Neall: Courage, But No Heart

December 08, 1992

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's biggest accomplishment during the first half of his four-year term has been keeping the county in solid financial shape during a national economic crisis.

Unfortunately, that is the height of his ambition.

Mr. Neall was elected as a money manager. He has lived up to that reputation. He has absorbed $65 million in state cuts without noticeably affecting public services or increasing the tax rate, and with no layoffs. He has squirreled away a $10 million rainy day fund and downsized government through a voluntary retirement program. He barely sweated through this year's state cuts because he prepared for them.

Through all this, Mr. Neall has manifested a quality too often lacking in politicians: guts. Many elected leaders would rather go through Chinese water torture than make a tough decision. The executive does what he believes makes financial sense, impervious to pleas and threats from unions, schools or taxpayers.

The trouble is not everything boils down to dollars and cents. A federal wildlife refuge at Fort Meade isn't the best place for a county park, even if the land can be had for nothing. An environmentally suspect former Army depot is not a sensible place for a jail, even if the county already owns it. (Mr. Neall supported both moves.)

After two years, it is clear that not only do Mr. Neall's abilities lie in the realm of finance; his passions do, too. On issues of the environment, education, social services, he shows no great ppersonal interest. Ask what he would do in these areas if he had the money, and he answers vaguely and without emotion.

Perhaps because of that, Mr. Neall has not built a base of support among any of the county's most influential groups -- teachers, unions, environmentalists, senior citizens. He knows this and says he doesn't especially care.

He should be concerned, however, that he has also failed to build a solid four-vote coalition on the County Council. This has been a weakness that he must correct if he hopes to push through his privatization concept and other controversial ideas.

Mr. Neall sees himself as a caretaker, and has been an excellent one. He would be an even better leader if in the next two years he expanded his vision beyond the ledgers and balance sheets.

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