Leaders defend overseas trips paid by taxpayers

Owens, officials say travel abroad vital to bringing jobs to Arundel

December 05, 2005|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Since June 2004, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has traveled at taxpayer expense to Finland, Russia, Denmark, China, back to Denmark and once more to China.

In that span through this September, she and other county representatives have spent more than $70,000 during four trips to promote the county's economic development abroad, according to a review of travel records by The Sun. While overseas, they met with foreign dignitaries, attended the theater and visited such landmarks as the Kremlin and the Great Wall of China.

Owens is not alone among Baltimore-Washington-area county executives, several of whom have gone overseas in recent years to attract businesses. Still, some question the value of such trips by local officials.

"I'm not sure I see that many jobs ... coming as a result of these visits," said Dee Hodges, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, of Owens' efforts.

But, according to Owens and her economic advisers, the trips are not about hobnobbing and seeing the sights. Participants said they are crucial for maintaining international business ties and creating new ones to promote the county's economic vitality.

"I didn't do much traveling for a long time, and I started to be aware of how the complexion of the county was changing," Owens said in a phone interview. "We have become an international county in many ways. The presence of BWI and the proximity to Washington and Baltimore have brought many riches to us."

Owens is not the only local official traveling abroad.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson visited Senegal and Gambia in the spring and is planning a trip to China next year. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan traveled to El Salvador in August, and has also been to Canada, Scotland and Israel. Last year, Howard County Executive James N. Robey went on a 12-day tour through Europe. He has also been to China and Israel.

In the past three years, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has traveled to England, Israel and Italy, but those trips mostly focused on homeland security. O'Malley serves as co-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' committee on homeland security.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has not traveled abroad. Elected in 2002, Smith is focusing on economic development opportunities within the United States, a spokesman said.

Global outlook

Owens, a Democrat who cannot seek re-election because of term limits, has taken five international and 10 domestic trips since being elected in 2002, county records show.

She took one overseas trip in her first term: Ireland in 2000 with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, to celebrate Irish airline Aer Lingus' arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. After her re-election, she said, she realized how international businesses were benefiting the county.

More than 200 international companies have established either national or regional headquarters in the county. Anne Arundel has gained attention overseas because it's home to BWI and dozens of high-tech and defense companies.

In the past 16 months, she has taken four international trips:

In June 2004, Owens went on an eight-day mission to Finland, Russia and Denmark. County officials went to telecommunications giant Nokia's world headquarters in Finland. (Nokia last year invested in a homeland-security incubator in Annapolis.) County business representatives accompanied the delegation to Denmark. And county leaders met with Russian officials to explore business opportunities.

In October 2004, Owens accompanied Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, on his trade mission to China and Singapore. County records said she was overseas seven days. (The state picked up her hotel tab; the county paid $6,643 for Owens' airfare.)

In June 2005, Owens traveled to Denmark for four days to sign a friendship agreement to promote future "business-to-business exchange."

In September 2005, she traveled to China on an 11-day mission. County officials said that Owens used the trip to visit business and political delegations that had come to Anne Arundel, in an effort to enhance business partnerships and student exchanges.

Former County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican who was unseated by Owens in 1998 and has been a frequent critic, said he sees no legitimate reason for such trips by local officials. He said missions to promote economic development are best left to the governor.

"I can't believe that a county executive can have any major influence on these trips. ... It's a very weak case to spend money," said Gary, who took no overseas trips during his term.

But Robert R. Neall, a Democrat who served as Anne Arundel County executive from 1990 to 1994, said he envisioned his successors taking such missions when he turned the county's economic development office into a nonprofit organization in 1993. Neall said he wanted "to help facilitate trade missions that might not be looked upon favorably by the public in a county budget."

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