Harford becomes pawn in the Towson University tempest [Commentary]


Yet again, Harford County's lack of pull in the circles of influence in Annapolis has proven not only embarrassing, but also detrimental to the county's citizenry.

Last week, the Maryland Board of Public Works voted, 2-1, to delay appropriating money to allow construction to start on a Harford County campus of Towson University that's planned as a major addition to and partnership with Harford Community College.

To be clear, this has all the trappings of a tempest in a teapot. Two members of the three-member board – Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot – voted against allocating $25,000 for a pre-construction management contract (Nancy Kopp, the state treasurer, was the vote in favor of the contract). Previously, the board had approved $21.5 million for construction of the Towson U. operation at Campus Hills, so essentially voting against the $25,000 contract is not a deal-breaker in the long term.

Indeed, according to a Baltimore Sun story by Carrie Wells, the action came not so much as a power play against anyone in Harford County, but rather because Towson University cut the baseball and men's soccer programs. That is to say, the move was designed to show the leadership of Towson University who is in charge of Maryland's university system.

As an aside, it's worth noting that the governor's wife, Judge Katie Curran O'Malley, is an alumnus of Towson University, albeit from the days when the school went by Towson State University. It seems pretty clear the governor, or the comptroller, or both, felt a bit slighted with regard to the university's action to curtail two athletics programs of a kind that are high profile on most any college campus.

When the university made the move, it was done, by the way, for the purpose of balancing male and female participation in athletics so the school would be in compliance with federal Title IX rules, as well as to balance the athletics department budget. It wasn't to slight the sensibilities of a particular power-broker in state government. Slighted, however, it appears is how the powers that be felt about the move.

A reality of certain aspects of governmental relationships is that the quickest and most effective way for a particular official to demonstrate displeasure with a particular agency or office's actions is to fiddle with the budget. Apocryphal or based in reality, tales are legion in state government about how a particularly well-placed official was able to have an errant public official transferred to a work site far from home simply by shifting a few budgetary line items to eliminate a position, or move it from, by way of example, Worcester County to Garrett.

In this instance, there's every reason to believe the people whose attention the governor, or the comptroller, was trying to get are clearly focused and the matter of the $25,000 contract will be reconsidered in short order.

The problem for people living Harford County is that the Towson University – Harford Community College construction project was an easy target for someone on the board of public works looking to make a point unrelated to that project. What is there to be lost? Harford County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly is, on the whole, ineffectual and largely without meaningful influence, owing to the Republican Party-first political tactics favored by most of its members.

If members of the local delegation were able to disagree with the political majority in Annapolis without being so disagreeable, possibly they would be able to secure more things most people can agree on, like money for institutions of higher learning.

And, possibly, the leadership in the majority wouldn't be so cavalier about using an important project for Harford County as a pawn in the great game that is Maryland politics.

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