In need of oversight

February 27, 2007

For two decades, the Maryland Stadium Authority has been something of a golden child within state government. Set up as a quasi-public agency, the authority built downtown Baltimore's showplace stadiums quickly and efficiently with less red tape and more flexibility. The results were a huge success. Even 15 years after its opening, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is still considered one of Major League Baseball's finest venues.

But a critical legislative audit released last week has tarnished the MSA's image. Auditors found a procurement system that failed to foster competitive bidding, and employee severance packages were approved without board oversight. Other embarrassing details: A fired executive director received $42,000 for essentially doing no work, and disputed payments from the Orioles worth $1.7 million were not adequately pursued.

The MSA's management offers reasonable explanations for many of these decisions. In the case of procurement, for instance, it comes down to a trade-off: The MSA sometimes uses an approach that locks in prices but offers less oversight of subcontracts.

The employment decisions are less easily defended, and the authority's board has pledged to no longer leave personnel decisions to the discretion of its chairman and executive director. As for any money due from the Orioles, the agency has already entered arbitration over that and other issues with the club. Should legal action have been brought earlier? That's not clear.

Nevertheless, the audit's findings are troubling. Not because fraud or abuse or even policy violations were uncovered; they weren't. Rather, the results suggest the authority's leadership has not only made some poor choices in the recent past, but the agency's internal controls and oversight appear to be lax in several critical areas compared with traditional state agencies.

That kind of criticism may raise doubts about whether the authority should continue to operate with the free hand of a private developer. The MSA has handled numerous large-scale construction projects that have little, if anything, to do with its original mission - from the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center/Hippodrome Theatre to a new physical education building at Coppin State University. It's been a classic case of mission creep.

Frederick W. Puddester, the Johns Hopkins University budget officer whom Gov. Martin O'Malley has nominated as the authority's new chairman, will have to grapple with these and other issues. He's well-regarded by the legislature, and that will be a plus. The less-lustrous MSA needs to demonstrate to lawmakers - and taxpayers - that it can be trusted to do the job right.

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