County Council rejects plan for staff auditor

Compromise allots money for contracted accountant

January 11, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County is the only executive-led jurisdiction in the metropolitan area to function without a full-time internal auditor to oversee its financial operation. It will remain so.

The County Council voted last week despite the absence of one of its members to kill a bill that would have allowed voters to decide whether they wanted an auditor.

In a compromise presented by Council President Robert S. Wagner, the council unanimously approved a measure that would have the administration put $75,000 into the council's budget to hire an accountant on a contract basis.

The sponsor of the proposal to have a staff auditor, Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing the Bel Air area, requested that a vote on the bill be delayed one week until Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp could participate. Stepp, a Republican representing Havre de Grace, Perryman and Abingdon, was absent last week due to illness.

In a split vote, Cassilly's request was denied.

Three Republicans - Veronica "Roni" Chenowith, who represents the Fallston area, Wagner and Lance C. Miller, who represents the northern part of the county - voted not to delay the vote.

Their votes were enough to offset those of Cassilly; Republican Richard C. Slutzky, whose district includes Aberdeen; and Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council who represents Joppa and the Edgewood areas.

"This is a cheap legislative tactic," Cassilly said of the council's move to vote on the bill Tuesday night. He called it "legislative shenanigans" to "vote on a bill when one council member is not here to support it."

During the debate of the bill, Cassilly argued that it was most regrettable that taxpayers would be denied the proper oversight to know how their tax money was being spent.

Cassilly pointed out that the council requires the Board of Education to have an auditor to oversee its financial operations. "Why we choose to deprive ourselves of this resource escapes me," he said.

Cassilly argued that the county charter authorizes the position of auditor "to insure that taxpayers get the best bang for their bucks."

Wagner led the opposition to the bill. He said there was no need for a full-time auditor and that he was opposed to expanding government. He said the hiring of an auditor would create a new level of bureaucracy.

The county administration has also been opposed to hiring an auditor. County Executive James M. Harkins said recently that the county's checks-and-balance system is strong and having an internal auditor would be a waste of taxpayer money.

John J. O'Neill Jr., the county's director of administration, said on Thursday, "We're not Baltimore County or Anne Arundel County. We're not that big. We don't need a full-time staff of people to oversee our operations. There are greater needs for that money. We need more teachers and more sheriff deputies."

The council voted to reject the hiring of an auditor.

In voting for the money to hire an outside accountant on a contract basis, Cassilly and Guthrie accepted Slutzky's position that "it is better to have half a loaf than none."

Cassilly said an auditor working under contract would not have the power of an on-staff internal auditor.

Guthrie said the council "could blow $75,000 on an outside accountant in a few months. Besides that, he could be fired by the people across the street if they didn't like what he was looking into," he said, referring to the administration office.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat who represents southern Harford County, said she is hopeful the independent auditor bill will be brought back in another form. "It's so worthy," she said. "It is such the right thing to do. It pays for itself."

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