Howard executive weathers criticism of his actions

March 31, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, whose nice-guy image helped him pull off a huge upset in his first campaign, has made so many people angry in little more than 100 days on the job that some are questioning his effectiveness in the political arena.

Morale among county employees has plummeted since he called for layoffs, with one union official reporting that workers have called her at night crying because they fear losing their homes if they are laid off.

Teachers outraged by his dogged efforts to cut school spending and force a roll back of their 6 percent pay raise have branded the former deputy superintendent a traitor to education and will picket and work to rule for a week in protest.

Mr. Ecker's first big appointment, the county administrator, provoked more controversy than any in recent memory. Civic leaders accused him of kowtowing to developers by selecting homebuilder John C. Mardall, who withdrew his nomination last week.

And, the executive's plans to raise property taxes and cut services brought more than 1,000 angry citizens to a public hearing to complain that they expect more from Howard County, one of the nation's wealthiest communities.

"His inability to negotiate the competing demands with the different groups in resolving the budget crisis and his insensitivity to community concerns by his appointment of home builder John Mardall have undermined his effectiveness at least in the short term and possibly the long run," said County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.

"He still possesses political capital of being a common man who is accessible, but one who may be in over his head," added Mr. Gray, who is considered a potential challenger to the Republican executive in 1994.

Rarely has a Howard County executive undergone such personal attacks for his actions.

"Talking about the rape of Kuwait. We are talking about the rape of Howard County employees by this executive," said Cecilia Fabula, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67.

Civic activists like John Taylor, vice president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, worry that Mr. Ecker is too inclined to believe the old saw that what's good for business is good for the county.

"There has been no balance to his appointments of chamber- and developer-type people," said Mr. Taylor, of Highland. "It is very disturbing and probably will lead to disaster because when economic times turn around there will be no incentive to control growth by the leaders in his administration."

Even in the school system, where he was a popular figure, Mr. Ecker is being accused of turning his back on education. Educators are angry because he got an attorney general's opinion that local governments can contribute less than they have in the past toward keeping spending per pupil steady, a ruling that could cost county schools $3 million.

"He has set the quality of education back by his attacking the funding formula tied to increased enrollment, and his proposed cuts are horrendous," said Jim Swab, president of the teachers association. "He will be held responsible for increased class sizes and layoffs if he gets his way."

Mr. Ecker is taking his lumps in stride.

"I'm the focal point, but the buck stops here," he said, flashing a sheepish grin. "I am going to do what is right for Howard County -- and not because it will elect Chuck Ecker."

The 62-year-old Mr. Ecker says the financial mess he inherited forced him to make the unpopular decision to order all departments to cut spending for next year by 16 percent, which would require layoffs.

He took office facing a $20 million deficit that forced cuts in the current operating budget. To make matters worse, revenue for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is expected to be $24 million less than this year's.

Despite the dark clouds, Mr. Ecker professes to see relief ahead. He says "biting the bullet" now will place the county on a sounder financial footing -- and demonstrate his ability to make the hard choices many politicians might dodge.

The question is how much understanding the public and the County Council will show for his predicament.

Dick Pettingill, president of the county Chamber of Commerce, believes the public will understand.

"Nobody likes more taxes or layoffs, particularly if it affects you or your family," he said.

"But it appears something has to be done. It takes a courageous politician to analyze and implement a program of action like this."

Michael W. Davis, a Columbia lawyer who is among Mr. Ecker's closest advisers, believes the executive has retained his effectiveness, although he has "taken some pretty sharp hits."

"The public understands the magnitude of the problems facing him and he is balancing the conflicting interests the best he can," said Mr. Davis. "Frankly, he is going through a breaking-in process, and all things considered he has made few missteps."

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