Harford County's colorful Parrott shows her pluck Council president considered headstrong, abrasive by her critics

March 08, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Harford County Council President Joanne S. Parrott sometimes ruffles more than a few feathers by speaking her mind.

Case in point: her response to County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's recent State of the County address, laced with criticism that left Rehrmann fuming and some council members shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

"The legislative branch is supposed to be a system of checks and balances," said Parrott, 57, a veteran Harford politician and rising Republican star. "There are people in the county who are afraid of [Rehrmann], but I feel the citizens have a right to know what is going on."

That outspoken style is on display in Annapolis as well, with Parrott at the helm of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), which represents the interests of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore in state and federal issues.

"I think she's doing a great job," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Western Maryland Democrat whom Parrott counts among her supporters. "I don't know too much about her local politics, but she's very enthused about what she does. I think she has great respect for the system."

But it is Parrott's colorful -- some say unpredictable -- personality that has many in Harford County holding their breath as Parrott takes a bigger stage.

At election time, she can be seen whipping around town in a convertible with a huge stuffed parrot beside her, sometimes carrying a smaller toy bird that children often ask to hold.

She has been accused of being abrupt -- even confrontational -- with colleagues and residents, once prompting Havre de Grace Councilman Mitch Shank to storm out of a council meeting after Parrott attributed to him a controversial comment that he angrily denied making.

Good intentions

Publicly, those around her say Parrott has good intentions. Privately, even some supporters express embarrassment at some of her behavior. And opponents often wish that Parrott were not as vocal as her trademark mascot.

The night of Rehrmann's address, for example, Parrott used her response to accuse the county executive of taking too long to tell council members about county funds frozen in a Pennsylvania financial scandal and mishandling the release of a study on residential growth.

"Her legislative address is supposed to set a consensus from the council of their legislative agenda, and there wasn't one," said Rehrmann, a Democrat who has enjoyed a mostly harmonious relationship with the all-Republican council. "Over the years, I have noticed a lack of leadership and organizational skills, and I have become concerned about the divisiveness and personal attacks."

'I just love politics'

Parrott's charm was on full display in Annapolis on the first day of the General Assembly, as she sat in the House of Delegates chambers shaking hands and hugging politicians.

"I think it was fascinating," said Parrott, a MACo member since 1986 who says she is considering a run for state office in the near future. "I just love politics."

A native of Lancaster County, Pa., the former Joanne Kreider moved to Baltimore in 1959 to study voice at the Peabody Conservatory and landed a job with the VanSant Dugdale advertising agency in downtown Baltimore, where she worked until 1971. She married Bruce Parrott, a lighting engineer with North American Lighting, in 1963.

The couple moved to Fallston in 1975 with their children -- Scott, now 26, and Jennifer, now 23 -- and Parrott became active in local politics. In 1985, her son suggested that she run for County Council, and in 1986 she became its first female Republican.

Active in community

Since then, Parrott has balanced her duties as council president -- and now as MACo president -- with her activities as an auxiliary volunteer at a local fire company and as founding member of the Highlands School, for students with learning disabilities, which opened in Street in 1996.

Parrott rejects criticism that her style is abrasive or confrontational, and says she doesn't understand the uproar over her public response to Rehrmann's address.

"Other people can say critical things, but when I do it's a problem," said Parrott. "It's very interesting."

'No, it's you'

Yet her colleagues remain divided, with many viewing her as a headstrong person who does exactly what she pleases.

For example, Aberdeen-Churchville Councilman Robert S. Wagner said he wished the rest of the council had been given more of a voice in Parrott's legislative response.

"In her speech, when she kept saying 'we,' there were a few times when I wanted to jump up and say 'No, it's you,' " Wagner said. "The strengths that I saw earlier in her, I'm not sure are still there."

But Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith, from Fallston, defends Parrott's style and characterized her as a politician who cares about her constituency.

"We butt heads from time to time, but we are always able to dialogue," said Chenowith, who has known Parrott for almost 12 years. "She just has a very strong personality."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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