Charles I. Ecker reached into a pile of papers and pulled out a letter. The writer, who hadn't signed her name, said she and her husband both are Howard County employees who are vulnerable to the layoffs Ecker says he needs to make.
"Most employees must have employment to enable them to survive -- not just for the luxuries in life," the letter read. "Rent, food, child care, diapers, car payments are life's necessities."
Ecker, the county executive, sighed softly as he leaned back in his chair. "I really don't want to lay anybody off," he said, and he expressed sorrow that two people in one family face layoffs.
But, despite his sympathy, he said, the overriding issue is the county's projected $31 million deficit for the next fiscal year. Ecker may not want to lay off any employees, but he will. He has pledged to take a corporate approach to running government. So jobs will vanish and taxes will rise as Ecker tries to get a grip on a problem that has dominated his first three months in office and robbed him of any hope of a honeymoon with county residents and employees.
"I'll be looking at the bottom line," said Ecker, a Democrat-turned-Republican and former deputy schools superintendent who rode into office on his charm and the support of Howard Republicans and business interests. "I'll be looking at the bottom line. The typical -- and I'm one of them -- public servants have not had to look at the bottom line."
Some critics think Ecker's businesslike approach is the not the way to run a county because it minimizes social concerns. They complain that too many of his advisers have business interests.
"It's a rather myopic group, to say the least," said lawyer James B. Kraft, the former head of the Howard County Democratic Party who now is president of a new group called the Democratic Forum. "I'm a member of the Chamber of Commerce and I'm a small businessman, but there's more to the world than what's good for business.
"All he's getting is the skewered view of business," Kraft said. "The concept of what's good for General Motors is good for the country went out a long time ago."
Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, charged that Ecker is rewarding developers and businessmen who supported him. An example, she said, was Ecker's support of a bill that removed county restrictions on growth.
"I don't see the people from the civic associations there where I thought they would be," said Pendergrass, who said he thinks of Ecker as a "nice, affable" person, but has not been impressed with him as a county executive.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, agrees that Ecker is strongly pro-business, but he sees nothing wrong with that.
"It's natural for someone elected to office to bring people from the campaign into the administration," Gray said, adding that "it would be suicide for him to be anti-business."
Richard Pettingill, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said he enjoys a "very positive relationship" with the Ecker administration. "We're optimistic that they're moving in a good direction," Pettingill said.
"They are concerned about the economic condition of the county and are working diligently to see that Howard County is a viable entity in the marketplace," Pettingill said.
Former County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, on the other hand, is being blamed for the county's fiscal crisis by Republicans and business who say her growth restrictions in 1989-90 suddenly shut the rapid flow of tax revenues from development.
Business interests also complained that Bobo left vacant for eight months the position of economic development administrator.
Two months after taking office, Ecker filled that post with a high-profile figure, Dyan Lingle Brasington, the former economic development director of Montgomery County.
Ecker has won praise for some appointments, but people have complained of the appointees' high salaries at a time when many employees face layoffs. Brasington is being paid less than she received in Montgomery, for instance, but her $69,400 salary is $17,461 more than the previous administrator made.
Brasington and three other appointees -- Ecker's top administrative assistant, his corrections chief and the public information officer -- receive the highest salary permitted under the county's pay structure.
Ecker defends the salaries, saying he has gotten top-notch people to fill those positions.
Others criticize him for creating an administrative-assistant post for partisan Republican Gail Bates after saying he would leave that job vacant.
Ecker is clearly a moderate in the political spectrum, and has criticized Bobo only in groups of Republicans. But Bates brings a definitive Republican tone to county government. In a interview, she readily bashed Bobo.
"We're in an economic slump right now because the previous administration was -- although not anti-business -- out of tune with the concerns of business," said Bates, who served as campaign manager last fall for Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th.
Ecker's administration is slowly taking shape. Last Friday, he accepted the resignations of County Administrator Buddy Roogow and Personnel Administrator Janet Haddad, and he is promising to replace other officials soon. He is replacing Roogow with developer John Mardall.
Joyce Kelly, a board member of the Howard County Citizens Association, said Mardall's appointment shows an intent by Ecker to promote "unbridled, unrestricted growth."
"In part I'm baffled," she said. "I don't know what Chuck's vision is, except for making life easier for the development community."
Ecker said that he has met with all segments of the community and has not focused his attention solely on business.
"I wanted to be available to meet the public," he said. "And I have."