Arundel councilman's company has exclusive pact with county Redmond's Towing got $55,000 last year from police calls

License for Pasadena area

Watchdog group calls it a potential conflict of interest

September 16, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond's towing business has earned at least $55,000 over the past year from an exclusive agreement with the county to tow vehicles for the police in his Pasadena district.

As part of a system the county has used for more than three decades, Redmond's Towing and Auto Parts at 8226 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd. has one of 17 licenses that give towing companies virtual monopolies on emergency road-clearing services in as many zones of the county. The licenses are not granted through competitive bidding.

Redmond, a Democrat, has a potential conflict of interest because he votes on the budgets of the police and licensing officials who renew his towing agreement with the county every year, said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a political watchdog organization.

"It would clearly appear that an elected official who makes budget decisions about an agency would have a conflict of interest if he were a subcontractor for that agency," said Povich, who helped revise the county's ethics laws four years ago.

"Situations like this give the appearance that officials are using public office for private gain," she said.

Redmond could not be reached for comment.

Defenders of his arrangement with the county say he couldn't have won the business through his influence on the council because he has been in office for three years and has been towing cars for the police for 27 years.

County Attorney Phillip Scheibe said yesterday that Redmond appeared to be in compliance with county ethics laws.

The law prohibits councilmen from holding contracts with the county, but Redmond's agreement is a license, not a contract, said Scheibe, who has performed legal work for the local towing association, of which Redmond is a member.

"It sounds like a contract, but it really isn't," said Scheibe. "It's a privilege like the privilege of holding a driver's license."

Povich said the license works just like a contract, however, and that it would be "legalistic hair-splitting" to argue that Redmond's business fits through that loophole.

Redmond's license allows the company to perform almost all of the emergency road-clearing services for the county police in the Pasadena area, said police Lt. B. Scott Pittaway, commander of the traffic safety section. In about 95 percent of crashes in the Pasadena area when police need to clear the road quickly, dispatchers hit a button on a communications system that is programmed to direct-dial Redmond's business, Pittaway said.

The other 5 percent of the time, motorists are allowed to call an alternative towing company if that company is close enough to guarantee that it can clear the road in 30 minutes, Pittaway said.

Police call licensed towing companies from other areas of the county only when Redmond's tow trucks are busy or unavailable, said Anne Hatcher, the county's chief of licensing.

Police dispatchers called Redmond's company 1,015 times for towing in the Pasadena area during the year that ended Aug. 1, according to police records.

The company earned a towing fee of at least $55 for each of the calls, meaning that it would have earned at least $55,825, according to standardized county fee schedules. That does not include $20-a-day storage fees that start accumulating 24 hours after a car has been towed.

Money paid by insurance

Most of the money comes from the insurance companies of people who own the towed vehicles, Hatcher said.

In addition, the county paid $3,370 directly to Redmond's company in the year that ended July 1, according to records.

Those payments were for towing abandoned vehicles or moving cars for police investigations, county officials said.

The license is renewed every year as long as the company pays $475 a year in fees, passes police inspection and meets police requirements for prompt response, Hatcher said.

Not all police departments in the state use such a system.

Baltimore County police hire towing companies in a way similar to Anne Arundel's, but Howard County police put towing services up for bid, officials there said.

The state police and the police departments in Prince George's and Montgomery counties use rotating lists of companies that spread the towing assignments around, officials said.

System called 'wrong'

"I think it's wrong to have a system in which nobody can compete," said Sgt. William Power, commander of the abandoned-vehicle section for the Montgomery County Police Department. "Why not let everybody have a piece of the pie?"

About two or three times a year, towing companies excluded from Anne Arundel County's system ask about competing for licenses. They are told they cannot get licenses if another company has one within four road miles of them, Hatcher said, adding that only the County Council could change the county's system.

Some owners of towing companies claim that having Redmond on the council makes any change less likely.

"The way it is now, it's a monopoly for Redmond, and I don't like it," said Kenneth Watson, owner of K & L Towing at 8351 Veterans Highway in Millersville. "I think everybody should get a fair chance at the county business."

On Dec. 17, 1992, Watson applied to do towing for the county police and was rejected because Redmond's company had the agreement in that area, according to county licensing records. That was when K & L Towing was at 7858 June Drive in Pasadena.

Dave Furrow, who helps run Dave's Mobil, a towing business on Mountain Road in Redmond's district, said, "The Police Department won't let us or anyone else tow a vehicle for them even if we're right there at the scene. It's all for Tom Redmond."

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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