Contentious Commissioners Depart To Mixed Reviews

December 02, 1990|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

In politics . . . it is almost a commonplace that a party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life. . . . It is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

"On Liberty" John Stuart Mill British political philosopher And so ends the cantankerous eight-year reign in the commissioners' office for John L. Armacost and J. Jeffrey Griffith, politicians whose disparate personalities and views on spending and government's role lent an aura of tension to county leadership.

Neither man is fond of the labels attached to him. Griffith jokes that he was perceived as a Democrat inside the Baltimore Beltway, a liberal once he crossed into Carroll and akin to Karl Marx when he reached Taneytown in conservative northwest Carroll. Republican Armacost says he had no inkling he'd be called "conservative" when he first became commissioner in 1982 "because I had never even thought of that handle for myself."

But ask most any county department director or the residents who have worked with Carroll government to describe the two departing commissioners, and the words "liberal" and "conservative" invariably are among the first uttered.

Some residents and county officials, including the two commissioners themselves, say the frequently opposing viewpoints benefited government, spurring debate on distinct alternatives.

But many others, including Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, the only returning board member, say the constant ideological battles caused dissension, slowed the decision-making process and generally hindered the government's effectiveness.

"The reality is if one said yes, the other said no," said Gouge, who functioned as arbiter, often casting a crucial swing vote after replacing William V. Lauterbach Jr. in 1986. "I used to hate to see either one of them say absolutely, 'I don't want anything to do with that,' because I knew invariably the other would say, 'Well, I do.' "They both are very strong-willed and have very large egos. Both of them liked to have their own way."

The two men come from different generations, backgrounds, careers and governing philosophies. Griffith, 46, a former college English professor who was recently certified to practice law in Maryland, grew up in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, moving to Eldersburg in 1972; Armacost, 66, a Westminster native, worked for state and county road agencies for almost his entire professional life before becoming commissioner.

Griffith, who often displayed his emotions, saw Carroll as integral to the Baltimore region, advocated government involvement in an array of social issues, attacked problems in a hands-on manner and placed as much or more emphasis on the benefits of a program as the cost.

Armacost, the quintessential reserved country gentleman, viewed Carroll in a more provincial way, believed government should remain, for the most part, out of people's lives, preferred oversight to hands-on involvement and evaluated the bottom line before all else.

Griffith -- and Gouge -- appeared to recognize that growth was inevitable and should be accommodated through planning, according to J.

Michael Evans, county permits and regulations director. Armacost, on the other hand, "would have it stopped if he had his druthers," he said.

Armacost said his working relationship with Griffith was "amicable." He declined to comment further about his colleague, except to criticize him for too often missing meetings on agenda days. He said he agreed much more often with Lauterbach during his first term than with either of the other two commissioners in his second term.

Griffith, as was the case throughout their tenure, was more vocal. He said he was "much less comfortable" with Armacost during their last few years together.

"I start off with the assumption that everyone is my friend until they prove me otherwise, and John politically certainly has not been my friend," he said.

Griffith said he felt "betrayed" by both Armacost and Gouge, who publicly criticized his decision to attend law school while in office.

Griffith sometimes was left at a loss for words to explain Armacost's decisions. Armacost was not one for long-winded explanations.

"I'm not sure what John's approach to evaluating issues is," Griffith said. "He doesn't say oftentimes what the basis of his decision is."

Griffith said he was often willing to compromise to achieve a goal but did not detect that attitude in Armacost.

Gouge also couldn't determine Armacost's focus, other than to save taxpayers' money.

"(That) he wanted the county to stay the same as it was 20 years ago is the only way I could see it," she said. "I didn't see vision there at all."

Armacost maintains that he and Griffith agreed more often than people realize and shared beliefs in principles. Griffith and several department directors agreed that he and Armacost weren't as extreme on issues as was sometimes depicted.

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