Losing a win-win deal

August 12, 2002

SOME GOVERNMENT officials can't -- or don't want to -- see a solution to a problem when it's right in front of them. Take Dennis Callahan, parks director for Anne Arundel County, for example.

He has a married couple in their 60s living in a log cabin on county parkland near where the South River joins the Chesapeake Bay. For $25,000 a year, Marion and Carol Coomes issue permits to park users attracted by views of the historic Thomas Point lighthouse and excellent rock fishing. They also provide park ranger and caretaker services around the clock.

Sounds like a bargain.

But Mr. Callahan decided two years ago, as part of a new countywide policy, to start charging the Coomeses $900 a month in rent -- nearly half their part-time salary.

Residents of three surrounding communities -- grateful for the contribution the Coomeses have made to the park and sympathetic to their plight -- passed the hat. They came up with enough in small private donations to subsidize about half the Coomeses' rent.

What they got for their trouble was a county ethics investigation that Mr. Callahan is actively cheering along. He thinks the Coomeses are helping their neighbors restrict access to the park. The Coomeses say visitors line up for hours to pay $10 per car for the 60 permits issued each month, and they go on a first-come, first-served basis.

It didn't have to turn ugly.

Mr. Callahan had the makings of the sort of public-private partnership on which good park maintenance increasingly depends. The county could collect its rent while taking advantage of the added value the Coomeses bring to their job because residents of the surrounding communities are willing to help pay for it.

If the parks director had been a little creative, he could have helped negotiate the legal terms for such an arrangement when the neighbors first signaled their desire to help.

"Government doesn't work that way," he says.

Not nearly often enough, perhaps, but it should.

Even with the county Ethics Commission inquiry pending, it's not too late for Mr. Callahan to resolve this conflict for the benefit of all concerned.

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