The Howard County Auditor’s Office investigated a complaint of alleged misuse of the Howard County Library System’s Central Branch Library in Columbia. The investigation report was viewed by many community members as racially insensitive and unnecessary. (TBM / Jason Whong)

The Howard County Council is considering legislation to amend the County Code relating to the duties and processes of one of its own appointees.

Council Bill 11, introduced on March 6 by Council Chair Christiana Rigby (D-Dist. 3) and Councilman Opel Jones (D-Dist. 1), seeks to establish official and public processes for audits by the Howard County Auditor’s Office.

The Council was scheduled to receive public testimony during its March 20 legislative public hearing.

The new bill was drafted in response to a recent investigation and report by the Howard County Office of the Auditor that has been viewed by many community members as racially insensitive and unnecessary.

At issue is the County Auditor’s Office investigation into a complaint of alleged misuse of the Howard County Library System’s facilities to host a private partnership event on Oct. 7, 2022, for the Iota Lambda Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

In his report, Howard County Auditor Craig Glendenning said his office was unable to conduct an examination/investigation because of an inability to obtain the HCLS’ unrestricted cooperation.

The original report further detailed the race and attire of visitors observed entering the HCLS Central Branch on the evening of the event and visible in photos of the event posted on social media. It also noted the presence of a Howard County Sheriff’s Office vehicle in the parking lot.

Transparency issue

In response to the report filed by the County Auditor’s office, a committee appointed by the HCLS Board of Trustees conducted its own investigation, which concluded that the use of the Equity Resource Center by a third-party charitable organization was a proper use of library facilities and was consistent with policies established by the Board of Trustees.

“Other than the screen shot from the organization’s local chapter’s website referenced in the Auditor’s Report, the committee has found no other evidence indicating that the public was excluded from the event, or that persons other than members of the organization were barred from attending,” wrote Antonia Watts, chair of the HCLS Board of Trustees.

Councilman Jones said the council’s constituency has registered a high volume of concern regarding the lack of transparency in the process and fact-finding of the audit and its report.

“A racially divisive tone was threaded throughout the audit report which is not consistent or written in prior audit reports,” he said, which “casts doubt and left our constituents questioning aspects of local government.”

In a statement addressed to the community, Rigby and Jones said the published report contained “accusations, inaccuracies, and impressions” rather than a collection of impartial evidence with findings of fact.

“The actions of the Office of the Auditor went well beyond the scope of authority,” they wrote. “We are deeply concerned with the leadership, impartiality, and judgment of the Auditor and the Lead Investigator.”

Rigby and Jones have called for the termination of both individuals. Protesters also called for their termination at a rally held outside of the Howard Building ahead of the Council’s March 6 meeting.

Legislative changes

The new legislation filed by Rigby and Jones requires the Howard County Auditor’s Office to meet with the County Council and outline the scope of future audits prior to beginning an investigation.

“This includes informing the Council of allegations and known facts, rationale for the audit, audit standards, timeline of the audit, witnesses that will be interviewed, and other information the Council may require,” council members wrote. “Further, before the Auditor’s Office publishes the final audit report to the public, they are required to meet with the County Council to discuss the preliminary draft and findings. The legislation brings clarity and includes the Council in the process of conducting audits.”

In written testimony, Amanda Noble, chair of the Association of Local Government Auditors, expressed concern that CB-11 would limit the ability of the Howard County Auditor’s Office to perform certain audits independently.

“Elected officials can hold audit organizations accountable without jeopardizing their independence by requiring the organization to undergo peer review in accordance with professional standards and by establishing and tracking performance measures,” she wrote.

A Fiscal Impact statement from the Auditor’s Office indicates CB-11 could result in a savings of $5,000 for the county, budgeted for scheduled peer review from the ALGA.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Liz Walsh has proposed a different path forward that would call for a third-party review of the existing body of work of the Office of the County Auditor to assess its conformance with accepted norms and standards, and new legislation to clarify the respective roles and authority of the council and the auditor with respect to charter-described audits, examinations and investigations.

“[M]y office is proposing a reassignment of certain duties and obligations now performed by the Office of the County Auditor to a newly established Office of the Inspector General,” Walsh said.

Tonya Aiken, HCLS president and CEO, issued the following statement:

“Howard County Library System appreciates the County Council’s vote to review procedures for investigation processes and reporting going forward.”