Harford County Council moving back into black box, but the cost is high [Editorial]

January 22, 2013|Editorial from The Aegis

At least in theory, the Harford County Council is supposed to be the county's part time citizen legislature, responsible for responding to the needs of the voters when the executive branch fails to do so.

Supposedly, the council also should be acting as a check on potential largesse in the county executive's budget. And it is also supposed to, from time to time, draft and enact new legislation to deal with local problems.

In recent years, the council has generally failed when it comes to drafting and enacting new legislation. There have been a few instances of legislation originating in the council, but much of what the council acts on is proposed and submitted on behalf of the executive branch.

It could be argued that the council has had some success with constituent services. Various members have shown themselves to be very adept at showing up at community meetings and expressing sympathy when people are upset by an issue they have little or no control over, like Walmart's plan to move from Abingdon to the southern end of Bel Air. Unfortunately, while a lot of sympathy is shown, the council has done very little in terms of legislation when it comes to dealing with community concerns.

Then there's the matter of spending.

On the subject of budget reviews, the county council consistently sits in a reviewing booth each spring over what amounts to a parade of department heads presenting budget requests. Very few questions are asked. Even fewer cuts or adjustments are made. The county spends in the neighborhood of $600 million in taxpayer money each year, and the county council's actions result in, at most, shifting or cutting a scant few hundred thousand or even a few million.

Unfortunately, it's all too easy to see how this has evolved, and the county council's move this month back to the Black Box building is illustrative of the problem.

A few years back, the county council was forced from its longtime home in the County Courthouse because of increased space needs on the part of the Circuit Court operation. About the same time, the Black Box, previously in private hands, but increasingly being leased to the county government for office space, came on the market. The county purchased it and the county council's office and public meeting room were moved there.

Then two years ago, the Black Box was deemed questionable in terms of its structural integrity, and the council relocated to other county offices at 18 Office St. in the Courthouse Square, space the council probably could have occupied instead of the Black Box when it was forced out of the courthouse.

Then last year, there were two key developments. First, the supposedly part-time council whose members draw salaries many would be happy to receive for full-time work, authorized the hiring of an aide for each of the council members. Previously, the council as a whole had a relatively small, shared staff. The second thing that happened is the Black Box became structurally sound again. Some of the offices were re-occupied, and the council went back to using its public meeting room, but initially the council chose to keep its offices at the 18 Office St. location.

Now, however, the council has decided to move back to the Black Box, and the reason is because there's just not enough room for the council members offices and the offices of their individual aides. Previously, it had settled into the Office Street location and had planned to remain there.

All of which lead to a few questions that will probably go unanswered, until there's a shift to a more studious posture on the part of the council:

• If there was room on Office Street, was the purchase of the Black Box really necessary?

• If the county council had planned to stay at the Office Street location after the Black Box was back in working order, why didn't it look into options for selling the landmark building?

• And, most importantly, does anyone really believe the council will be able to serve as a better check on county spending, or in any other way improve its performance, by employing seven new full-time political appointees?

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