Wilson Cultivates Fields of Dreams


January 29, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

As befits his renewed calling to practical farming, Jeffrey D. Wilson plans to let his political fields lie fallow for a year, to regenerate their natural vitality before again planting the seeds of civic action. No offices or committees, not even a post on the school PTA for a year after leaving the presidency of the Harford County Council last month, he pledges.

As for criticism of the current council, Mr. Wilson explains, in agricultural reference, that you can't fault the cultivation of a field that you did not choose to rent.

After five years as council president, Mr. Wilson is devoting his efforts to professional writing, serving as an assistant church pastor and tending his farm in Street.

A contributor to a magazine for small farmers and a practitioner of small-scale agriculture, one might view him as a Jethro Tull manque, or a Jefferson retired from public life to pursue agrarian interests.

But that would be as inaccurate as it is strained exaggeration.

For Mr. Wilson's essays in agronomy will be confined to producing food for his household table and for trade with farms operated by other members of his family. Cash-crop farming never generated much cash under his stewardship, even before abandoning it for political office in 1990, and Mr. Wilson is not wont to try that style of agriculture again.

He does, however, expect to return to public life in the future. This is not retirement but respite.

In fact, few believe that Mr. Wilson will be able to maintain his silent distance from the public arena for very long.

Just a couple of weeks ago, he fired off a letter to the County Council condemning the appointment of Arden Holdredge as new county planning director. It was vintage Wilson, filled with hyperbole and insinuation but also with utter sincerity.

Not only did he assail Ms. Holdredge's close ties to the "development empire" and call for a public audit of her personal finances, Mr. Wilson also challenged her ability to make impartial decisions because of her personal relationship with the deputy public works director.

(A veteran of more than a decade in the Harford planning department, Ms. Holdredge's experience was not in question. But her background in approving controversial developments has aroused the animosity of slow-growth advocates, for whom Mr. Wilson was the point man.)

His lead role in the attack on Ms. Holdredge, Mr. Wilson explained, came about because he was better prepared to respond promptly to the nomination by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann than were other citizens who were equally concerned. Others may carry the cause if the council decides to hold hearings on confirmation, he suggests.

Since he has long been estranged from the views of Mrs. Rehrmann and Council President Joanne Parrott, Mr. Wilson's letter could not have been expected to carry much weight in their reconsideration of the appointment. His missive was dismissed by others as petty gossip-mongering, a petulant reaction to the results of an election that saw the victory of those more amenable to expanded development.

It was typical of the former council president that he seemed unconcerned that his personality might intrude on consideration the substance of his remarks. If the issue matters, he will speak out without regard to appearances or his potential effectiveness.

One had only to recall his strange valedictory on inauguration day last Dec. 5, when he suggested that the death of inmate William Ford in the Harford County detention center could have been murder. In the waning hours of his term, he issued a 19-page report that criticized the investigations of local, state and federal officials into the strangulation death of Mr. Ford on March 1, 1992.

Mr. Wilson purported to raise previously undisclosed facts that cast doubt over a grand jury's conclusion that Mr. Ford, serving a drunken-driving sentence, committed suicide in his cell. He questioned the credentials of certain officials in the case, and he was extremely skeptical of the grand jury's judgment.

It was another change of mind by Mr. Wilson on the controversy. Originally, he had been persuaded by the Rehrmann administration that there was sufficient cause to consider the death a possible homicide. Then the grand jury report convinced him that he had been misled by the administration, that it was no homicide.

Finally his Parthian shot in leaving government office called for the county to reopen the case and continue the investigation, particularly to obtain critical information from the FBI, which has refused all requests to release its findings.

But Mr. Wilson's report also focused on a goal uncompleted when he left office: the need to reconsider the county's self-insurance fund for major claims. As a result of the county's $400,000 settlement with the Ford family, to preclude civil suit, the Wilson council enacted a law that requires any settlements over $100,000 to be reviewed and approved by the County Council.

That was an imperfect act, co-opting the council into silent approval while allowing the executive to use insurance funds to justify policy decisions. Mr. Wilson readily admits that defect and urges that the county get out of the self-insurance business, or hand it over to an independent board that can make better decisions on settlements.

Should that issue arise this term, you can expect Citizen Wilson will return from the growing fields of Street to the playing fields of county government to again argue his case.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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