Attempting to make hay at the public trough

Comment

December 06, 1998|By Mike Burns

DAIRY farmers face a hard future. Their numbers are shrinking; demand for milk products is stagnant. Farm consolidation and production efficiencies are squeezing the little guy.

So what's a poor 73-year-old Westminster dairyman with a few hundred acres to do?

Go into politics, and feed at the public trough.

Donald I. Dell, confirmed by Carroll voters last month for a third four-year term as a county commissioner, decided it was time to make hay while the sun shines.

He and confederate Richard T. Yates voted Nov. 24 in a secret meeting, without public hearing or advance notification, to raise the per diem allowance of the new board of commissioners to $90 a day from the current $12. That stipend is in addition to $32,500 annual salaries for the part-time job, and reimbursements for meals and transportation.

The effect would be to raise the pay for each of the three new commissioners to about $60,000 a year, compared with about $36,000 this year. That would be by far the highest pay for a county commissioner in Maryland. The salaries in Carroll are already highest of any Maryland commissioner county.

Shamed by public outcry, the commissioners rescinded the pay hike last week. But the shame endures for Mr. Dell and Mr. Yates, not for Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who vigorously opposed the sneaky 11th-hour increase.

Mr. Dell voted to increase his own pay, with nothing but contempt for ethics, the political process or public interest. Given his invariably sanctimonious simpering about needless county expenses and fiscal conservatism, he was also guilty of sheer hypocrisy.

Candidates knew the pay

Well-meaning candidates ran for office this year, in primary and general elections, knowing what the compensation would be. Others may have been dissuaded from running because of the pay.

That the per diem needed to be raised, moderately, was acknowledged. But not by the astronomical 650 percent that Public Servant Dell decided was his due. And not in the last days of the current term. And not without public notice and discussion.

Mr. Dell dismisses the egregious public insult as a "personnel matter" that didn't require public airing. His sidekick, Mr. Yates, explained that there was not enough time to hold a public hearing.

Besides, Mr. Yates argued, the per diem of county commissioners should be similar to state legislators, who get up to $126 a day during the three-month annual General Assembly session to cover lodging and meals. Those legislators, however, must document actual expenses in order to collect; plus, many live away from home during the session.

Not so with Carroll County's leaders, who take their expenses from yet another public pot. "If we stick our noses in the door, we get our per diem," smugly declared Mr. Yates, erstwhile guardian of the public coffers.

There's no accountability for the use of public funds. No justified reimbursement for expenses. Just another bonus for simply showing up for work.

L When it was $12, few begrudged the trio this per diem claim.

In fact, as the county's delegation to the State House noted, there had been no request to raise the commissioner salaries or other pay over the past eight years. Never came up, even in private discussions, the legislators say.

Professed parsimony

It's no wonder, given the professed parsimony of these commissioners. Agonize over every petty expenditure, decline federal grants that require local contributions. Brag about cutting costs, condemn charter government used by neighboring counties as too expensive. Stoically remind voters that they are underpaid but proud of it.

But suddenly, just after Mr. Dell is re-elected by an unsuspecting electorate, a moon shot for the per diem becomes a clandestine emergency priority. This from the Dell-Yates duo that couldn't find time in their last four months of office to review the new county land-use plan, 2 1/2 years in the making by county staff and volunteers.

Fact is, this Carroll per diem is not a true per diem allowance, which is supposed to cover out-of-pocket job expenses. It's really illegal extra pay for the commissioners.

That's what Del. Joseph M. Getty believes. He cites the state constitution, which states that commissioner allowances must be tied to expenses incurred. The Carroll Republican has asked the attorney general if it is legal.

Typically, elected officials aren't allowed to change their compensation during their term. But individual office holders can refuse to claim, or to accept, certain pay and allowances.

Mr. Getty warns that remedial state legislation may be needed next session. Perhaps tax collectors will be prompted to examine tax returns of the commissioners, to see if the per diem was declared income.

Meantime, taxpayers can take comfort in the egalitarian sentiments of Mr. Yates: "Maybe now the commissioners will catch up with their secretaries' salaries."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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