Lighthizer Leaves Behind A Legacy Of Mixed Opinions Executive Defends Spending, Projects

December 02, 1990|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

The formal farewells to outgoing County Executive O. James Lighthizer began with a flourish in August when he was greeted with a marching band at the last O. James Lighthizer Annual Senior Picnic.

A noisy, chaotic line of county employees and seniors activists strutted by the only Democrat ever elected executive under 25 years of charter government. His term ends today with the inauguration of Republican Robert R. Neall.

The picnic was the perfect place to begin the post-mortems for Lighthizer, considering that he more than tripled the Department of Aging's budget during his eight years -- despite a relative decline in support from the state and federal governments.

Mixing with a throng of candidates seeking votes at the picnic, Lighthizer ran across plenty of people with opinions on whether he had fulfilled his prime objective of improving the quality of life.

"I just wish you could run again," an elderly man told Lighthizer, whom the county charter bars from serving a third consecutive term.

But a second man approached with a fierce smile and said, "I just wish you could run again, so I could vote against you a third time."

He went on to blast Lighthizer for doubling county spending with his ambitious plans for expanded services.

"But you don't mind coming here and eating hot dogs and hamburgers," said the nonplused politician, the only executive of a large Maryland jurisdiction to produce a balanced budget this year.

Within the space of five minutes, Lighthizer had heard from one resident who voiced full support for his priorities and another who resented how he used taxpayers' money.

In their own way, they summed up Lighthizer's impact on the county during his time in office.


"Never was a county executive faced with the problem of drugs like Jim Lighthizer. He faced it and dealt with it."

-- Joseph "Zastrow" Simms

Zastrow Simms is an Annapolis native who has spent 20 years as an unofficial ambassador to the black community for county and Annapolis governments.

The employee of the county's Drug and Alcohol program praised Lighthizer for his response to the flood of crack cocaine that has spread through the county in the past three years. He said Lighthizer has made finding alternatives to life on the streets one of his top priorities.

Pacing around his Arundel Center office in Annapolis and listing his accomplishments Thursday, Lighthizer transforms into a municipal George Burns as he punctuates his words with his ever-present cigar.

"The first battered-spouse shelter, a good homeless shelter, Chrysalis House. The stuff we did for people with drug problems, starting Pathways, Hope House. Things we did for people, that's what I hope is not missed," he says.

The numbers suggest the county has made some progress helping its poorest residents.

While the number of households below the poverty line climbed to 9,460 last year, up 22 percent from 1980, social services spending rose dramatically under Lighthizer. The county's contribution to the safety net will top $2.4 million this year, a five-fold increase since he took office.

During the same period, the percentage of households receiving public assistance declined 33 percent.

Lighthizer's face actually reddens to match his hair as he warms to his subject. He pronounces himself satisfied with the county's record.

"Putting in programs to help people to make their lives better," Lighthizer says. "It's corny but it's true; it's the only reason government should exist."


"Now folks, rise above it. I've booked 2 Live Crew; you'll love it."

-- from "Rap for Big Red," as performed by County Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett during a roast in Lighthizer's honor Thursday night One of the biggest fights Lighthizer undertook while in office was building the $18 million Quiet Waters Farm Park along the South River, on 336 acres that constitute the last major parcel of undeveloped waterfront land near Annapolis.

Billed as an attempt to preserve the land from clearing for another housing development, it instead set off a firestorm of protest from area residents concerned about plans for concerts, boating and miles of pathways.

When Lighthizer sought state Open Space money from the General Assembly to help pay for it, more than a few complaints were heard about how the county was spending its money.

Sen. Jack Cade, R-Severna Park, said he had trouble justifying to state officials why they should provide money to build a new courthouse when they already had given the county $6 million for Quiet Waters Park.

The battle raged for two years. The county finally acceded to residents' demands in 1988, scaling back plans for the park and following suggestions to make its development more environmentally sound.

Critics point to the controversy as an example of the county cutting the public out of crucial deliberations, a charge that has dogged Lighthizer on a range of issues throughout his tenure.

But he sees it differently.

"This is a first-rate county; it deserves first-rate services," Lighthizer says.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.