Bickering A Thing Of The Past As Panel Finds Right Chemistry

December 08, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

Elmer C. Lippy retired in 1985 after 38 years as a scientist, yet hestill is searching for just the right chemistry in an unexpected second career as a politician.

The county commissioner who spent a career experimenting with chemicals to produce cleaning agents for a Baltimore-based soap and detergent manufacturer now has set his sights on blending three potentially volatile personalities into a cohesive unit at the helm of Carroll's government.

"It was one of my biggest goals coming in," says Lippy, 71, elected in 1990 after three years as mayor of Manchester.

"I was horrified by the constant feuding of the previous board. It was not only uncalled for, but detrimental to good government. I promised to be a healing factor in commissioners' relations with each other, and I thinkI've accomplished that."

By many accounts, the current commissioners, who marked their first year in office as a board last week, workbetter together and with others, take more pleasure in one another'scompany, spend more time on the job and are more accessible than theprevious board.

The 1986-1990 board, which included current Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, was characterized by frequent quarreling, antagonism and unpredictable behavior.

Not that the current board hasn't had its own problems as it comes of age. The two new commissioners -- Democrat Lippy and Republican board President Donald I. Dell -- have needed the whole year to become versed in the complex issues of government and to hone management skills to oversee more than 600 employees and a $115 million budget.

The trio got off to a rocky start. Republican incumbent Gouge, disappointed initially at not being elected to the figurehead post of "president," was disturbed to discover that her colleagues were making decisions without consulting her during the two off-days per week. That misunderstanding of protocol hassince been cleared up, she says. Also, every commissioner initially tried to stake out positions they believed would justify voters' faith in them, giving rise to tensions, says Gouge.

Dell says the board members "had some reservations before we got to know each other" and were "apprehensive" about how others would react to a motion or comment. But now "we have a pretty good understanding how we'll respond," he says.

Dell's aggressive approach to decision-making and active involvement in day-to-day operations led some to believe early on that he was leading, Lippy was following and Gouge was frozen out. Lippy says he resents that characterization of his role, which he heard from several Democratic Party activists.

"Nothing could be furtherfrom the truth," he says. "I am my own person and always have been."

Lippy acknowledges that "friction" existed in the beginning, but says the three now have a "good relationship" and mutual respect. They are able to express differing viewpoints, share feelings, make decisions in which not all agree, then move on to other issues without lingering bitterness, the commissioners say.

"There isn't the open hostility" of the previous board in which John Armacost and Jeff Griffith fought ideological battles, says Gouge. "It makes it a lot easierfor ourselves and staff that there's not the constant undercurrent of tension."

The three come from common backgrounds -- all are county natives who grew up with an appreciation for agriculture and Carroll's rural heritage.

Dell, 66, brings to the post a direct, tell-it-like-it-is style, and a hard-work ethic and independent spirit developed during his life's work as a farmer-businessman.

Lippy shows a penchant for an alytical thinking and thoroughness taken from his science background, and the ability to put people at ease with a joke or offbeat story.

Gouge contributes a variety of experiences, including school bus driver, Realtor and Hampstead mayor, and perspectivefrom her five years' service on several regional and state government committees.

The commissioners' approach to the job has been refreshing, say those inside and outside government who work with them. In interviews, words used most often to describe them are "hands-on," "accessible," "personable," "inquisitive," "enthusiastic," "open" and"willing to listen." Throw the stereotype of the arrogant, aloof, slick-tongued politician out the window when describing this bunch, sayobservers.

"They're not operating from an ivory tower," says Sylvia Canon, director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc.,a non-profit charitable organization which contracts with county government. "They haven't removed themselves from the nitty-gritty concerns. I feel like I know them a lot better (than previous boards)."

County budget director Steven D. Powell says the commissioners meet with county employees -- agency directors as well as rank-and-file workers -- on a "very human level."

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