Howard County Council passes bill to require more procedures for auditor

Published 4/3/2023 9:53 p.m. EDT, Updated 4/4/2023 1:20 p.m. EDT

Credit: Howard County Library System

The Howard County Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve legislation that puts in place additional procedures the county auditor is required to follow during certain special investigations, after a description of race in a February report published by the office sparked public protest and calls for the county auditor to be fired.

Before the county auditor begins a special audit, the bill requires that the council is informed of the rationale for the audit, the allegations that will be reviewed, the witnesses that will be interviewed and anything else they request. It also requires the county auditor to provide a preliminary draft of any special audit to the council before it is published.

The bill was introduced in March by council members Christiana Rigby and Opel Jones as a “protective measure” to ensure the county auditor follows the law, Rigby said in a work session last week.

The vote comes after both council members called for County Auditor Craig Glendenning to be fired in February over an audit report on an investigation into the Howard County Library System they argued went “well beyond the scope of authority” of the office and used a “racially insensitive tone, language, and approach.”

Glendenning did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday evening.

The bill initially required the county auditor to arrange a meeting with the County Council to discuss certain audits and for the procedures to apply to a broader scope of audits, including financial and management audits, but amendments approved Monday removed those aspects of the legislation, significantly altering the bill.

The February report investigated an anonymous complaint in October about an event held at the library system’s new Equity Resource Center by a sorority organization honoring its 50th anniversary. The complainant alleged the event was held for the “personal benefit” of the library system’s president and CEO, Tonya Aikens, and claimed she was a member of the sorority and used taxpayer dollars to pay county workers to staff the event.

In an original draft of the audit, an investigator wrote that “African American women wearing white dresses were entering the building,” and added that photos on the internet later showed Aikens had also been present at the event, among other observations.

In its own report, the library system’s board of trustees refuted the allegations and criticized the auditor’s decision to single out the race and gender of the sorority members, as well as what they were wearing.

Although Aikens attended the event, the board stated she had no role in planning it and was not a member of the sorority involved, nor any sorority.

Since the report was released, community leaders have held repeated protests to demand that Glendenning be fired and to call for the county to apologize to the sorority and the library system. Howard County residents have filled the room during discussions over the bill, and testified for hours in support of it during public hearings.

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Rev. Larry Walker, a deputy pastor at Celebration Church in Columbia, who has organized protests related to the issue, called the allegations “a racist attack on Black women” and argued it would have taken one phone call to discover Aikens was not a part of the sorority.

“I want to know how in the world that detail has anything to do about misuse of facility, except to besmirch the reputation of a group of people,” Walker said about the report’s inclusion of descriptions of race in a February interview with The Banner.

Some who testified in support of the bill denounced the county auditor’s surveillance of attendees, calling it “doxxing” and arguing it put them in danger. Others who supported the bill mentioned that in no other audit had investigators pointed out the race of those involved.

“Is it a crime for African American women to assemble? Is it suspicious for African American women to wear white dresses and attend a function? Is it nefarious for African American women to conduct community service and celebrate 50 plus years of volunteerism in Howard County?” Councilman Jones asked Monday before the vote. “Is that a crime, Mr. Glendenning?”

Jones also denounced Glendenning’s decision to begin the investigation in October — roughly a month before asking for approval from the council to begin the investigation, as is required — and continued to call for his removal.