By Cheryl W. Thompson and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
The Prince George's County Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a bill requiring that certain contracts be approved by legislative action after having expressed concern about County Executive Jack B. Johnson's awarding of millions of dollars in contracts to his friends and supporters.
The measure, introduced by Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) and council members Will Campos (D-Hyattsville) and Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), would require that individual personal service contracts of more than $100,000 and other contracts of more than $500,000 be approved by the council.
Currently, the county executive has final say in awarding contracts, regardless of the amount. Council members rarely know in advance who is receiving contracts.
"This is about good government and accountability," Dernoga said. "It doesn't take away any of his authority. It just requires an extra hurdle."
If the bill passes, it would require a change in the county's charter and would be put before voters in a Nov. 7 referendum.
William D. Missouri, chief administrative judge of Prince George's Circuit Court and a former chairman of the county's Charter Review Commission, said the legislation would not usurp the county executive's power. Instead, it would help ensure an open form of government.
"The citizens should be able to see clearly what is going on," Missouri said. "That was my concern, that it be transparent, not that it limit him."
The council bill was introduced last month after The Washington Post questioned council members about contracts awarded by Johnson. A Post report published Sunday found that Johnson had awarded 15 of his friends and political supporters 51 county contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million since he was elected almost four years ago.
The contractors included his former attorney, his campaign chairman and a golfing pal. One of the contractors -- who said Johnson later hired him -- is awaiting trial on bribery charges.
In some instances, Johnson gave contracts to supporters after he was unsuccessful in persuading the council or others to put them in county jobs. He also created more than a dozen top administrative positions and filled them with fraternity brothers and other supporters.
Several of those who were awarded contracts or jobs had no expertise in the field, and others did not produce written reports mandated by the county.
Johnson acknowledged hiring friends and giving them contracts, but said he hired "first-class people." Most of the contracts were not bid competitively.
"Some of the council members have concerns about some of the contracts that have been let and the dollar amount," said council member Camille A. Exum (D-Seat Pleasant). "We don't want to see and have to approve 3,000 contracts a year, but it's appropriate for us to have some review."
Judy Robinson, who pushed successfully in 1992 for term limits for Prince George's politicians, said the proposal is "exactly what should have been done when we set up our charter government."
Johnson spokesman Jim Keary said the bill is problematic.
"It has the potential to reduce competition, expand costs and eliminate the competitive and current process of having experts in the field to select companies," Keary said. "Before anyone moves on charter amendments, they should explore the impacts of these issues."
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), said he would likely oppose the measure.
"My inclination is to vote against it," said Hendershot, a Johnson supporter.
"I don't think the legislative branch should get in the business of approving contracts. They're getting in the business of executive authority."