Kleine on the Line Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a column called “Kleine on the Line” about the county’s embattled Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Andrew Kleine. Back then, I wrote:

Andrew Kleine is a smart guy with interesting ideas and a lot to offer. But we are now at a big moment. The chief administrative officer is the single most critical non-elected employee of county government. He or she must be beyond reproach and in total alignment with the county executive’s priorities.

The controversy over Kleine’s former business partner and his book sales, as well as the scathing letter from the unions, calls into question whether this is the case with Kleine. [County Executive Marc] Elrich must resolve these issues one way or another or his administration will pay the price.

A year later, Elrich has paid a price in the form of a searing report by the ethics commission and the inspector general detailing how Kleine steered county contracts to his business partners and converted county government into a book club. Now Kleine really is on the line as the county council is due to discuss his ethics problems in an open meeting tomorrow.

The ethics commission report by itself would generate harsh consequences in any other administration. But it is not the only issue with regard to the CAO’s record. Kleine described implementing Elrich’s campaign-era “90 Days Financial To-Do List” as one of his top priorities in November 2018, but numerous promises in that list have gone unfulfilled or under-fulfilled. The list included a ten-year financial plan (not done as of the FY21 budget), a “structural review of all departments in partnership with the county’s unions” (where is it?), an innovation fund (cut back from a $2 million request last year to one $71,545 software project) and a promise to “introduce or strengthen mechanisms that hold county leaders accountable to both other employees and to the public.” That last one reeks with irony.

There is more. Restructuring in cooperation with the unions was a major Elrich campaign promise, but since the unions have put their objections to Kleine in writing, whether this can be completed with Kleine having any part in it remains in doubt. The CAO’s office would normally have a role in approving department head nominees and the nominations of Vennard Wright (technology services) and Tonya Chapman (police department) were both train wrecks due to lack of vetting. The administration’s two-year budgeting initiative, with which Kleine was directly involved, was resisted by the county council and made no appearance in the FY21 budget. And it’s unclear whether Kleine was directly involved with the $10 million “magic asterisk,” the illegal negative appropriation in the executive’s recommended budget intended to account for phantom savings from “cost efficiencies.” But if he did have a role in it, add that to the above list.

The CAO preaches “outcome budgeting” in his book and elsewhere, but given the above record, what has been done that has yielded a positive, documented and significant financial benefit for the county?

Now let’s put all this into context. At the time of Kleine’s arrival in county government towards the end of 2018, two other events were occurring. First, Kleine’s predecessor – 12-year CAO Tim Firestine – was leaving. Unlike Kleine, who had never worked in MoCo government before, Firestine had been with the county for nearly 40 years. Before he was CAO, he was the county’s highly regarded finance director for 15 years. He was well known and well respected in both the executive and legislative branches. Firestine wasn’t warm and cuddly, but no one disputed that he was honest, competent and totally uninterested in self-promotion. He left very big shoes to fill.

The other huge event was the revelation that former economic development official Peter Bang had stolen $7 million from county government. The news was arguably the biggest scandal in county history and shocked people who had worked with Bang, who cultivated a reputation as a sharp dressing, no-nonsense professional. In the aftermath of Bang’s arrest, ethics became an even higher priority in a government that prided itself on avoiding the municipal corruption that so often plagues other jurisdictions in the region.

Into this arena descended Kleine, who immediately set out to direct county contracts to his private business partners and began promoting his book throughout county government and beyond. Bear in mind that 99% of county employees knew little or nothing of Kleine when he arrived. This was the first impression he was making on them. Say what you will about MoCo government, but it is full of professional, experienced and dedicated people – both managers and rank-and-file – who would never think of going anywhere near a conflict of interest. How did they see Kleine’s behavior? We don’t know how all of them saw it, but we do know from the ethics report that employees from two different county departments went to the ethics commission to complain. If these employees are still in county government, they are still working for Kleine even after he admitted to violating two sections of ethics law.

There has been no allegation of criminal activity by Kleine but he is guilty of extremely bad judgment that went on for months. How can he remain in his current role? He is the administrative head of county government. The next time he appears before the county council (in person or virtually), he has to know that all nine of them will be thinking about his ethics violations. The same goes for his own employees. Is there a senior manager anywhere in county government who has not read the ethics report? How can Kleine command the respect and good will any CAO needs to run the government?

The other question here is: where was Elrich? In the spring of 2019, rumors were everywhere about Kleine’s book promotion and his contractors. Was Elrich completely unaware of what was happening or was he aware and saw nothing wrong with it? Neither scenario is appealing. Kleine is the most senior non-elected person in the administration and reports to only one person – Elrich. If Kleine remains CAO after a slap on the wrist, it’s an open question as to whether Elrich is capable of firing anyone – or even disciplining them – for misconduct. What impact will that have on the culture of the executive branch?

That brings us to the county council, which is due to discuss Kleine at an open meeting tomorrow. The council can’t discipline Kleine directly – that is the prerogative of Elrich alone. But the council’s views on Kleine relate to a major theme of this term: the council’s lack of respect for the Elrich administration. The council has voted down Elrich’s labor agreements, rejected his approach to fixing the county’s balky public safety communications system, rejected his tax hike proposal (on the very day he offered it), rewritten his second budget, rejected his first nominee for police chief, passed its own set of health regulations in protest of his performance on COVID testing and regularly ignores his input on legislation. Then came Elrich’s hot mic joke that the council is allegedly “fact proof,” which drew harsh responses from Council Members Nancy Navarro and Gabe Albornoz. It’s hard to imagine the council having an even worse opinion of the administration, but if it comes to believe that Elrich tolerates unethical conduct, his influence will dwindle to zero. That’s obviously bad for Elrich. It’s also not so great for the daily function of county government.