McLendon's second term Howard County: Reluctance to tackle Tripp case only one reason voters want her to fine-tune focus.

November 11, 1998

THE WAY she won re-election last week -- by the skin of her teeth -- got the attention of Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon. Needing absentee ballots to decide the race could hardly be mistaken for a rousing vote of confidence.

Some voters objected to Ms. McLendon's decision to send the Linda Tripp wiretapping case to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli. But the difficulty in obtaining evidence that has thwarted Mr. Montanarelli suggests Ms. McLendon was right to conclude her office was ill-equipped to handle the matter.

The Tripp case, however, wasn't voters' only concern. The strong showing by Democratic challenger Timothy J. McCrone was also rooted in signs of disarray in Ms. McLendon's office.

More than half of the staff she began with four years ago has quit. Her office's conviction rate is down. Ms. McLendon claimed she has recovered from any setbacks as a result of staffing changes. But a lot of voters didn't believe her.

Much of the earlier hemorrhaging of her staff can be traced to the change in management style Ms. McLendon brought four years ago. She is tackling tougher cases, such as child abuse.

At the same time, she is asking her lawyers to spend more time working outside the courtroom with community groups to improve law enforcement. The dual assignments could be stealing time prosecutors need to prepare for the tough cases. That could be why the conviction rate is flagging.

Election to a second four-year term gives Ms. McLendon an opportunity to fine-tune the two-pronged mission she wants for her office. Residents have said they like being able to talk to prosecutors in their schools and community forums. But as last week's vote seemed to indicate, they don't want that to come at the expense of putting more criminals behind bars.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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