Vernon Gray's disconnect Councilman may be workaholic, but public is paying the bill.

February 20, 1996

A SEEMINGLY PARENTAL gesture from Howard County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, threatening to take away council member C. Vernon Gray's phone privileges, is really a political potshot.

Messrs. Drown and Gray are locked in an embarrassingly petty JTC squabble, which may foreshadow the outcome of a future race. Both are possible contenders in 1998 for the Howard County executive seat. At issue is $1,316 spent by Democrat Gray, which Republican Drown says exceeds a cap on expenses that the council set last October.

The $4,800 expense cap covers the fiscal year, which began July insists Mr. Drown. It does not, says Mr. Gray, who has spent more than $6,000 since July. He refuses to pay the amount Mr. Drown says he owes on the grounds that the council approved the cap in October. To him, that means the policy has been in effect only four months.

During that period, Mr. Gray has been reimbursed for $3,200 in council expenses. By his account, he has $1,600 to go. Even by his calculations, Mr. Gray will have to spend half as much in the next eight months as he has the past four to honor the council's limit.

The Sun's bureau in Howard County exhaustively analyzed Mr. Gray's use of his county-issued car phone last year and didn't find much to give pause. Relying on a cellular phone for important phone calls is perfectly acceptable, especially for a man who wants productive time during his commute from Columbia to his day job at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Still, Mr. Gray will only tarnish himself if he refuses to slow his spending. Voters have lost patience with tax-and-spenders. Mr. Gray's reply to Mr. Drown suggests that he has confused the definition of a "cap:" That's the maximum, not a "finish line" to reach as quickly as possible.

Cellular calls are costly. Callers pay roughly 30 cents a minute throughout the day, plus a 12-cent charge per call. In a county facing a garbage fee increase and threatening not to fund the "maintenance of effort" minimum for its schools, Mr. Gray needs to become more discerning about what calls must be made from his car. Otherwise, he may soon find out that talk is anything but cheap -- especially when taxpayers are footing the bill.

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