Sorry State of a County

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, April 27, 2007

Let's just put it right out there: Despite some stiff competition, Prince George's County may now have the most dysfunctional and ethically challenged political leadership in the Washington region.

Major decisions are made not on the basis of what is best for the public, but what is best for elected officials and their supporters.

What started out as reasonable attempts to create business opportunity for African American businessmen has turned into an effort to direct money and contracts and investment opportunities to politically connected and community organizations.

The results not only include inferior public services but a growing reputation among developers and other businesses that it's expensive, risky and frustrating to try to do business with Prince George's County.

I base this conclusion not only on the basis of much fine reporting by reporters at The Post and the Prince George's Gazette, but on the basis of several dozen conversations in recent months with developers, lawyers, business executives, state officials and hard-working employees of the county government. These people are not naive -- they've been around the track many times and are aware of the realities of politics, the role of favors and the need to satisfy powerful interests and noisy political constituencies. Even these people are appalled at the arrogance and the brazenness of the county's elected officials.

This is a county that extracts money from developers for community projects -- and then puts it in the hands of a committee of political insiders who direct it to politically powerful churches and to private schools attended by their own children.

This is a county that has complained for years that it is neglected by quality retailers and restaurants -- and then, when the establishments announce plans to come, fails to deliver the necessary wine and beer licenses because of a feud within the county's legislative delegation or because some legislator felt he had not been treated with the "proper respect."

Here is a county council that now routinely uses extraordinary powers to take jurisdiction over developments already okayed by the planning board, holding up approval until developers agree to give them funds to hand out to community groups or take on certain minority businessmen as consultants or partners.

And I didn't even mention the police department or the schools.

But none of these outrages compares to the screw-up surrounding the county's troubled hospital system that not only struggles to provide adequate medical care, but has cost county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to cover operating losses and will surely cost them tens of millions more.

The nonprofit entity chartered to run the county hospitals had anticipated the financial troubles back in 1997 and began a search for an experienced private operator to take over the system. By the end of 2000, the board of Dimensions Healthcare System had at least two interested bidders who were willing to invest $50 million for needed capital improvements, guarantee indigent care and make a cash payment of tens of millions of dollars to the county. But to move forward, the county would have to agree to transfer ownership of hospital system's land and buildings, which Dimension occupied under a long-term lease.

The county executive at the time, Wayne Curry, chose not to get involved with the hospital mess. But when Jack B. Johnson took over as county executive in 2003, it quickly became obvious that his intention was not to get out of the hospital business, but to take more control of a system he considered badly managed and too closely tied to the county's old-boy political establishment.

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