Council Votes for Contract Oversight

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

The Prince George's County Council voted yesterday to give itself oversight of certain contracts, acting just days after revelations about contracts awarded by County Executive Jack B. Johnson to friends and supporters.

The proposed charter amendment, approved by a vote of 6 to 3, would require the county executive to submit to the council personal services contracts valued at more than $100,000 and other contracts worth more than $500,000. Currently, the county executive has sole authority to award county contracts.

The proposed charter change is to be put before county voters in a referendum Nov. 7.

The council vote came five days after a Washington Post article revealed that in the past four years, Johnson (D) had awarded 15 of his friends and political supporters 51 county contracts worth nearly $3.3 million.

Some contractors were paid to advise the county on matters in which they had little experience, and some failed to produce required reports about their work, The Post found. Johnson awarded contracts to his former attorney, the chairman of his campaign and a golfing friend. In some cases, he gave contracts to friends after other county officials declined to put them on the county payroll. He also created more than a dozen high-level jobs and filled them with friends and supporters.

Johnson has acknowledged giving jobs and contracts to friends, but he said he employs "first-class people."

Council members said their action was unrelated to the recent Post story. They characterized the charter change as part of a package of long-discussed proposals designed to provide a better balance between the council and executive. Yesterday's vote came at a hastily called meeting that occurred when the council had been scheduled to be on vacation.

"This is an attempt to begin to look at whether there should be some balance of authority between the executive and legislative branches of government," council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly) said in an interview.

Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who voted against the measure, said it would give the council more power than legislative bodies in other Maryland jurisdictions.

Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), who also opposed the change, said he was concerned the oversight could impede the awarding of contracts to minority-owned businesses.

In addition to Hendershot and Peters, Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) opposed the bill. In addition to Harrington, voting in favor were Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton), William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) and Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant).

Johnson is seeking reelection to a second term. In the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, he faces former state delegate Rushern L. Baker III, who this week criticized Johnson's contracting practices. In a statement issued Tuesday, Baker said the story "has raised some very serious issues for this county." But he said it was for federal officials and State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) to decide whether an investigation should take place.

Ivey said yesterday that he had started no investigations "based on the article," and would not comment further.

A spokesman for Johnson said Monday that the measure was problematic and that subjecting contracts to council approval could reduce competition and increase costs.

The council has approved several other proposed charter amendments for the November ballot, including one that would provide broad new protections to whistle-blowers in county government, prohibiting disciplinary action against any employee for giving information to the county auditor. The amendment, approved by the County Council last month, also would greatly increase the power of the auditor to investigate alleged wrongdoing.

Also yesterday, the council approved a proposed charter change that would require its consent before the executive could create jobs in any county agency.

In all, voters will consider eight separate ballot measures to amend the county charter in November.

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