For some officials, greetings are no longer in the cards

Mail: Working under tight fiscal constraints, many government leaders scrap their traditional season's greetings or foot the bill themselves.

December 22, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

This is the season for giving, but many government leaders in Maryland are finding one tradition they can't afford - holiday cards.

This month, an auditor criticized Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and two other county officials for using government money to send last year's holiday greetings.

The report deemed it "an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds."

Some politicians, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., continue to use campaign funds to send holiday cards.

But in these tight times, few are mailing them at government expense.

There is, however, a notable exception: Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has spent nearly $12,000 in city money to send 22,241 cards. His spokeswoman said he is just doing what other mayors have done.

"A lot of this has been the tradition over the years," said C. Edward Middlebrooks, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council. "[But] now we're facing tighter budgetary times. It's clearly not the amount of money, but the perception."

So Owens won't be sending any cards this year.

She recently used her campaign account to pay back last year's $2,500 expense because her campaign has always paid for her cards in the past. She is also "ever mindful of budget concerns," spokeswoman Jody Couser said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who had previously used campaign money to send cards, isn't even doing that this year. And he doesn't want his department heads sending out much cheer, either.

"Some departments have traditions ... although just last year we went though this with all the department heads and made it clear it should be done on a very, very limited basis," said Duncan spokesman David Weaver.

Though Prince George's County paid for its executive to send cards in the past, there won't be any cards coming from Executive Jack B. Johnson this year, his spokeswoman said. Blame the budget - and being busy.

And don't check the mail for Howard County Executive James N. Robey's card.

After sending county-funded cards in past years, he has taken a cost-cutting approach this year - an e-greeting.

Said his spokeswoman, Victoria Goodman, "I really think it sends the right message."

The Internet greeting highlights county service: 12 snowplows plowing, 11 teachers teaching, 10 police patroling ...

Robey and other county employees supplemented it with a musical version on public access television.

As he does each year, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins tapped his campaign account to send holiday cards, his spokeswoman said.

"Then there's a never a question," spokeswoman Merrie Street said. "You don't ever have to think you're using taxpayer money to publicize yourself, even though that's not what a holiday greeting does."

Baltimore County's James T. Smith Jr. has opted for the less-traditional New Year's greeting.

"We just couldn't get ourselves together in time," said Smith spokeswoman Renee Samuels.

He will pay for those from his campaign account, just like last year, Samuels said. Former Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger paid for his cards the same way.

Ehrlich tapped his campaign account for an undisclosed amount of money to send more than 40,000 holiday cards this year, said campaign finance chairman John C. Reith.

He didn't have time to send any last year, as governor-elect. But he got to work early this year. Ehrlich's was the first holiday card many Marylanders received. It arrived before Thanksgiving bearing a picture of Ehrlich, first lady, Kendel, and their son, Drew.

The card's white backing has only eight words: "Not printed or paid for at taxpayer's expense."

"You can't send out stuff with public money," Reith said.

Or, in O'Malley's case, you can. Even Duncan, one of his political rivals, received the greeting, which features a photo of the Baltimore mayor, his wife and four children.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory defended the practice, saying the city has traditionally paid for such cards.

The cards, inviting recipients to attend a holiday open house at City Hall, went to community associations, city employees and clergy, among others, she said.

In Anne Arundel County, the scrutiny has been tougher.

Teresa Sutherland, the Anne Arundel auditor, has endured her share of Scrooge and Grinch jokes since releasing her holiday card report.

"A handful of people have made cracks," she said. "That's fine. Some of them are funny."

At a recent County Council session, Middlebrooks called planning director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. back to the podium for a question:

"Mr. Rutter," he asked, "would you like to come clean and tell us how many Christmas cards you have mailed out?"

Rutter's response: "Zero. Bah, humbug."

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