Sophocleus returns fire over pension plan role CAMPAIGN 1994

August 31, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

Theodore J. Sophocleus, a Democratic county executive candidate, defended his $400-a-month county pension yesterday during a debate at the Arnold Senior Center.

At the same time, the former county councilman, who voted in 1989 to sweeten his pension, lashed out at rival Robert Agee.

Mr. Sophocleus said Mr. Agee is attempting to escape responsibility for his role in the pension vote.

Mr. Agee was chief aide to former County Executive O. James Lighthizer, whose administration proposed lowering the retirement age from 60 to 50 and increasing benefits for elected and appointed officials in the plan. However, Mr. Agee has said that he opposed the changes during internal debates; several councilmen and others have corroborated his claim.

The pension was one of the topics that the six candidates for county executive debated at a series of forums yesterday. Mr. Sophocleus, Mr. Agee, H. Erle Schafer, Larry Walker and Louise Beauregard are vying for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 13 primary. John Gary is the only Republican in the race.

The six began the day at 10 a.m. in Arnold; some of them concluded it late last night at the Arundel Improvement Association in Brooklyn Park.

Before about 30 Arnold seniors, Mr. Sophocleus acknowledged that the decision in 1989 to enhance the benefits was a bad one financially for the county.

Auditors have said this year that the revised pension, which covers about 95 past and present officials, is underfinanced and it has been closed to new enrollees. The county must spend $14 million to make the plan financially sound.

However, Mr. Sophocleus said he made the best decision he could in 1989. He noted that a citizen-based, pension oversight committee as well as actuaries assured the County Council that it would be financially sound.

Mr. Sophocleus, a pharmacist, also scoffed at the notion that he voted to benefit himself: "You think I feathered my nest on $400 a month?"

Mr. Sophocleus then denied that Mr. Agee ever opposed the pension reforms. He said that Mr. Agee, 46, has since transferred a period of state service into the retirement plan to expand his benefits and will be eligible to receive far more than $400 a month when he turns 50.

MA Mr. Agee responded angrily, noting that the pension vote also

benefited Mr. Sophocleus' wife who served as his paid council aide.

"It's nothing short of a scandal, and I'm glad it's an issue in this campaign," Mr. Agee said.

Democratic candidate H. Erle Schafer said the county should not have a separate pension for elected officials. He said the county could use the $14 million to pay for additional police and teachers. "We need that money and it shouldn't be in the pockets of our elected and appointed officials," said Mr. Schafer, a former clerk of the Circuit Court and state senator.

Democrat Larry Walker criticized Mr. Sophocleus, saying "I have a problem with someone who says, 'I helped put this together, I signed my name to it, but I had no idea how much it would cost.' That's the job of the County Council."

The candidates also outlined their anti-crime platforms, plans to foster better cooperation between the paid and volunteer fire services and formulas for controlling growth countywide.

Most of the candidates said the county needs to expand its 600-officer police force, putting more patrols on the street. While many of the candidates debated whether the county can afford 50 new officers over the next four years, Mr. Walker, a county police corporal, said at least 200 additional men and women are needed.

Mr. Sophocleus and Mr. Agee both outlined plans to involve the police more and acquaint them better with the communities they patrol. Mr. Sophocleus concentrated on the "total package" of drug prevention programs, such as police-supervised open gyms, and storefront police stations for better visibility.

Mr. Agee emphasized the need to generate a greater sense of security in the county through regular neighborhood police patrols run out of "substations" in local firehouses.

"We have a good police force in Anne Arundel County, but we still have an increased sense of lost security," Mr. Agee said. "To that degree, we've failed."

Mr. Gary, a state delegate, and Mr. Agee said they would proceed with County Executive Robert R. Neall's plan to renovate the Jennifer Road jail in Annapolis but also build a minimum security jail in Glen Burnie.

Mr. Sophocleus questioned whether the new dormitory-style jail is needed. Mr. Schafer said he did not believe it was; he proposed building a drug treatment center instead. Mr. Schafer said 70 percent of the Jennifer Road jail's prisoners suffer drug and alcohol addictions.

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