Circling the wagons in Baltimore County.

No one circles the wagons more quickly and tightly than Baltimore County government officials. Ann Constantino of the Baltimore Post found that out last week when she tried to review the files in the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to which I referred in my post “The Culture of Soft Corruption in Baltimore County.”

Long story short, the contents of those files are likely to disclose the legal justification – if any – for the decision by the Kamenetz administration to cut down 30 perimeter trees on the site of the proposed development known as Towson Station (formerly known as Towson Gateway) in contravention of a condition placed on the development by the County Council that the trees be preserved. The information in those files, required by State and County forest conservation laws, is critical to determining whether one or more County officials violated forest conservation laws.

We know that County officials violated the legislated will of the County Council as memorialized in Resolution No. 113-16 by cutting down the trees. If they did so while also violating State and County forest conservation laws the problem gets even more serious, and we could then be talking about possible criminal charges.

I am not going to try to describe the runaround that Ms. Constantino received from various County employees when she made a simple request to review the files, which are open to public inspection as a matter of law. You must read about it in her story – and see it in a video posted with the story – to believe it. It is even humorous, if you can find humor in an obvious attempt by county officials to frustrate access to files that Ms. Constantino had the right to inspect. [“Elusive Towson Gateway Records Key to Legal Dilemma,” The Baltimore Post, October 3, 2017.]

One other thing that also comes through in her story is that there are rank-and-file employees in Baltimore County government who try to do the right thing, perhaps at the risk of offending their superiors. If these employees are thinking about their futures after Messrs. Kamenetz and Homan leave County government, then that probably is a good idea.

The reputation of the current administration for its opaqueness and hostility to anyone who gets in its way has become widespread throughout the County, and employees deemed to be part of that problem may encounter problems hanging onto their jobs when the administration changes in 2018 – depending, of course, on who is elected County Executive. Time for employees to be thinking about their own reputations.

Finding out anything from Baltimore County officials that they are reticent to disclose can be like the Hunt for Red October.  I had my most recent frustrating experience with a County official when I tried to contact the County Auditor her to ask her if her office is auditing the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy.

The Office of the County Auditor is an independent agency in the Legislative Branch of County government. The County Auditor is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the County Council, not the County Executive. The County Council, however, is equally adept at circling the wagons and stonewalling the public and media. Council Chairman Tom Quirk was singularly unhelpful when I began my inquiry into the remarkably generous Baltimore County Executive Benefit Policy that was rescinded by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz not long after an op ed that I wrote about it appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

The County Auditor is Lauren Smelkinson, although you would not know that from the website of the Office of County Auditor, which for some reason does not list her by name. After trying to reach her by telephone and email without success, I think I may know why – she doesn’t appear to like to answer questions, at least not mine. Maybe she just likes to keep a low profile.

In any case, she has an extremely important job with the County, charged by law with ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent in compliance with the law and only for the purposes for which it was appropriated. As of 2016 she was paid an annual salary of $176,904 to serve as the County’s fiscal watchdog.

I acknowledge the possibility that Ms. Smelkinson’s reluctance to return my telephone calls could have something to do with personal dislike for me, although I don’t know that because we’ve never spoken. After the County Executive rescinded the Executive Benefit Policy, the County Council also rescinded the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy. The Legislative Branch Benefits Policy conferred benefits on appointed officials in the Legislative Branch, including Ms. Smelkinson, that were similar to benefits under the Executive Benefit Policy.

The benefits under both policies included “severance pay” for officials who left County employment. For Ms. Smelkinson, that would have amounted to a lump-sum payment of about $39,000, in addition to any pension benefit that she may have earned by her service with the County. If Ms. Smelkinson is upset with me about the loss of that benefit, then all that I can do is assure her that it was nothing personal.

I have no doubt that Ms. Smelkinson is an honest and competent professional. I’d sure like to see her change her attitude, however, about answering simple questions from members of the public. To be blunt, I believe she is compensated well enough to be a little more responsive to County citizens such as myself.

The County Auditor needs to do an audit to determine whether an admitted irregularity in the administration of vacation leave under the Executive Benefit Policy resulted in the misappropriation of County money. It is a point that I made in a prior post and explained in a recent memorandum, Memo, grounds for audit 9 21 17 .  I’ve pressed members of the County Council (including Mr. Quirk) without success to use the Council’s power under the County Charter to direct an audit.

Two weeks ago, I left two telephone messages with Ms. Smelkinson and, when she didn’t return the calls, I followed them up with an email. I had a simple question. I know that the County Council has not ordered an audit, but I wanted to know if she had initiated an audit of the Executive Benefit Policy on her own volition. All I needed was a “yes” or a “no.”

In my opinion, there is no legitimate reason for her not to answer the question. Compliance audits of the type we are talking about need not be done in secret, and involve the review of existing personnel, payroll and financial records kept by the County in the ordinary course of its business. So why not answer a simple question? When folks circle the wagons, they generally are trying to protect someone or something, and I am starting to get suspicious.

Last week I got a little more forceful, sending Ms. Smelkinson an email stating that if she continued refusing to answer my question I would be forced to write about her refusal to answer my question, rather than about the information that I was seeking from her. She responded with an email on September 27th stating: “There was no refusal on my part to respond to you. I will be responding to your request.”

Well, I give her credit for parsing language – failing to answer my question is not necessarily refusing to answer it. On the other hand, here we are a week later and she still hasn’t answered it, so at this point I am considering her failure to answer my question to be a refusal to do so. Ms. Smelkinson and I may just have to agree to disagree on what constitutes a “refusal” to respond.

I am hoping the next County Executive ushers in a new era of openness and transparency in the Executive Branch of Baltimore County government, and appoints department heads who don’t hide from the media and consider ordinary members of the public to be the enemy. And maybe the members of the County Council who take office next year will find a County Auditor who is a little more forthcoming with concerned citizens.

PS. Ms. Smelkinson, I’d still like an answer to my question: Are you doing an audit of the Executive Benefit Policy, or aren’t you?  I thank you in advance for your assistance.

October 4, 2017

 

 

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