IF ANYONE is having trouble following Maryland's latest contracting flap, over the management of the $721-million Baltimore subway project, it may help to keep one fact firmly in mind. That is that the state Board of Public Works is not some antiseptic, apolitical regulatory agency. Instead, the board consists of Gov. Marvin Mandel or, now, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, plus Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and Treasurer William S. James - and these highly political people are now trying to get themselves out of a sticky political spot.
The situation is stickiest, of course, for Mr. Lee. He can't afford to have his gubernatorial tryout tarnished from the start by even the appearance of a continuing involvement in trying to twist the state's contracting rules for the benefit of influentifal Baltimore contractor Victor Frenkil.On the other hand, Mr. Lee - while making nice, general anticorruption statements - apparently can't bring himself to acknowledge flat-out that the Mandel-Lee administration was wrong in stalling and maneuvering so transparently to avoid giving a contracting plum to the out-of-state company that had been rated as professionally best qualified.
So Mr. Lee and his colleagues on the public works board have been backing and filling a lot. Last week they announced that awarding a management contract as not necessary at all because the state mass-transit agency could superintend the project itself. The irrepressible Mr. Goldstein even claimed to have favored that approach from the start, though the board as a whole decided against it two years ago. Now, however, the state transportation department has added up what in-house management of this huge project would involve - including wholesale waivers of state personnel and pay policies, the recruiting of a large team of experts in a very short time and construction delays that could cost the state around $1 million a month.
In view of those complications, the whole matter is now being "studied" some more. That is silly. The people who should be studying this case are federal investigators - and Maryland voters, who have an obvious interest in finding out whether Mr. Lee's approach to state administration differs from the buddy system that has been so pervasive in Maryland for so long. The Mandel-Lee administration ought to pick a contractor in the approved, non-political way, without any more dallying, and get the subway project back to track. That's the proper way to conduct public business. And there's a fine example close at hand: The Washington transit agency, whatever its other flaws, has gotten its $5-billion subway well along the road to completion without even a hint of corruption in its contracting. It is some kind of commentary on the play of politics in certain circles in Maryland that the Baltimore subway is clouded by scandal before the digging has really begun.