Officials pledge to curtail infighting Former commissioners characterized as prone to petty political spats

December 09, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Determined to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, members of the newly elected Board of County Commissioners said yesterday that they would not be sidetracked by squabbling over penny-pinching and political appointments.

During their first day of official business, the commissioners reappointed Eugene C. Curfman as county comptroller and decided they would not push for an increase in the real estate transfer tax, a legislative proposal that had been made by former Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who left office Monday.

If approved by the voters of Carroll County, Yates' proposal would have increased from 3 percent to 4 percent the transfer tax assessed on all real estate settlements, and raised about $4 million for the county's agriculture preservation program.

The program, started in 1978, allows the county to purchase development rights from farmers who want to continue working the land but need money for operating costs.

The new board might explore other options to raise revenue for farmland preservation.

The county's goal is to preserve about 100,000 acres by 2020. At current funding levels, it would take about 35 years to reach that goal.

The board also decided that it would not ask the General Assembly for permission to forgo the formal bidding process for contracts of $25,000 or less, a legislative change the previous board proposed.

The bidding process is required on all contracts exceeding $12,000.

During their discussions, the commissioners bantered cheerfully and emphasized a desire to work together.

"I don't expect that we'll always agree, but that doesn't mean we have to be disagreeable," said Donald I. Dell, who is serving his third consecutive term. "I think the new commissioners bring a level of prestige and professionalism to the board that was lacking during the previous term."

Robin Bartlett Frazier, serving her first term, and Julia Walsh Gouge, who had served two earlier terms as commissioner before elected again in November, agreed that petty political spats should not characterize the new board.

They departed from tradition Monday and named Dell, who captured the fewest votes in the November election, as vice president. In the past, the commissioner who received the fewest votes was named secretary.

Dell got 19.6 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate race. Frazier received 19.8 percent. Gouge, the top vote-getter with 21.6 percent of the vote, was named president.

"I don't care what title I have, so long as we get things done," said Frazier, who was appointed secretary. "I felt it would be more appropriate for Donald to take the lead when Julia isn't here, as he's served on the board previously."

Dell, a semiretired Westminster dairyman, was secretary on the previous board, a term characterized by infighting, indecision and tax increases.

Stressing the importance of reversing those trends, the newly elected commissioners have established a policy of meeting with department heads on a regular basis.

They have set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for that purpose. Wednesdays have been reserved to allow the commissioners to meet with other boards and committees, such as the Maryland Association of Counties, the Economic Development Commission and the Board of Education.

The commissioners are expected to decide soon who among them will serve on each board.

The commissioners met yesterday with the directors of several departments, including public works, management and budget, and the comptroller. They discussed water and sewer rates, the annual financial report and the 2000 census.

"In the past four years, I can't remember getting a presentation from the directors as detailed as the ones we just received," Dell said after meeting with Maggy MacPherson, director of the Office of Information and Communication Services.

"I'm very happy that we're back in the swing of things," Dell said.

The previous board had no policy to meet with department heads. Chief of Staff Max Bair often acted as a liaison to the departments.

In the absence of regularly scheduled meetings between the board and department heads, last-minute meetings often were added to the commissioners' agenda. During those meetings, major policy changes were sometimes made without public input.

Such a decision was made Nov. 24, when the former Board of Commissioners voted to increase the commissioners' daily allowance -- a bonus given them for showing up for work or attending an official function -- by 650 percent, from $12 to $90. Under pressure from the public and state politicians, the increase was rescinded nine days later.

In January, the former board voted to eliminate funding for Carroll's historic preservation planner from the county budget. The decision was not made public for two months.

The new board has pledged to maintain an "open government." Meetings will be advertised for the public and press. The change should make it easier for the public to follow what's going on in county government, Frazier said.

The new approach will also allow the commissioners to "stay up-to-date and make better decisions," she said.

Gouge and Dell said they held regular department meetings in 1990-1994, during Gouge's second term and Dell's first.

"The system worked very well," Dell said. "It kept us up-to-date on what was going on. I wanted to adopt a similar schedule for the previous board, but we never did."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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