Good intentions, sloppy system Grants flap: County community czar is less to blame than lack of checks and balances.

September 05, 1996

RECENT CRITICISM of P. David Fields, the driving force behind Baltimore County's effort to revive older neighborhoods, would be better aimed at the faulty legislative process that gave him too much authority to hand out large grants.

Since creation of the Community Conservation Program in 1994, the County Council has allocated grants to the CCP during the annual budget process, then let the director -- Mr. Fields -- decide how those monies should be spent. A provision for council review of grants -- de rigueur in many local governments -- has not existed. The lack of such checks could lead to far bigger problems than the ones that recently occurred under Mr. Fields.

As it is, Mr. Fields -- a hard-working, imaginative, former planning director -- is guilty of using the latitude he was given a bit too freely in an effort to bring recreational projects to neglected neighborhoods quickly. In one case, he and Chief Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly did an end-around on the County Charter, which requires council approval of land deals. They gave a community group a $200,000 grant so it could buy property, then give it back to the county. Thus, they avoided delays that would have resulted from wrangling with county appraisers and council debate.

Mr. Fields also gave two grants worth $400,000 to community groups so they could hire contractors to do the work more quickly than the county government, whose processes can be numbingly slow. This is called privatization, and not only is there no rule against it, but many governments are turning to it to do certain jobs faster or cheaper. The problem in this case is that bureaucrats were making decisions on substantial projects without scrutiny by or approval of elected council members, who ought to be accountable for all spending.

The solution is so simple that both the legislative and executive branches have already proposed it: Start requiring council approval for large grants. An order by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger says grants of more than $50,000 must go to the council and grants of more than $10,000 must pass muster before a new grants review panel. The council is drafting a bill with similar, possibly stricter, provisions. These reforms should give taxpayers the accountability to which they are entitled.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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