Building liaison duties at issue

Panel, school board disagree on process to monitor construction

`Like tying hands'

May 24, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

As they hammer out the job description of a liaison hired to oversee construction of two high schools, Carroll County's commissioners and school board agree on little.

Although both entities support the concept of hiring an independent set of "eyes and ears" to represent the county, school officials want all contact between the liaison and the construction manager filtered through school staff -- a requirement that county staff say would handicap the liaison's ability to perform the job.

"It seems to me to be a little like tying hands to have him back off the [construction] site and call the construction supervisor just to ask a question," R. Patrick Hill, an executive assistant to the commissioners, said last night.

In a sometimes tense meeting last night, school and county officials also disagreed on the consultant's method of payment and scope of involvement -- particularly during the bid process.

School board President C. Scott Stone told the commissioners that any one point of contention would be "enough for me to walk away from this whole thing."

When the commissioners voted last month to hire an independent consultant to oversee construction of high schools in Eldersburg and Westminster, school and county officials praised the decision as one that would demonstrate cooperation between the schools and the Board of County Commissioners and rebuild a public trust that has crumbled in the wake of bungled construction projects, a grand jury investigation and several multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the school system.

Despite those promises of cooperation, county and school officials traded barbs last night as they reviewed the document that legally defines the responsibilities and limitations of the commissioners' liaison. The agreement makes clear that the liaison will have "advisory authority only" and that "the ultimate authority to direct all action regarding the construction of the two new high schools is vested solely in the Board of Education."

Through the 90-minute verbal tug of war, the commissioners, school officials, and their staffs and attorneys debated such nuances as use of the word "oversight" -- the commissioners' word -- rather than "monitoring" -- the preference of school officials -- in a description of the role of the liaison.

They disagreed about whether the consultant's salary ought to be drawn directly from county coffers or the school system's construction budget, which is allocated by the commissioners. Both budgets are funded with tax dollars, which are collected by the county.

They discussed which trailers the liaison would be able to enter at the construction sites and whether a school employee would need to be present for the liaison to ask the construction manager a question, make a suggestion or alert a contractor to a hazard.

And they disagreed on whether the commissioners could hire someone as a liaison who had done business with the school system during the last decade.

"This is not a witch hunt," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who floated the idea of hiring a consultant. "It's communication back and forth and hopefully the goal is to bring some credibility to Carroll County as a whole."

The boards also discussed the liaison's salary, which is estimated to cost county taxpayers between $20,000 and $40,000.

Although Stone objected to the price, Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the cost of hiring someone with first-hand engineering and construction experience is justified to ensure a thorough job and to restore credibility in the county's ability to build schools.

Two of the five school board members -- Ann M. Ballard and Susan W. Krebs -- did not attend the meeting.

Before the meeting, school board member Joseph D. Mish Jr. said the county ought do more than hire a liaison for school construction projects.

"I think we ought to turn the entire construction office over to the county," he said in an interview. "It is an area educators are not well-trained for as evidenced by what's happened here."

Because his term ends in November and he is not seeking re-election, Mish said he would not suggest the switch: "That's a turf battle so it's not likely to happen."

Gouge, president of the three-member commission, said she and her colleagues have never discussed a county takeover of the construction office and was not sure whether it is allowed under Maryland law.

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