Probe Of Bid Habits Sought

Columbia Association Board Members Want Close Look At Spending

April 29, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

A majority of the Columbia Association's newly elected governing board vowed yesterday to thoroughly examine how the huge homeowners association spends residents' money -- with two board members proposing that it hire a special investigator.

"I think we need a full investigation," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, recently elected to the 10-member board in Columbia's annual elections. "I mean, it's appalling, just appalling."

She and other CA board members were reacting to articles published in The Sun Sunday, detailing unorthodox spending practices at CA, the private, nonprofit agency that serves in many ways as a quasi-government for the Howard County community of 85,000 residents.

The articles cited dozens of cases in which CA employees apparently falsified telephone bids, awarded contracts to late bidders, altered bids after they arrived and awarded no-bid contracts without contacting other available vendors.

Last week, in response to The Sun investigation, the CA board -- known as the Columbia Council -- voted to include an analysis of the association's purchasing practices in its annual audit, an exercise that begins at the end of this month.

But yesterday most of the council members -- including all three new members who take office Thursday -- said they want to go much further.

"I think we will be looking at hiring some type of special investigator," said Wanda Hurt, who is entering her second year on the council.

Added newly elected council member Jean Friedberg: "We simply cannot have these kinds of lax procedures hurting Columbia's image. It's just not acceptable."

CA officials -- including its president for 25 years, Padraic M. Kennedy -- would not comment yesterday other than to announce that they have requested that the board hold a previously unscheduled public meeting tomorrow night to discuss the Sun articles.

Said CA Vice President Pam Mack: "We'll reserve our comments for Wednesday night."

Questioned by a Sun reporter, Kennedy and Mack previously had said that CA has done nothing improper and that its purchasing practices are efficient.

The timing of the CA board meeting coincides with the last day of the term of three of 10 members of the board, including the council's chairman, Mike Rethman.

Rethman and two other board members were voted out of office in Columbia's annual elections April 18 and 19.

At least one CA board member expressed concern that the sudden scheduling of the public meeting did not allow for adequate public notice so that many Columbia residents could attend.

"I don't like the timing of this meeting," said Joe Merke, a veteran council member.

The council, made up of resident volunteers, historically has offered little oversight of purchases or spending practices at CA -- which has 185 full-time employees and a budget for the coming fiscal year of $49 million, $36 million for operating costs and $13 million for construction.

Merke said yesterday that he didn't even know CA used telephone bids for purchases in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range -- which he called unacceptable.

Merke, a tooling engineer who has been writing bid specifications in his profession for 12 years, also said yesterday he did not know that CA sometimes awards contracts to late bidders or allows vendors to add more work and charge money on contracts without prior written authorization.

Friedberg, one of the new council members whose term begins Thursday, is a professional purchasing consultant. He and his wife own a company called the Purchasing Manager and briefly studied CA's spending practices last year, Friedberg said.

He advocates establishing a central purchasing department, which CA does not have.

Council member David Berson, who serves as the chief economist at the Federal National Mortgage Association in Washington, said he would withhold comments until he talked to CA staff members.

"I want to hear their explanations," Berson said. "We need to make sure of the scope and details of the problem."

Other council members were more harsh.

"It looks to me like there's been some really sloppy procedures," Hurt said.

Council member Alex Hekimian, now entering his second year on the board, said he isn't sure whether the council should hire an investigator, but he expected a thorough probe.

"You don't ask an auditor to take care of problems like this," Hekimian said. "It's not just a matter of whether 2 plus 2 equals 4. It's a lot more than that."

Beyond the council, Howard County Council member C. Vernon Gray -- who represents east Columbia -- said CA needs to make changes.

Gray said he was "absolutely flabbergasted" that CA allows vendors to expand their contracts without written authorization.

The public meeting of the CA board will take place at 8 p.m. tomorrow at CA headquarters, 10221 Wincopin Circle in Columbia.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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