Drown tells Gray to pay for expenses Columbia Democrat has exceeded limit set by council

Yearly allowance is $4,800

Potential standoff pits possible foes in '98 executive race

February 15, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

With more than four months remaining in the fiscal year, Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray has topped council annual expense limits by more than $1,000 -- setting up a showdown between the Columbia Democrat and Republican council Chairman Darrel E. Drown.

In a memo sent by Mr. Drown this week to Mr. Gray, the council chairman is demanding that Mr. Gray repay the county for the $1,316 that exceeds the $4,800 annual expense limit set by the council for each member.

The council chairman also says in the memo that he has ordered council staff members not to reimburse Mr. Gray for any more expenses until July 1, the end of the fiscal year.

Mr. Gray, who did not respond to repeated interview requests this week, has indicated previously that he may not abide by such demands. He has not yet responded to Mr. Drown.

The potential standoff has strong political overtones because Mr. Drown, of Ellicott City, and Mr. Gray, from east Columbia, could ++ end up facing each other in the 1998 election for Howard County executive.

From last July 1 to Feb. 9 of this year, Mr. Gray amassed $6,116.02 worth of cellular telephone calls and government travel expenses, according to council records, more than any other council member.

At that spending pace, his council expenses for this fiscal year would top $10,000.

A spending limit of $4,800 was established by an informal council vote of 4-0 on Oct. 10. Mr. Gray did not attend the meeting.

The vote came during a council work session rather than as a formal vote on a bill. In the past, Mr. Gray has said such votes are not necessarily binding.

But Mr. Drown said yesterday: "He's still bound by it. I don't think he's going to make a big stink out of this. I think he realizes he's overspent and he's going to pay" the $1,316.

Mr. Drown said he might seek to cut off Mr. Gray's cellular telephone access if the county does not receive the money.

Although Mr. Gray did not respond to phone messages this week, two local Democratic officials reached yesterday questioned Mr. Drown's motives.

"How can it not be political?" said Democratic political consultant Jim Kraft, former chairman of the Democratic Central Committee in Howard County. "I think it's blatantly political on behalf of the Republicans. Here they're harping over these stupid phone bills. Vernon is handling calls from all over the county. If people have a problem, they call Vernon."

Current central committee chief Carole Fisher said it was unfair to stop Mr. Gray from using his phone or traveling for the rest of the fiscal year. "I hope his constituents don't suffer," she said.

But Mr. Drown said he only is worried about controlling council expenses.

"It's absolutely not political," Mr. Drown said. "If I'm over, I'm going to owe the county. If any of the five [council members] go over, they're going to owe the county."

Howard's $4,800 spending limit appears to be unusual among county governments in the area. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll officials said yesterday that their council members have no expense limits.

In Baltimore City, council members are limited to $5,000 a year in expenses, said Bill Henry, chief of staff for the council, a limit that might not include all travel expenses.

The four other Howard council members are on pace to spend less than $4,800 by the end of the fiscal year.

But it is unclear how binding the $4,800 limit is, because council members did not cast the vote as part of legislation. County solicitor Barbara Cook, an attorney who reviews matters for the council, declined to comment yesterday.

Of Howard's three other council members, only one could be reached Wednesday. Council member Dennis R. Schrader, who represents the North Laurel area, said he was surprised that any member already had exceeded $4,800, but declined to say if Mr. Gray should pay the county.

"I just think we assumed everyone was going to do it [the $4,800 limit]," Mr. Schrader said. "I really want to let Darrel and Vernon deal with it."

As of Feb. 9, Mr. Gray's expenses break down as follows, according to county records:

* $2,074 for cellular telephone calls. A detailed review of some of these bills last fall by The Sun showed no pattern of abuse, but did reveal occasional personal telephone calls made at the county's expense.

* $195 for car mileage.

* $540 for commercial transportation.

* $1,100 for meals and lodging.

* $1,422 for seminar and meetings.

* $785 in travel and meeting expenses for his administrative assistant.

According to county records, Mr. Gray racked up some of the travel expenses attending meetings of the Maryland Association Counties and the National Association of Counties. He is a member of the national group's board of directors and is running for a vice president slot that eventually would elevate him to a one-year term as president.

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