Harkins vetoes auditor request

Council wanted voters to decide on giving it the power to hire one

March 28, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins has vetoed a bill that would have left it up to voters to determine whether the County Council should have the authority to hire an independent auditor to oversee the county's financial operations.

Harkins said the legislation, which would have put Harford in line with the other executive-led jurisdictions in the region, was not needed.

"In my view, the bill is unnecessary, as the County Council already has the power to accomplish the stated objectives of the bill," Harkins said in his veto letter Friday to members of the council.

The auditor bill, which was approved this month on a 4-3 vote, would have granted the council the power to hire a part-time accountant or to contract with an accounting company and give it the full power of an independent auditor.

"That's something entirely different than what we have now," said Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican who represents Bel Air and was a sponsor of the auditor bill.

"What we have now is not a county auditor," Cassilly said. "That person doesn't have the ability to come in and look over everyone's shoulders to see that they are doing what's right for the citizens.

"The person we want to hire wouldn't have to ask if he could look at the books. He would be able to say, to any department in the county, `I will be in tomorrow to look at your books.' What we have now is not the same as an independent auditor, like an IRS auditor, that is hired on behalf of the people."

Cassilly said he wants a Harford County auditor with the same oversight power that auditors have in many other counties, including Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's.

Before Harkins' veto, the bill was scheduled to appear on the ballot in November. Voters would have to approve a change in the county charter to accommodate the proposed auditor.

Cassilly noted that the administration had agreed to provide the county with $75,000 a year to contract with an accountant. The money was to be in the budget for the fiscal year that will start in July.

Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican representing the northern part of the county, said he voted against the bill in the council because "I felt that it was a feel-good piece of legislation that would serve no purpose. We have an auditor. I don't feel that it was necessary to go to the voters to seek a charter amendment."

Miller declined to comment on the county executive's veto, saying, "I don't want to get into saying who is right or who is wrong."

Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said he was surprised by Harkins' veto. "I don't know why we can't put this in the hands of the voters," he said. "Are we scared to put it in their hands and let them vote it up or down."

Guthrie, who represents Edgewood and Joppatowne, said he did not want an auditor that served both the council and the county administration.

"We want an auditor that is responsible to the County Council, not those people on the other side of the street [the county administration]," he said.

The administration has argued in the past that because Harford County is not as big as Baltimore County or Anne Arundel County, it does not need a full-time staff member to oversee the county's finances.

During a County Council hearing on the issue in December, Teresa Sutherland, Anne Arundel County's auditor, noted the advantages of having someone in her position. She pointed out that her department recently uncovered the embezzlement of about $90,000 from an escrow account for county detention center inmates. The auditor also discovered that 60 to 80 county workers were receiving the wrong benefits.

Brian J. Rowe, Baltimore County's auditor, told the Harford council that "our major role is to take away the opportunity for fraud."

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