Howard County's economic development program has done little in the past few years to serve the county's minority business community, according to the legal counsel of the Maryland NAACP.

Charles J. Ware said the black organization's survey of the efforts by local governments to assist and contract with minority businesses shows that Howard County "really has not done a good job carrying the flag."

Howard County had contracts totaling $3.42 million with businesses owned by women and minorities during 1990 through Nov. 16, about 8 percent of the $41.7 million that the county spent in that period, according to figures the county sent Ware.

County officials revised that estimate to 12.5 percent of total county purchasing efforts after an inquiry by The Washington Post.

Ware said the discrepancy shows that county officials do not have a good handle on how much business they do with firms owned by women and members of minority groups.

"Even with the new numbers, compared to what is happening on the state level or in Baltimore City or Prince George's County, Howard County is way behind," said Ware, who also serves on County Executive Charles I. Ecker's transition team.

Ware said county officials had pledged to help minority- and women-owned firms win at least 15 percent of the county's business.

It's no secret that Howard County's economic development program flagged under County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who left office earlier this month. The county is without an economic program director, and as many as five positions on its eight-member economic advisory commission are either vacant or the appointments have lapsed.

Bobo said often during her unsuccessful reelection campaign that her efforts to protect the environment and regulate growth would do as much to help the business climate as an economic development program.

Bobo should not shoulder all of the blame, said Richard Pettingill, the county's Chamber of Commerce president. "All of us probably have some responsibility. We probably got fat and happy during the 1980s and just let it slide," he said.

Cecil E. Bray, a deputy chief administrative officer and head of the county's effort to recruit minority businesses, said several obstacles make it difficult for the county to use minority businesses. The chief one is that the county charter prohibits the county from favoring any vendor just because it is owned by women or minorities. By law, county contracts must be awarded to the lowest bidder who meets the specifications.

The only way to change the county charter is to submit the change to the voters in a referendum, Bray said.

The county has fared better, he added, when it has required primary contractors to employ minority firms as subcontractors. About 18 percent of the money spent on county construction projects goes to minority firms in this way. When the county awards primary contracts, only about 8 percent goes to minority firms.

Minority business leaders and the county should not get too hung up on numbers, said Dennis R. Schrader, another Ecker transition team member who has worked with minority business programs as part of his role as director of facilities for the University of Maryland Medical System.

"What's more important is the intent. You can do more than spend money. You can help put together a minority business network so that minority businesses are plugged into the local business community," Schrader said.

"Being successful at business involves forming relationships and cultivating people well before any contracts are signed. Too often in the past, people have focused on the numbers of dollars spent and not on finding ways to integrate minority businesses into the private sector," he said.

The Ecker administration is preparing to take steps in that direction. An Ecker aide, Beverly Wilhide, said Ecker soon will create an advisory council to identify ways to help minority businesses.

"We hope that becomes a forerunner to a minority business enterprise group that we can make part of the county's economic development program," she said.

In addition, the county is trying to identify business leaders in the minority community who can assist in future county-sponsored minority business efforts.

"I think we've heard the concerns, and we are trying to do something about it," she said.