Republican Robert R. Neall took the oath of county executive office yesterday, promising to build a "recession-proof economy" while preserving human services and protecting the environment.
"It's the locomotive that pulls everything," he told 500 people gathered at Anne Arundel Community College. "I want to build ours into a virtually recession-proof economy."
During his campaign, Neall mentioned broadening the county's economic base. But his first speech as county executive signals that the new administration will redouble efforts for a favorable business climate.
Neall built his 2-percentage-point victory over outgoing County Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-Linthicum, around his reputation for fiscal prudence. He warned that the recession and taxpayer discontent could require layoffs to produce a balanced budget.
But Neall, 42, said yesterday he will work with school system leaders to improve education and pledged to convince skeptics of his commitment to the county's natural resources.
He noted that the county exceeded Maryland standards in only two of eight categories in a report issued last month by the state Board of Education. He said he will take steps so, "Next time that report card comes out, we can hold our heads up a little higher."
He also promised that the county would continue strong support of Anne Arundel Community College -- the school that accepted him "when nobody else would" and rated it "one of the best in the country."
Neall reached out to environmental activists, many of whom have bitterly criticized him since his days as House of Delegates minority leader, when he opposed critical areas legislation to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
"I guess in many people's minds, I was not 'green' enough," Neall said, referring to environmental sensitivity. "I guess this is my opportunity to show that if I'm not green, I'm turning green."
He repeated his campaign theme that improving water quality will be a top priority. Neall's emphasis on limiting pollution from storm water runoff and septic failures won applause from the crowd and nods of approval from his predecessor, Democrat O. James Lighthizer.
The speech contained few specifics, other than the promise to spur business growth by building the "most aggressive economic development program in the state."
Noting that charitable contributions have suffered with the economy this year, Neall said he will devote December to asking people that private human services agencies will "have the resources to get through this winter for people who might not otherwise make it."
Neall repeated campaign promises to limit growth in county property tax revenues to 5 percent; create national models for drug education, treatment and a multi-jurisdictional interdiction task force; and strengthen the adequate-facilities ordinance for development so that economic growth can continue without eliminating green space or overtaxing schools and other services.
While Baltimore City and the state's largest counties face budget deficits this year, Neall will find a $12 million surplus in Anne Arundel.
Yesterday was a personal triumph for Neall and local Republicans, who saw him lose a bid for Congress in 1986 by 428 votes to Tom McMillen, D-4th District.
"His life has been a tremendous success story in every aspect but one," said former U.S. Representative Marjorie Holt, R-4th, reviewing Neall's 12 years as a delegate, his service as government affairs vice president for Johns Hopkins Health Systems and his stint as the state's first drug policy coordinator.
The inauguration ceremony demonstrated a political turning point for the county, as the only Democratic executive elected under 25 years of charter government handed the office back to a Republican.
Neall had party member Sen. John A. Cade conduct the proceedings he was sworn in by newly elected Chief of the Circuit Court, Republican Mary Rose.
The audience also included the GOP's first two County Council members elected in 20 years and the first Republican sheriff in 28 years.
The day also reaffirmed Neall's bipartisan past and, possibly, future, as Democrats including McMillen, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, most of the council and the county's General Assembly delegation, and U.S.
Representative Benjamin Cardin, who served alongside Neall as House of Delegates majority leader, congratulated him.
Democrat Lighthizer, named Saturday as the new state Secretary of Transportation, had a few humorous comments for Republican Neall.
Quoting from the best-selling book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," Lighthizer told Neall, "When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together."