Official advocates position for auditor

Other council members say proposal would be an unnecessary expense

December 21, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

A Harford County councilman said late last week that he is hopeful his proposed amendment to the county charter to create a council auditor's position will be approved next month -- despite the members' chilly reception to the measure.

Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing the Bel Air area, first raised the idea of creating a council auditor's position this year. The legislative body, which has two legal advisers, has no staff adviser on fiscal matters -- other than the county executive's staff.

A study done in 2001 for the County Council during the administration of Gunther Hirsch found that Harford is the only executive-led county in the metropolitan area not to have an internal auditor on the County Council staff.

"It's the whole purpose of the separation of powers," Cassilly said. "That's the whole shame of it."

Most council members maintain that the county, with a population of about 250,000, is too small to warrant what they call another layer of bureaucracy. But Cassilly maintains that not having an auditor renders the council "grossly deficient" in its ability to independently oversee the government's operations.

"At this point, the problem I face is that council members have a misunderstanding of what this office is and what it does," Cassilly said.

He said Tuesday night's public hearing, where council members doubted the purpose a staff auditor might serve, was a response to "a healthy lobbying effort by the executive branch."

County Executive James M. Harkins has taken a defensive posture on the proposal. He sent a member of his legal department to the hearing, who brought in a cardboard box full of awards the county finance department has won over the past 18 years -- and called the charter amendment an unneeded measure.

"The administration has nothing to hide," said Deputy County Attorney Robert McCord. He added that Cassilly's plan to introduce an amendment to the charter, specifying that only the council -- not the county executive -- could direct the auditor's work, diminished the executive's power.

Cassilly withdrew that amendment later in the meeting.

County Council members, who have previously pointed to their independent-mindedness, said they felt comfortable using the administration's fiscal statements as their primary source of guidance on legislative and operational matters.

"I do have some level of confidence in the administration," said Republican Council President Robert S. Wagner.

He said the council's use of a contracted public accounting firm, Reznick, Fedder & Silverman, is sufficient. The firm audits the county's annual financial statement, a report required to satisfy county bond rating requirements.

Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican who represents Havre de Grace, Perryman and Abingdon, said her understanding is that the council can contract with a firm to look into any government department.

But Teresa Sutherland, Anne Arundel County's auditor, who spoke at the hearing, pointed out that while the council has the right to ask for department investigations, "that's only if you know there's a problem or suspect there's a problem."

She pointed out that her department's recent work has included uncovering about $90,000 embezzled from a county detention center inmate escrow account, and the discovery that 60 to 80 county workers were receiving the wrong benefits.

Having an auditor on staff who is systematically looking for those kinds of abuses and errors helps ensure the county is following laws and regulations properly, she said.

Brian J. Rowe, Baltimore County's auditor, spoke about the auditor's role in adding value and helping to improve government operations. "Our major role is to take away the opportunity for fraud," he said.

Wagner said having an internal auditor on staff would "create a CPA-like mentality" of delivering county services, and people would end up paying fees for more amenities.

In addition, he said, even if an auditor does find excesses and proposes budget cuts, "it then becomes a political decision" to cut popular services.

Veronica "Roni" Chenowith, a Republican representing the Fallston area, said she believed it would be "irresponsible" to hire an auditor that would likely cost more than $100,000 in salary and benefits when the county needs teachers and deputies more.

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