Public works board establishes new tone

General Assembly

January 25, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The Board of Public Works might never be the same.

When Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot sat down for the first meeting yesterday of the obscure but powerful panel that approves most state spending, they spent much of their time talking about how to expand the state's Minority Business Enterprise program. Their predecessors, by contrast, had rankled black leaders by asking recently, "When will MBE E-N-D?"

Instead of going on about immigrants, AIDS victims or Koreans, as predecessor William Donald Schaefer had, Franchot talked about encouraging counties to build more eco-friendly schools.

O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp mused about making yesterday's "beg-a-thon" -- a humbling annual ritual in which local officials show up to plead for school construction money -- the last.

And unlike the days of the love feasts between Schaefer and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., no cakes were exchanged.

"It is the dawn of a new day," Franchot said.

O'Malley began the meeting as Ehrlich always did, by giving opening remarks and inviting the treasurer and comptroller to provide their own. It was at that point in the proceedings that Schaefer would unleash most of the tirades that contributed to the end of his political career.

Franchot took a different tack. He wrote his comments ahead of time, and they were, unlike some of Schaefer's monologues, related to the day's agenda. Where Schaefer tended to mumble, Franchot spoke directly into the microphone.

Franchot said he wanted to hear from school officials there for the day's beg-a-thon about their efforts to make environmentally friendly buildings, a move that he said would save the state money in the long run.

"Let's resolve together to make Maryland the greenest and most fiscally responsible state in the nation," Franchot said.

There were plenty of other ways Franchot, a liberal Democrat from Montgomery County, differentiated himself from Schaefer, the conservative Democrat from Baltimore. Schaefer sat on the governor's right, but Franchot, appropriately enough, sat on the left. (It might have been a practical, rather than political choice; Franchot is left-handed.)

And instead of berating members of the governor's Cabinet, a favorite Schaefer sport, Franchot praised Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari as "one of the great public servants in the state of Maryland."

O'Malley began putting his stamp on the board, too. Shortly into the meeting, he started grilling officials about how many minority- and women-owned firms were getting a piece of the contracts he was being asked to approve. He has said he wants to create a "StateStat" system of accountability to the governor's office, and he said minority participation is at the top of the list of things he wants to track.

"One of the most important requirements for a successful MBE and WBE program is executive determination that is real and not just checking a box every four years, and fortunately, we have that on this board," O'Malley said, referring to programs that assist minority- and women-owned businesses.

But it was the idea of scaling back the beg-a-thons that was the talk of Annapolis yesterday.

Every year, an agency within the state Department of Education divvies up most of Maryland's school construction money but leaves some for the Board of Public Works to allocate. Over the years, counties have made increasingly elaborate presentations to win favor, generally bringing their entire legislative delegations, local officials and others to impress the board with how important their requests are.

Perhaps the biggest show to date came yesterday, when the Baltimore City delegation showed up en masse with Mayor Sheila Dixon, school system officials and dozens of parents and activists clad in orange T-shirts who filled up the entire ceremonial reception room on the second floor of the State House.

"Is there anybody in this room who thinks Baltimore City needs this money?" Del. Curtis S. Anderson said, making the crowd erupt in cheers and applause.

"Is there anybody in this room that thinks Baltimore City will spend this money wisely?" he said. More cheers.

"Is there anybody in this room who is going to work hard to make sure our children get a good education?"

Yet more cheers, as a dazed-looking Franchot, O'Malley and Kopp clapped along.

Legend places responsibility for the escalating displays on U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger who, as Baltimore County executive in the 1990s, figured he could impress the board by showing that all the officials from his jurisdiction were united in supporting the county's request. Year by year, the strategy spread, and now lawmakers scramble out of committee hearings and floor sessions to stand silently in the board meeting when their counties get called up.

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