County Council approves expense account change

Gray resolution passes on strict party-line vote

April 07, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council achieved at least a temporary truce this week in its long, partisan, internal battle over personal expense accounts.

How long it will last, and whether anyone but party activists care, isn't clear.

Although Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon says "we're trying to get along and build up trust in each other," and fellow GOP member Allan H. Kittleman agrees, both voted against a budget resolution sponsored by Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, at Mondaynight's meeting.

Gray's resolution removes a provision in the county code adopted in 1996 that requires individual council expense budgets and separate votes each year on how much money members may spend for expenses. The measure passed 3-2 Monday night on a party-line vote.

To quiet critics, Gray offered an amendment that attracted unanimous support. It says that district expense accounts should remain council policy, even if they are no longer governed by county law.

"I have a real problem with the bill, but I'm pleased with your amendment," Kittleman said.

He and Merdon voted for the amendment but against the bill. "I do think this [district expenses] should stay in the code," Kittleman said during the voting session. He worried aloud that as policy, the district expense system could be changed administratively at any time, without much public scrutiny.

The current round of fighting began in January, when the Democrats pushed through an increase in members' expense accounts from $4,800 a year to $7,000, and Gray, president-elect of the National Association of Counties (NACo), requested $3,965 in travel money for next fiscal year, compared with $1,200 for each of the other members.

Bristling over questions about his travel expenses, Gray followed up last month with his resolution, which sparked a new round of bickering over its effect and his motives.

Gray insisted his resolution would merely give the council more time to prepare its budget by removing a mid-December deadline for submission to the county executive. That proved difficult this year, for example, because three of the members took office Dec. 7 -- one week before the deadline.

Republicans railed against the measure at last month's public hearing, saying it also eliminates the 1996 GOP-sponsored law requiring expense accounts for each member. The effect, they said, would be to throw all the expense money into one pot, obscuring the individual spending of members.

Gray, for years the target of Republican complaints that he spends expense money too freely, denied that intent, though his resolution did remove the district expense language from the law. He criticized Republicans for spending time arguing about $40,000 worth of expenses out of the council's $1.8 million budget, and reacted angrily when Kittleman questioned his request for travel money when he travels to St. Louis in July to be installed as president of NACo.

Aware that they don't have the votes to prevail, the Republicans said later they're willing to accept Democrats' assurances that nothing will change.

The four or five people in the council's audience Monday night didn't appear to care. They attended either to receive an award, be named to a county board or explain another agenda item.

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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