Executive gets majority on development board

Five of nine members of county EDC now Owens appointees

July 29, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Seizing greater control over Anne Arundel County's Economic Development Corporation, County Executive Janet S. Owens replaced three outgoing board members yesterday with her own appointees.

The shake-up gives her control of five of nine seats on the corporation's board of directors and comes as Owens has become increasingly vocal in objecting to the agency's repeated refusals to open its financial books for her review.

By keeping a stranglehold on their records, Owens said, economic development officials have generated a cloud of suspicion around their agency, which is private but heavily funded with taxpayer money and headed by a county employee.

"I think there has been an absolute failure on their part to communicate with me," Owens said.

"Every time I asked them for details, the answer was, `We're private. That's confidential,' " she said. "I happen to believe that sunshine is the best policy."

Owens named three trusted friends -- retired banker Gilbert Hardesty, former Maryland Secretary of State Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey and Bell Atlantic executive Carl E. Smith -- to replace members who had been appointed by her predecessor and opponent in last year's election, John G. Gary. Their terms expired this month and Owens chose not to reappoint them.

The move came less than two weeks after the agency's chief executive, Richard J. Morgan, resigned. His last day is tomorrow.

The man who will replace Morgan, at least temporarily, said he met with Owens this week and promised total cooperation.

"Any information this corporation has, she is entitled to see immediately and instantaneously," said William A. Badger, the interim chief executive.

That will be refreshing, Owens said, after months of strained relations with the corporation. When she took office, she said agency officials led her to believe she could make no board appointments until 2001. Only after her staff researched the question did she learn she would be able to replace five members by this month. Owens replaced two other board members earlier this year.

Although Owens' actions will likely win her full access to the corporation's financial records, she has expressed a reluctance to make those records public.

On July 7, The Sun made a formal request to view details of loans the corporation has made to private businesses, something the agency does to help lure companies to the county.

The corporation has not formally responded to the request, but Owens' chief of staff, Marvin Bond, listed privacy concerns and a confidentiality agreement in explaining why Owens would not compel its director to release the names of companies that have been granted loans.

"Any banker would tell you that loan information is sacrosanct," Bond said.

Owens said her reasons were more complex -- namely, she fears that more negative publicity about the corporation and scrutiny of its past dealings would hurt its public standing and in turn, harm the county.

Others who have failed to gain access to information that the corporation held private said it's time for full public disclosure.

"To me it's very clear," said Marcia Drenzyk, whose formal records request was denied last year when she was coordinating the fight against a proposed auto racing stadium in north Arundel. "If they're going to use taxpayer dollars, there needs to be full public scrutiny and full accountability."

In the past six years, the Economic Development Corporation has received more than $5.7 million in county funding, according to John R. Hammond, the county's finance director. Of that, about $600,000 was earmarked for the loan program, he said.

"If this were a bank, those records might be confidential," said County Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. "But when there's public money involved, there needs to be some oversight."

An audit of the agency that was initiated by the council is due to be released within the next few weeks.

Development corporation officials said there has always been intense oversight of their loan activities.

The portfolio is audited by a committee of representatives from 18 banks that contribute to the corporation's loan program. Loan activities are also scrutinized by the state's commissioner for financial regulation.

"That, to me, was tremendously reassuring," Owens said.

Sun librarian Eugene Balk contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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