Police chief to run for Ecker's job Robey plans to retire, will announce his bid Jan. 13, sources say

'I can't comment yet'

Would stay on payroll until March to protect retirement package

December 11, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey, a lifelong Democrat with no experience in electoral politics, plans to retire after 31 years on the force to run for county executive.

His entrance into the race would give Democrats a candidate with local roots, executive experience and an upbeat personality -- much like County Executive Charles I. Ecker, now a GOP candidate for governor.

Robey's formal campaign announcement is scheduled for Jan. 13 at the Roger Carter Recreation Center in Ellicott City, Democratic sources say. The center is where the police station stood when Robey, a 56-year-old Howard native, began his career on a beat in 1966.

Sources say Robey, who lives in the Valley Mede section of Ellicott City, plans to step down in early January.

He would use his remaining vacation to stay on the payroll several more weeks -- protecting his eligibility for an improved retirement package likely to take effect in March. I can't comment yet," Robey said yesterday of the plans for his retirement and campaign announcement.

Ecker, who appointed Robey in 1991, likely would choose one of his two deputies, Maj. Wayne Livesay or Maj. Mark Paterni, as chief.

"I don't know of any other candidate on the horizon," said Robey, who plans to make a recommendation but declined to reveal it. "I think the world of both of them."

Sources within county government suggest that Livesay, deputy chief for operations, is the likely favorite over Paterni, deputy chief for administration.

Little is known about Robey's views on Howard's key political issues such as growth, education funding or taxes.

County officials call Robey a strong administrator skilled in dealing with people. He has avoided the union troubles that led to the downfall of two of his predecessors.

"He was a wonderful police chief," Ecker said of Robey. "I'm sorry to see him go."

Robey's record has some blemishes that rivals could try to use against him.

A botched sting on massage parlors led to accusations of police misconduct in 1995. That same year, Robey also drew criticism when he told an interviewer on a national news show that he trusted a polygraph machine more than a rape victim.

But Democrats are eager to put a political newcomer atop the local ticket, particularly one strong on the law-and-order issues increasingly important to suburban voters.

"The polls tell us that education and public safety are the top things on people's minds," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo of west Columbia, whose election as county executive in 1986 was the last for a Democrat.

Democrats have courted Robey since July, when their expected county executive candidate, Councilman C. Vernon Gray, began signaling he would not run.

Gray that month won an election as vice president of the National Association of Counties, a prestigious lobbying job open only to current county officials. Had he run for county executive ,, and lost, he would have had to step down from the lobbying job as well.

In recent months, local Democratic leaders have closed ranks behind Robey. He is unlikely to face a primary opponent, a major advantage for Howard Democrats, who have suffered a decade of declining power.

Republicans, whose unity helped propel them to power, are facing a rare and potentially divisive primary battle for county executive in 1998.

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship farmer, and Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a Columbia engineer and hospital executive, have spent months organizing their campaigns and raising tens of thousands of dollars.

Democrats recently have grown anxious for Robey to start his campaign, but Ecker warned him months ago against campaigning while serving as police chief.

The situation grew trickier as the police union neared completion of a new contract improving the retirement system for all officers, including Robey.

That contract was recently settled. It is likely to pass the County Council on Jan. 5 and take effect in early March, giving officers with 30 years of experience annual payments of 65 percent of their final salaries for the rest of their lives.

For Robey, who makes $98,719, the improved retirement is worth about $4,500 more each year, plus cost-of-living increases, he said.

Robey plans to use his 11 weeks of vacation time to protect his eligibility for the better retirement. He could step down as chief in early January but remain on the payroll until March when the new retirement plan begins.

Departing Howard officials routinely remain on the county payroll until their vacation time is used.

Ecker said he had no objections to Robey entering politics while still on the county payroll, as long as he relinquishes his responsibilities as police chief.

"I've told him that if he's going to run for county executive, he's going to have to leave," Ecker said. "He can't have any authority or responsibility over the Police Department."

The Republicans, who control the County Council, could still disrupt Robey's plans to protect his eligibility for the improved retirement package by delaying the vote, but such a move is unlikely.

"Believe me, we've all thought about it," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican. "But that's not how we operate."

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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