Schaefer takes new center stage

Comptroller: The former mayor/former governor dominates weekly sessions of the state Board of Public Works and terrorizes bureaucrats.

May 11, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When the Board of Public Works meets every two weeks to award millions of dollars in state contracts, Gov. Parris M. Glendening is the chairman, but it's William Donald Schaefer's show.

With the bully pulpit of the governor's office no longer available to him, the always theatrical 78-year-old comptroller has found his stage at the Wednesday morning meetings.

Whether he's upbraiding bureaucrats, second-guessing the governor or demanding the most picayune details about obscure transactions, Schaefer has carved out a familiar role on the powerful board. The man once known as Mayor Annoyed and later Governor Annoyed has become Comptroller Annoyed.

Yesterday's meeting brought a typically spirited performance.

Schaefer grilled official after official on matters great and small, ranging from the role of the Maryland Stadium Authority in constructing university buildings to a $4,908.81 real estate sale to the town of Boonsboro.

"It would be nice to know if you're having any impact, whether you're doing anything for the kids," Schaefer told Department of Juvenile Justice procurement chief Marcus Filson, who was there to present a contract for treatment of young sex offenders.

"I never get that answer because you don't know the answer. I don't think you want to know the answer," Schaefer said.

Most of his audience of 50 to 100 was made up of high- to mid-level state officials wondering whether they would be called upon to defend their agencies' contracts against insistent probing. Nobody knows when to expect a Schaefer inquisition, so everybody prepares - just in case.

Glendening and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, the other two members of the board, also ask questions from time to time. But it is Schaefer who routinely dominates the proceedings. The 132 pages of transcript of the April 26 meeting show Schaefer talking on 129 of them.

More length, more laughter

The meetings run longer than they did when the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein was on the board, but Schaefer compensates by providing comic relief.

The same transcript shows the proceedings interrupted by laughter a dozen times - either at something Schaefer said or someone's rejoinder.

But some state employees have come to dread their appearances before the board since Schaefer joined it as comptroller in 1999.

"It's much more contentious. The questions come out of nowhere," said one veteran state official, who asked that neither he nor his agency be identified.

Unique institution

The board is an institution unique to Maryland. No other state provides such a public forum for officials independent of the administration to question its decisions in the governor's presence - as Schaefer well knows from his two terms as chief executive from 1987 to 1995.

Yesterday's meeting was in many ways typical of the new Schaefer era.

First to be put to the Schaefer test was Peta Richkus, secretary of general services.

Out of 37 items on her agenda, Schaefer picked an $879,000 contract for 299 parking spaces in Baltimore. He demanded to know how many spaces the state leases downtown and where each of them is.

Richkus, well prepared, answered that there are 946 spaces - 2.1 percent of the total downtown - and provided a color-coded map showing their locations. Asked why the state doesn't build its own parking lot, Richkus explained that it doesn't want to take land off the tax rolls.

Appeased, Schaefer went on to the next item that caught his interest, a $200,000-a-year extension of the lease for the Motor Vehicle Administration office at Mondawmin Mall.

"Why don't we condemn this and take it?" Schaefer demanded of Steve Cassard, assistant secretary of general services.

Cassard and Richkus tried to explain that they are keeping that option open but want to sign a new lease before it expires.

Schaefer wasn't buying it.

"I'd like to hold this up," he said. Glendening, after whispering to Dixon on his left, agreed.

Removal of memorabilia

A little later, four executives from the Maryland Stadium Authority were in the hot seat. They were at the board to defend a $567,800 contract for removing memorabilia from Memorial Stadium before its planned demolition.

Schaefer thought the contract premature. He wouldn't accept assurances from Alison L. Asti, the authority's general counsel, that Mayor Martin O'Malley wants to go ahead with it.

Asti told Schaefer that she got that information directly from mayoral aide Michael Enright.

"Oh, is he the mayor?" Schaefer asked sarcastically.

As he often does, the imperturbable Glendening suggested a compromise. Hold off a week while we seek a letter from the mayor, he said. The board agreed - another small victory for the comptroller.

But Asti and executive director Richard W. Slosson were not out of hot water yet. Schaefer was on a tear about the expanded role being taken by the stadium authority, and he fixed upon a series of contracts the agency has sought for construction of a new student union at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Stadiums, stadii

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