Turf field, audit bow together

2 events linked to controversial pact

August 12, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun Reporter

The first artificial turf field approved as part of a controversial $10.7 million contract between Anne Arundel County and a politically connected landscaping company will be unveiled this afternoon - hours after an audit of the contract is slated to be released.

The North County High School field is the first to be completed by Sunny Acres Landscaping, which was awarded the contract this spring to install the athletic fields in a sealed, competitive process.

County Council members ordered an audit in May and froze funding for the project after it was disclosed that Sunny Acres had no experience with artificial turf and had not disclosed its political ties before the contract was awarded.

The audit will be released this morning, county auditor Teresa Sutherland said yesterday. She declined to give more information about her office's findings.

Dennis M. Callahan, the county's chief administrative officer, said that he had not seen the final report, but that he had been told that the allegations amount to "a whole lot of nothing." The date for the unveiling of the field was set about a month ago and it is a coincidence that the audit will be released on the same day, he said.

The turf field at North County is "an absolute first-class facility," he said, and is "on track and on time."

The family that owns Sunny Acres has substantial political connections. Les Belcher III, the company's vice president, unsuccessfully ran for the state legislature in 2006. Fred Schram, the director of the county's central services division, which approved the turf contract, contributed to Belcher's campaign. Schram also plays golf with the company's president, Les Belcher Jr., a fellow member of the Old South Country Club.

The wife of the younger Belcher sits on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee with an aide to County Executive John R. Leopold. She is also the sister of Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., a Glen Burnie Republican.

At an April County Council meeting, a member of the Public Works Department told Councilman Jamie Benoit that "Sunny Acres has prior experience," according to the minutes of the meeting, but officials later acknowledged that the company had not worked with artificial turf before.

Sunny Acres cut ties with AstroLawn Sales & Service and Paul Johnson, two subcontractors that had previously been named to work on the project. The subcontractors later raised questions about Sunny Acres' bid, but company executives and county officials dismised the concerns.

The fields will be used by participants in county recreation programs as well as high school students. School superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who was not involved in the deal, said that, controversy aside, he is glad that the field at the Glen Burnie high school will be ready for use as teams prepare for the fall season.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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