650% bonus increase found to be 'unlawful' Attorney general's office says Carroll panel's move violated state constitution

December 19, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County's commissioners increased their daily allowance 650 percent in violation of Maryland's Constitution, the state attorney general's office said in an opinion released late yesterday.

Chiding the commissioners for raising their daily bonus from $12 to $90 without allowing for public comment, chief counsel Robert N. McDonald said the Nov. 24 vote "was probably unlawful and the commissioners did the right thing when they rescinded the increase" under pressure from the public and state officials.

The opinion, requested by Del. Joseph M. Getty after The Sun disclosed the vote Dec. 1, found that the daily allowance -- called a per diem -- constituted a salary because it is not tied to expenses. As a salary, it could only be increased by the state legislature, the opinion said.

"The constitutional provision says that the salary cannot be increased or decreased" for the sitting board, McDonald said yesterday.

The vote came up suddenly and was not published on the commissioners' daily agenda.

"Public notice and discussion of controversial decisions leads to wiser decisions in the long run," McDonald wrote in the opinion. "It is likely that the original action to increase the allowance would never have happened, if there had been public notice and airing."

The commissioners rescinded the increase Dec. 3 and have called for a study to determine what would be fair compensation.

"The opinion confirms my initial reaction," said Getty. "It offers good guidance to the county commissioners as they review" the bonus.

"To the extent that a per diem amount is paid that bears no relation to actual expenses, it takes on the character of salary and is beyond the authority that the legislature has delegated to the County Commissioners," McDonald wrote.

Getty said last night that he intends to share the opinion with the county's state delegation.

"We will discuss whether we feel legislation is warranted," he said.

Two commissioners, Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell, voted for the increase. W. Benjamin Brown voted against it. Dell was sworn in for a third term as commissioner Dec. 7; Yates and Brown are no longer in office.

The current $12 daily allowance does not cover daily expenses such as gas or meals, which are reimbursed separately. The allowance is also given in addition to the commissioners' part-time salary: $32,500 per year.

"If we stick our noses in the door, we get our per diem," Yates said when asked about the increase earlier this month.

Yesterday, Yates continued to defend the commissioners' action. "We figured our duties were not in sync with the hours we were putting in," Yates said yesterday. "The increase would be unlawful, if we were talking about salary, but we did not intend it to be salary."

Dell and Brown could not be reached for comment last night.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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