Drown vs. Gray: a squabble to behold Ambition, accusations and a matter of $1,300

March 24, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Analysis: There's much more than just $1,300 at stake in the continuing political acrimony between Howard County Council members Darrel Drown and C. Vernon Gray over Mr. Gray's council expenses perhaps who will be the next county executive. In politics, there are tips of icebergs and there are the icebergs.

As a tip, the squabble over Howard County Council member C. Vernon Gray's $1,300 in county-related expenses is a small matter. After all, the county government spends that much every 30 seconds.

But then there's the iceberg, the larger issues dividing Mr. Gray and council Chairman Darrel Drown: old power vs. new power, charisma vs. details, Democrat vs. Republican, government believer vs. government reformer, Columbia vs. the rest of the county and, not least, stubborn vs. stubborn.

If that's not enough, both men are positioning themselves for possible runs for the county executive's office in 1998. Moreover, they don't seem terribly fond of each other.

And the expense debate over the last year has not exactly mended fences between the two.

Says Mr. Drown, "I would say he's avoided me and I've avoided him over the past year."

Says Mr. Gray, "He's gone bananas over a little bit of money."

The expense debate boils down to this:

Mr. Drown says his Democratic rival owes the county $1,300 because Mr. Gray exceeded a $4,800-per-member spending limit the council imposed on itself last October for annual cellular telephone use and travel expenses.

But at the time of the vote on the limit, Mr. Drown did not explicitly state that the policy would be retroactive to last July, the beginning of this fiscal year.

Mr. Gray now says he has spent only $3,200 since October and, therefore, remains under the $4,800 limit a fine point but one wielded skillfully by an experienced politician.

Mr. Gray refuses to pay. He says he's the victim of a retroactive policy that unfairly targets council members who do the most work.

But the council chairman says the council must set a sound fiscal example because it oversees all government spending.

Each politician now accuses the other of, well, playing politics.

And these days the two are communicating mainly through memorandums.

In the most recent missive, Mr. Drown concurred with Mr. Gray's suggestion that expense reports be part of the council's formal budget discussions. But the chairman added: "I will work up the past two years of expenses so we can have a base line" a summation that no doubt will further detail how Mr. Gray vastly outspends his colleagues.

And, while the five-member council appears to be functioning independent of the debate, many who work with the panel say the expense flap is overshadowing its more important issues.

At least two council members are hoping that the two combatants lock themselves in a room and work out a settlement.

"It takes time and energy away from the business of governing the county," says west Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung, "I don't have a solution or a resolution or I would have offered one."

Ms. Lorsung, the only woman on the council, says she has quit trying to figure out what is motivating Mr. Drown and Mr. Gray.

"If this is the boys in the sandbox throwing sand at each other," she says, "I'm happy to stand out of the line of fire."

But there are real political differences.

Mr. Drown, who works as a financial consultant, was first elected to the council in 1990. He was re-elected four years later as Republicans took control of the council for the first time and began an effort to trim budgets and cut staffs a drive he's led since becoming chairman in December.

Mr. Drown says that, after his council term ends in 1998, he will seek either the county executive's office or a seat in the Maryland General Assembly.

That puts him on a collision course with Mr. Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University, who has been on the council since 1982 and who has long coveted the county's executive office.

Mr. Gray recently told supporters at a $250-per-person fund-raiser that he is exploring a run for the county executive's office in two years. He says the Republican majority is so worried about his expenses and not starting new programs that members are overlooking long-term problems in education, revenue, housing and garbage disposal.

The Republicans counter that Mr. Gray symbolizes the big-spending approach.

Meanwhile, each side may feel it's benefiting from the conflict.

"It's politics and it's the county executive's race," says state Del. Frank S. Turner, a friend and political ally of Mr. Gray's. "I think it's a good way to get a lot of publicity."

Adds a staunch supporter of Mr. Drown: "They're taking advantage of the politics. Why shouldn't they?"

You can almost hear the Republican television advertisements two years from now: Democrat C. Vernon Gray, who wants to control your tax dollars, couldn't even control his own spending. Red ink could drip down the screen.

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