Government Can Do Something Good

COMMENT

December 19, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Two unrelated events during the past month illuminate the different perceptions that two generations of politicians have of the role of government in the lives of Carroll County residents.

Concerned about the annual maintenance cost of landscaping the median strip of Route 140 and indifferent to the intangible benefits, the county commissioners -- all older than 50 -- recently voted to reject the State Highway Administration's offer to pay $100,000 for the project.

Through their action, the commissioners sent the message that county government is not responsible for improving the aesthetics of the county's public areas. In their circumscribed view, county government has but limited responsibility for improving the quality of life for residents.

By contrast, just a few days earlier, Jack A. Gullo Jr., the 25-year-old mayor of New Windsor, offered an imaginative proposal to recycle the soon-to-be vacated New Windsor Middle School. He envisioned it as a municipal center that might house a senior center, a library, post office and possibly a pharmacy and professional offices.

Mr. Gullo believes town government can play a crucial role as a catalyst in community development and improvement. Even though he is generally disposed against large government, he believes that, at least on a local level, elected officials can provide the personal leadership to prod residents into trying new approaches to solve old problems.

Although New Windsor looks like the proverbial small town, it lacks a sense of community. Rather than having a warm, intimate ambiance, New Windsor has the feel of a large and impersonal city. Rather than join residents in lamenting this situation, however, Mr. Gullo has decided to tackle the problem.

As he sees New Windsor, a revitalization of Main Street -- which other Carroll towns are undertaking -- won't accomplish much. Cosmetic changes such as planting street trees and installing some street lights may improve appearances, but Mr. Gullo believes New Windsor needs more to build that missing sense of community.

He is convinced that by developing a multi-purpose community center -- a place where people can meet and interact -- New Windsor might re-create that intangible, yet extremely important perception of belonging.

Mr. Gullo has clearly not been afraid to use his office to tackle other problems.

He created the "Town Youth Partnership Experiment" as a way to deal with the town's idle youth. For the past several years, adults have decried youthful mischief and vandalism, but they never attempted to solve the problem. As part of his campaign for mayor last spring, Mr. Gullo promised to address it.

So, for eight Saturdays, volunteers have been showing movies and providing refreshments to children between the ages of 9 and 16. When they staged a Halloween party, 100 kids showed up and had a good time.

To be sure, some problems haven't disappeared overnight. Some of the troublesome youths have continued to engage in petty acts of vandalism. The town's curfew may have been violated one night and chaperones have left the youths unsupervised. While the program has worked overall, however, Mr. Gullo has suspended it until January. The problem is that he can't find the time to be both mayor and chief youth coordinator.

"I provided the leadership, but now it is up to the community to pick up the ball," Mr. Gullo said.

His sense of improving the quality of life in town is also behind recycling the New Windsor Middle School.

Just about all of New Windsor's citizens would benefit.

At the moment, the town's senior citizens shuttle between two churches and don't have their own place to meet. With a cafeteria and classrooms, the school would be a perfect place for seniors to gather for meals and activities.

New Windsor doesn't have an indoor gym, but Mr. Gullo points out that the school has a gymnasium that was sturdy enough to withstand decades of use and could be opened for supervised activities for youths so they wouldn't hang out on the streets.

He would also like a small branch library created because that is also one of those key community institutions.

Mr. Gullo would also like to move the town offices into the school. Not only would the town have its own quarters, it could comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

If room is available, Mr. Gullo would like to see it made available to professionals -- doctors, dentists and lawyers -- who might rent office space in the reconfigured building.

Even though the idea seems to have a lot of potential, a number of townspeople have voiced opposition to it, largely, it seems, because they are uncomfortable with change.

FTC "It has never been tried before and people get scared when they have to do something new," the mayor said.

Mr. Gullo may not have all the answers, but his willingness to consider new approaches to solve problems deserves consideration and commendation.

The county commissioners, meanwhile, could learn quite a bit from this young mayor who understands that not all government actions have immediate returns but are investments designed to pay benefits far into the future.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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