'Bulldozer' council head keeps things stirred up Wilson takes pride in independence

February 21, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

He's verbose, contentious, smart, occasionally arrogant -- a maverick who likes to shake up the status quo and, more often than not, is a thorn in the side of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

"It's no secret," says Jeffrey D. Wilson, the County Council president. "I have a bulldozer personality, but I don't think anybody wanted Mr. Milquetoast either."

Mr. Wilson -- a Presbyterian minister and "gentleman farmer" when he's not taking care of council business -- prides himself on his independence and thrives on the controversy he has stirred up.

"I think I've created a standard of independence to make it possible for other ordinary people to render public service as elected officials and show there's another way than 'go along to get along,' " he says.

Say what they will about his tactics, politics or demeanor, however, critics and friends alike give him credit for trying to do what he believes is right and what is best for Harford County.

"There's never any doubt about where he stands because it comes from the heart," says Georgia Hodgson, director of the county administration from 1983 to 1990.

G. Edward Fielder, a former two-term District E councilman, says he agrees that Mr. Wilson "thinks he has the best interests of the people of Harford County at heart."

"He's probably the most intelligent member who's ever served on the council, and with the exception of [Mr. Wilson's predecessor] John Hardwicke, the most learned," Mr. Fielder says. "But for all his loftiness and intelligence, there seems to be a dearth of common sense and political reality."

Mr. Wilson's first two full years as council president have been productive. Indeed, many of the measures he called for in his first speech in office have passed. They include bills to preserve farmland; ensure that public facilities such as schools, roads and water and sewer lines can withstand the pressures of a growing population; create a rural land preservation program; cope with the problems created by trash; and set higher ethical standards for officeholders.

The county executive initiated many of those programs, but the finished products bore Mr. Wilson's indelible stamp.

Still his tenure could hardly be called peaceful.

A year ago, the embattled council president found himself reading "Impeach Wilson" signs along Route 24, a clear sign of voters' frustration with his performance.

His first clash was with Mrs. Rehrmann when, months after he took office, he criticized her decision to set aside several million dollars in the budget solely to protect the county's double-A bond rating. Mr. Wilson declared the budget maneuver illegal, and the personal animosity has grown since then.

Mrs. Rehrmann says she has tried "never to let the council president's antics get in the way of the business of the citizens of Harford County -- the intimidation, the personal character assassinations of people I've appointed, the threatening memos and letters."

For example, she says, Mr. Wilson spoke out against her nominee for the Environmental Advisory Board, questioning his integrity rather than his qualifications.

Other clashes followed, some with council members, including Joanne S. Parrott, a fellow Republican who, besides Mr. Wilson, was the only returning incumbent. Mrs. Parrott has accused Mr. Wilson of engaging in debate without giving up the gavel during council meetings.

The council president's letters also reveal much about his style -- never mincing words, occasionally appearing to threaten to take county money away from those who don't see things his way and act accordingly. The letters stirred controversy mainly because they suggested that he had councilwide support when he didn't.

In one letter, written in March 1992, he urged the state to delay a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. project that would benefit the town of Perryman and Harford County's tax base. Writing "as a countywide elected official" -- not as council president -- he supported a proposal by a BG&E competitor.

Mr. Wilson says he wrote the letter because he felt the competitor's project had not received a fair hearing. The move infuriated county officials and other council members because they had worked hard to encourage BG&E to expand its operations in the county.

Then, in December, Mr. Wilson warned the county Board of Education in a letter that if its members continued allowing performances of a controversial sex education play, they would make it difficult for him to keep advocating increased school spending. Mr. Wilson says he wrote the letter because constituents offended by the play, "Secrets," never got a fair hearing by the school board.

The county's Library Board of Trustees received a similar threat in another December letter. Forget plans to close the Highland branch, Mr. Wilson wrote, or you will pay at budget time. He won the battle, with Mrs. Rehrmann as an unexpected ally: She agreed to put $15,000 in the fiscal 1994 budget to help keep the branch open.

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