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Prince George's County

Johnson Takes Bigger Steps to Promote Area

Costs of Trip To Western Africa So Far Unknown

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C04

Jack B. Johnson has pretty much stayed close to home during his nearly two years as Prince George's county executive. He has been to Florida and Texas to meet with executives involved with the county's planned National Harbor development, and he traveled to Nevada to tout Prince George's at an annual convention of retailers.

But lately he's ventured outside the United States.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson's trip to Western Africa combined cultural exchanges and trade promotion. (2003 Photo Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

Johnson (D) returned yesterday from a cultural and economic mission to Western Africa. He was joined on the 10-day excursion to Senegal and Gambia by eight county employees, including a member of his security detail.

During a week-long stay in Ziguinchor, Senegal, Johnson attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a business center named in the county's honor. The county donated $5,000 to purchase computer equipment and set up Internet access for the center, and members of his delegation delivered 10 used computers to a Ziguinchor school and assessed the area's roads and water system.

County officials did not release a budget for the trip or the cost to county taxpayers.

"I don't have it," Michael D. Herman, Johnson's chief of staff, said of the cost breakdown. "A couple of the people involved with the trip have that information. I'm not going to venture an estimate." Ola Hill, the county's director of community affairs, handled the travel arrangements but was unreachable because she was still traveling, said James P. Keary, a spokesman for Johnson.

Hill was part of a delegation that traveled to Royal Bafokeng in South Africa, another of the county's sister cities, in August 2003 to celebrate the crowning of a king in the region. The county paid for four employees to go to South Africa at a cost of about $7,000.

After leaving Senegal last week, Johnson and the group, which included 25 business owners and leaders from Prince George's, traveled to Gambia for three days to meet with business and government leaders about a trade deal with the Gambian government.

The initial leg of the trip was part of the county's sister-cities program with Senegal.

"This has been a long-term relationship of sharing of ideas, sharing of culture between the county and Senegal," Keary said. "It's an opportunity, and Jack Johnson is taking this opportunity to make it an economic development exploration."

Although the trip to Africa was Johnson's first official overseas trip, other county politicians in the Washington region have gone abroad to drum up business opportunities. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), for example, has taken five trips abroad in 10 years. Two of Duncan's trips -- a trade mission to Scotland and a biotech conference in Toronto -- were paid for, in part, by the county. The Scotland trip in 2001 was with two county employees and cost $2,100 per person; the county paid only for Duncan's flight to Toronto, according to Joseph Shapiro of the county's Department of Economic Development.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) has flown to China, Israel and several countries in Europe during his seven years in office. Vicki Goodman, a spokeswoman for Robey, said that Robey was the guest of various groups on the three trips and that no taxpayer money was spent.

Johnson's trip took him out of Prince George's this month as problems mounted at home.

The 2006 budget is due to the County Council this week. State lawmakers are weighing whether to give additional support to financially troubled Prince George's Hospital Center. And county leaders, police officials and residents have been discussing how to deal with a rising homicide rate. This year, there have been 37 slayings in the county, nearly twice as many as last year at this time.

"I am surprised that he would be in Africa during a murder crisis," former delegate Rushern L. Baker III, widely considered an aspirant for county executive in 2006, said at a rally last week. "Hopefully, he is there recruiting police officers."

Johnson has announced several measures to try to quell the killing, including identifying 22 crime-infested apartment complexes, and suggesting that they could be shut down, for being incubators of crime.

Keary, Johnson's spokesman, added: "He'll be back for the budget, and most of the legislation [affecting the county] that is going to get through is through. This trip will be very productive."

Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.

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