Gary seeks more latitude as executive Ballot questions cover areas from hiring to spending

Need for flexibility cited

Few citizen groups have taken issue with amendments

November 03, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Despite what appears to be a mundane local ballot, Anne Arundel voters will have the chance Tuesday to give the Gary administration and its successors far more latitude in spending bond money, hiring temporary employees, limiting zoning appeals and awarding government contracts without public bids.

The six measures on the ballot seem little more than arcane nips and tucks around the edges of an almost $1 billion annual government budget. But the proposed changes, suggested by the administration of John G. Gary to add flexibility to what officials describe as a hidebound bureaucracy, could result in more than tinkering.

Anne Arundel's 242,834 registered voters will cast ballots on questions that could, among other things, give the County Council sweeping authority over the Board of Appeals that handles zoning issues, more than double the minimum value for contracts that have to be bid publicly, and allow temporary employees to work more hours without requiring the county to pay health and pension benefits.

All would amend Anne Arundel's charter, a kind of county constitution written 31 years ago to reform a haphazard government.

Few civic organizations or citizens groups have taken much notice of the proposed amendments.

Only county employee unions have taken issue with the questions and are spreading the word to vote against the measure to increase hours for temporary workers without providing benefits.

What follows is a summary of the ballot measures:

* Question A: If approved, the County Council would be allowed to change the authority of the Board of Appeals.

Current rules only allow the council to affect the seven-member appeals panel by charter amendment, which requires a countywide vote.

Critics say the measure is too open-ended and threatens to make the independent appeals board, which has the final say in zoning matters, subject to political whim. It does not say what changes the council could make to the board's operation, just that the council could make them more easily.

But the measure's supporters say the amendment would allow the council to streamline a cumbersome zoning appeals process.

Now, zoning officials say, such a common complaint as ridding a front yard of car parts takes more than a year to resolve thanks to numerous, lengthy appeals.

* Question B: If approved, Anne Arundel purchasing officials would only have to advertise work worth more than $25,000 for competitive bidding. The threshold is now $10,000.

Competitive bidding is designed to protect taxpayers by ensuring that the county pays the lowest price for work.

But purchasing officials say the $10,000 trigger discourages smaller companies, including many owned by minority contractors, from entering a time-consuming bidding process for small jobs.

If the measure is approved, a third fewer county contracts would have to be advertised for bid.

"It is very inefficient now," said James F. Ryan, the county's purchasing officer. "We're just trying to do business better."

Ryan said Anne Arundel and Harford are the only Baltimore metropolitan area counties that still have a $10,000 limit.

But Gary, a Republican, has come under fire recently for awarding contracts to friends and political colleagues without following the bidding process -- a practice critics contend will increase if the threshold for bidding is raised.

* Question C: If approved, the Gary administration would be allowed to rearrange the government's organizational chart, a change top officials say would avoid stiff bureaucracy.

The charter requires the administration to cluster departments into working groups.

The Gary administration, which has tried to make government run more like a business, argues that it should be allowed to organize the bureaucracy as it sees fit. Few have argued the point.

* Question D: If approved, Anne Arundel finance officials would be given more flexibility to spend money raised through county bonds for construction projects.

Current law allows Anne Arundel to borrow money by issuing bonds for capital projects. The money can only be spent on the designated project, which is often difficult to do within the two-year limit set by the Internal Revenue Service.

The measure would allow finance officials to spend bond money on other projects within the same "class."

For example, money raised for a road project could be spent on another road project if delays arise.

Money raised for school construction could not be shifted to repave a road.

* Questions E and F: If approved, Anne Arundel's temporary employees would be allowed to work as many as 1,500 hours in a calendar year without the county having to pay benefits.

The threshold is now 1,250 hours a year.

Question F is identical to Question E except that it also would allow the council, on the county executive's recommendation, to add so-called exempt positions to the work force that do not require benefits.

The administration says the rule would allow temporary employees, especially maintenance workers in the Recreation and Parks Department, to work a full season without bumping into the time limit.

Union leaders say the change is another example of the administration trying to take advantage of its employees.

"It's a way of supplementing their work force without paying the benefits," said Jim Bestpitch, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 582, Anne Arundel's 900-member blue-collar union. "I mean, some of these administrations had seasonal employees for 20 years."

County polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Information: county Board of Elections, 222-6600.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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