Howard County Council members weigh new, formal limits on personal expenses Proposed rules triggered by disputed $1,300 bill

April 21, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Expense limits may seem like a cut-and-dried matter. But for the Howard County Council, that's hardly the case -- as evidenced by the latest chapter in the yearlong saga of council members trying to control their own spending.

During Friday's council meeting, Councilman Dennis R. Schrader of North Laurel introduced two pages of formal rules for council expense limits.

He hopes that if the rules are adopted, they will end the long-running argument over whether Councilman C. Vernon Gray owes the county $1,300 in travel and cellular phone expenses -- bills that some council members insist exceed a expense limit.

Mr. Schrader said he will introduce the proposal as a formal resolution next month.

The spat over Mr. Gray's expenses has largely been played out between the East Columbia Democrat and Darrel Drown, the Republican council chairman from Ellicott City.

If Mr. Schrader's rules are approved, he says, Mr. Gray would not have to pay the money as Mr. Drown has insisted -- because the new rules would acknowledge that the previous expense limit was for naught.

Put another way, the previous council expense limit was TC established in such an informal manner that it is not binding, Mr. Schrader said.

"My hope is the ongoing debate becomes moot," he said.

The expense flap began to heat up two months ago when Mr. Drown asked Mr. Gray to repay the money after Mr. Gray's expense total for the fiscal year hit $6,100 -- surpassing the council's $4,800 annual limit set in October.

Mr. Gray said he did not owe money because that policy was not retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year in July. He said that since October, he hadn't spent more than $4,800.

Since then, the two politicians have been communicating largely through memos.

But now comes Mr. Schrader, considered the most liberal of the three Republicans who control the five-member council. He's often the swing man in council votes.

"It takes personalities out of it and takes it to a higher level," he says of his proposed expenses rules.

But then again, things might not be so simple.

Take the ninth paragraph of Mr. Schrader's rules: "The amount of each individual appropriation for expenses included in paragraph (a) and the amount of the appropriation and allocation among councilmanic districts for expenses included in paragraphs (b) and (c) shall be established by vote of a majority of the council no later than the regularly scheduled monthly meeting in January. The council shall make every effort to approve appropriations requested by council members for expenses included in paragraph (c)."

Such verbiage can only lead to more problems, said Charles C. Feaga, a Republican from western Howard County who along with Mr. Drown has pushed for the expense limits.

"We have to keep it short and sweet -- to the point," Mr. Feaga said.

He asked Mr. Schrader to simplify the rules, which if approved would take effect July 1.

Meanwhile, the spat over Mr. Gray's $1,300 in expenses appears likely to fade away.

Both sides now acknowledge that it is a spat the Republicans cannot win -- that Mr. Gray has prevailed on technicalities, the main one being that the county charter's provision for reimbursement of council members' expenses supersedes the limit set informally in October.

But Mr. Drown says the $4,800 limit -- which he terms a "gentleman's agreement" -- should be enough for Mr. Gray, who should recognize that the council must set frugal spending examples for county agencies.

"If he wants to, he can technicality us to death," Mr. Drown said of Mr. Gray. "If he doesn't think he needs to be accountable to the Howard County taxpayers, he doesn't have to be."

Mr. Gray scoffs at such words.

He says his expenses are higher than other council members' because he works harder. The limits are an effort by the Republicans to curb his effectiveness, he said. "They want to have a race to the bottom," he said.

Under Mr. Schrader's proposed rules, council members would submit expense plans each year, which then would become part of the county budget.

But Mr. Schrader wants each council member to be allowed to set his or her own limits.

To which, Mr. Drown said, "If that's the way it comes out, I don't want to be a part of it." He wants council members' expense budgets to be the same, perhaps by taking an average of everyone's request -- thus indicating that even writing these rules will not be simple.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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