, which were initiated by the current board. The board also hired a communications manager in August to improve its "bad press image," as Commissioner Richard T. Yates said at the time.

Last week, Mr. Yates, the board president, acknowledged the animosity between his colleagues. He said he tries to stay out of it when they do "battle."

"I see no sense in getting into it," he said. "There's always been a rift, ever since the election."

The clash predates the election. When Mr. Dell was in his first term and Mr. Brown was Westminster's mayor, the two often disagreed publicly on issues.

"It's totally personality," Mr. Yates said. "Mr. Brown likes to talk. He's loquacious."

Mr. Yates said he does not fault Mr. Brown for putting himself in the public eye but does not feel obligated to follow suit.

"You'll see his name in there [newspapers] all the time," Mr. Yates said. "I don't have to look for that to do what I do."

Much of the commissioners' wrangling takes place out of public view during "executive sessions," a practice the commissioners use far more often than their predecessors.

In the commissioner form of government, the commissioners are both the executive and legislative branches and are allowed to close meetings on issues not considered legislative.

But "no law requires a closed meeting," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the state attorney general's office. "It's a matter of discretion."

Mr. Dell said the commissioners sometimes discuss issues informally and he is left out. An example is the move last month to amend a controversial radio tower ordinance.

"The amendment was written before I knew anything about it," he said. "They're not making a big effort to bring me in."

Mr. Brown said he told the county attorney to draft an amendment. "There was a consultation between me and Mr. Yates." Mr. Dell was not included, he said, "because Mr. Dell would not support it."

Asked whether the decision to ask for an amendment should have been discussed at an open meeting, Mr. Brown said, "That's not your business. You have no right to access there."

Mr. Schwartz said he could not give an opinion on a specific issue but that a discussion of amending an ordinance should be dTC at an open meeting. One commissioner may ask the county attorney to draft an amendment, but the board of commissioners must vote before the amendment can be adopted, he said.

The commissioners have not voted on the amendment concerning radio towers.

Another change in the meeting schedule has meant that county government does not run as efficiently as it could, Mr. Dell said. When he was president, the commissioners met weekly with most department directors for updates.

Now, Robert A. "Max" Bair, the commissioners' chief of staff, meets with directors, summarizes information and reports to the commissioners.

When the commissioners have questions, Mr. Bair must go back to the directors, which wastes time, Mr. Dell said.

Mr. Yates has heard Mr. Dell's concerns. "He has complained quite often because he wants to go back to the way it was in his first term," Mr. Yates said.

He said he will not change the system because the number of meetings the commissioners attended before the change was "unbearable."

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