The Eat-Your-Peas Executive

January 17, 1994

For those who expected 1994 to bring Howard County a break in the clouds of an overcast economy, County Executive Charles I. Ecker all but deflated that hope last week. In his annual state of the county address, Mr. Ecker admonished members of the county Chamber of Commerce not to expect much in the way of new services from local government. If anything, Mr. Ecker made it clear that one of his primary goals will be to cut the budget, particularlythat of the education department.

Defying election-year norms, when officials try to place a shiny patina over nasty facts, Mr. Ecker chose to deliver a glum report, consistent with his previous years as executive. This eat-your-peas approach has given him a reputation as a fiscal conservative -- cuts first, higher taxes maybe. How long he can maintain that stance in an election year without appearing brutal is another matter.

Mr. Ecker portrayed himself before the chamber as a man between a rock and a hard place, who faces the expense of cleaning up the county's three landfills that will mount into the millions and projected school construction costs much greater than prior expectations. But pressure will remain on him to loosen the purse strings.

Certainly, by stiffening against school construction, Mr. Ecker is taking a risk. He wants the school system to switch to a year-round calendar, but that approach has yet to win over many converts. A recent poll conducted on behalf of the school system indicates that 45 percent of residents oppose the idea of year-round schools; 38 percent are in favor. His insistence on year-round schools -- particularly when the supposed cost and educational benefits are unproven -- may pit Mr. Ecker not only against a Democratic opponent but also against the county's large pro-school constituency.

Still, Mr. Ecker has had a successful term to date. His affable nature and self-effacing soliloquies have struck a pleasant chord among residents. He begs comparison with a folksy President Reagan at the height of his popularity. But Mr. Ecker is also a man of sharp intellect; he is banking that others will perceive the future to be as shaky as he does. In that respect, a more apt comparison would be to Jimmy Carter, although Mr. Ecker had better hope his downbeat theme of malaise receives a more upbeat reaction from his constituency.

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