St. Mary's County commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) challenged a staff procurement official this week to justify why a contract was granted to the St. Mary's Today weekly newspaper to publish county government advertisements.

In recent years the display, legal and classified advertisements -- on which the county spent $190,000 last year -- appeared in the Enterprise, St. Mary's twice-a-week paper. Despite the weekly's smaller print circulation, the advertising contract was awarded Oct. 4 to St. Mary's Today, a publication that has frequently criticized McKay's leadership.

Carol Gallagher, the county's procurement manager, told McKay that St. Mary's Today was the low bidder for the advertisements, which alert residents to the doings of local government, so she and county finance director Elaine Kramer, along with County Administrator George Forrest, awarded the contract to the weekly paper. Gallagher said that although the Enterprise reported a circulation of 15,000, about 10,000 more papers than St. Mary's Today, the weekly reported more than 2 million "hits" -- or visits -- to its Web site in July.

"So when you're considering best value, it's always a dilemma, what do you consider best value?" Gallagher asked. "St. Mary's Today LLC was the low bidder."

McKay criticized the officials' decision to include the Internet viewing figures in their consideration of the two publications' bids.

"Do you have any experience with the advertising industry?" McKay asked. "The objective is not to reach as many people as possible?"

If county government departments choose to advertise in the Enterprise, too, "now we have to spend more in order to go into two papers?" McKay asked. "Have we really saved the citizens money?"

The Enterprise is owned by Southern Maryland Newspapers group, which in turn is owned by Gazette Newspapers Inc., a division of The Washington Post Co.

McKay and Gallagher did not return calls seeking comment after their exchange at Tuesday's regular meeting of the county commissioners. St. Mary's Today editor and publisher Kenneth C. Rossignol referred inquiries to his attorney, Michael Suessman, who could not be reached Tuesday. Karen Acton, president and publisher of Southern Maryland Newspapers said she would send her comments about the issue in a written statement but did not do so Tuesday.

In an article in the Enterprise last week, McKay expressed displeasure about the St. Mary's Today contract, calling the newspaper a "scandalous rag" and saying advertising in a smaller circulation newspaper would be akin to hiding what county government is doing.

At Tuesday's meeting, he also noted that county government had not sought bids for the advertising contract for the past four years.

"Why didn't we bid in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004?" he asked. "Why were we spending $190,000 worth of citizens' money without bidding?"

Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said he was "not going to get into the quality of the publication, whether it's the appropriate publication" for the county's ads.

"There was a proposal put out for bid, it went through the public process, the lowest bidder came to be St. Mary's Today, and according to the procurement official he's met all the requirements," Mattingly said.

"We need to see how it plays out," he added. "If we find that the information is not getting out adequately or if we get a lot of complaints about it . . . then I think we'll have to go back and take a look at it and see if we have to modify the process we're using."