Corner-cutting spotlights planner Attempt to speed aid to communities praised, censured

August 31, 1996|By Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson | Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With white, curly hair flopping wildly, shirt open at the collar and spilling from pants, a shambling walk and an English accent, P. David Fields appears the antithesis of the anonymous government bureaucrat.

And he is.

Now, his style is earning him praise and protest, on the streets of Baltimore County and in the halls of county government.

Praise for jump-starting projects to help rundown neighborhoods in his role as director of the fledgling Community Conservation program. Protest for cutting corners with public money, doling out three grants -- roughly $200,000 each -- in a manner that sidestepped county rules.

Fields suddenly finds himself at the center of an escalating controversy, in the unusual position of having to defend himself to County Council members enraged by his handling of public money.

To critics, Fields says he's simply trying to make things better for neighborhoods long neglected by the grinding mill of bureaucracy. Prepared to respond to the County Council's questioning, he hopes to win back their trust.

"I would hope we would be able to establish a better working relationship with the council," he said yesterday, sitting in his eighth floor office overlooking downtown Towson.

"I think they feel deceived. But I didn't intend to do that."

He has some tough critics. Among them: Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat who is demanding answers.

"Everybody in county government has to be held accountable," Bartenfelder said. "I like Dave Fields, but I think you always need to look at who heads the department.

"If there's somebody under him that covered it up, he needs to bring that information forward. Or if it came from the top, then his head's got to roll."

But to others, Fields is responsible for getting things rolling. Good things.

"He's been instrumental in getting the old neighborhood back on its feet," said Wayne Skinner, past president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council. "If it wasn't for him, we'd still be going down the tubes. I probably would have left the county by now."

Born in Leeds, England, the 60-year-old planner worked in Canada, Jerusalem and Britain before moving to Maryland for good in 1985.

He became county planning director in 1988 and moved last year to run the Community Conservation program he conceived.

Fields sees things from the county's working-class neighborhoods up, instead of from white-collar Towson down, those who know him say. And he often doesn't like the view.

"We get so isolated in Towson," Fields confessed.

Wealthier rural neighborhoods covering two-thirds of the county -- but housing just 10 percent of its residents -- have been preserved by tough zoning laws.

Poorer communities often get federal funds such as the $18 million to renovate a nearly derelict 1970's-vintage apartment complex in Lansdowne several years ago.

"But what did that do for working people? Nothing! And they're angry," Fields said, explaining his "tremendous sense of urgency" to make changes.

That's why he conceived the Community Conservation program to strengthen the declining, older, often working-class neighborhoods. The idea was approved by former County Executive Roger B. Hayden and expanded last year under C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

In a quest to swiftly correct long-standing wrongs, Fields said he cut the corners that have now triggered significant criticism for the first time in his 11-year county government career.

Council members are angry that he bypassed their oversight. Three times, private, nonprofit community groups were handed large federal grants by Fields' program and spent the money without council scrutiny.

Case in point: The Southwest Leadership Team bought a 3.5-acre Lansdowne lot for a community park with a $200,000 grant -- even though two appraisals put the land value at less than $100,000. County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart ruled the deal violated the county charter, which requires council approval for such transactions.

Some council members were angered that the selling price was nearly triple the lowest appraisal. Fields said that he wanted to get the park project rolling and felt the $200,000 price was worth it.

In two other cases, groups spent grant money to contract for work on county-owned property -- again without council scrutiny. The southwest group used $205,000 to pay Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to install lights at Lansdowne Middle School athletic fields for evening recreational programs, and the Police Athletic League Inc. used $176,000 for the Riverwood Community Center in Essex.

Now, council members and administration officials are pressing for a change in procedures to eliminate loopholes that allowed the money to flow as it did.

Fields admits his mistakes.

"He has a philosophy," said Jack Dillon, a retired county planner and Fields' friend. "Own the problem. You take responsibility for your own problems. You don't blame other people."

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