Growth issue dogs Ecker to the end Defense of developers may determine legacy of county executive

He steps down tomorrow

December 06, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

After eight years as Howard County executive, Charles I. Ecker had many topics to choose from when he gave his farewell news conference last week.

The 69-year-old Republican could have urged continued fiscal prudence, pointing to his record of managing crisis budgets and to his decision this year not to give the schools more money, which he still believes was the right thing to do. He could have listed what he felt were the county's looming problems, teaching a lesson on the value of foresight in leadership.

Curiously, though, Ecker chose to defend developers, who have done as much to shape his legacy as any of his own fiscally cautious decisions. Although Ecker will be credited for his penny-pinching acumen, steering the county through tough economic times, he will also be remembered -- fairly or unfairly -- as an executive who was too friendly with developers and allowed the county to grow too fast.

Ecker, who will be succeeded tomorrow by County Executive-elect James N. Robey, is clearly sensitive to this image. He complained last week that candidates and the media have unfairly vilified developers. He complained of headlines that blare, "Candidate takes money from builders," saying in response: "So what?" He said taking money from developers doesn't compromise a politician's objectivity on growth issues.

But Ecker himself used anti-developer tactics in his underdog campaign against incumbent Elizabeth Bobo in 1990, when the longtime educator and school official won his first term.

A television advertisement airing in that race showed Monopoly houses and hotels crowding a map of Howard County, with the sounds of an electric saw, drill and a hammer in the background.

The accompanying voice-over intoned: "Liz Bobo wants you to believe that she's for controlling growth in Howard County. The truth is, big developers have always been major contributors to Bobo's political campaigns. The truth is, she spent the first three years of her term allowing growth to continue and resisted efforts to bring it under control."

Ecker won by fewer than 500 votes, thanks in large part to his promise to manage growth. Since he took office, he has been judged on that issue.

Surveys conducted this year by Annapolis-based Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy showed nearly two-thirds of voters felt the county was growing too fast. More than 60 percent of voters polled said growth was the most important or second most important issue facing the county.

"In the long run, he'll be seen as pro-development, despite the rhetoric of the early campaigns," said Columbia pollster Brad Coker, who advised Republican Dennis R. Schrader in his bid for county executive this year. "I think you're always remembered for your last couple years of office, and people forget what you did in your first couple of years."

The difference between Ecker's 1990 campaign rhetoric and the pro-growth views he voiced last week may be what most irks slow-growth supporters. Ecker's critics discount his greatest achievement in managing growth, the passage of a landmark 1992 law tying the fate of new development to the availability of schools and roads. They discount the fact that the county has grown about half as fast -- at 2,000 new homes a year -- as it did under Bobo, arguing the poor economy and scarcity of space did more to slow growth than Ecker did.

They instead focus on his unabashed pro-business philosophy and on his planning and zoning director, Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who some worried was too friendly to developers. To these critics, Ecker's paean to developers last week confirmed their suspicions.

"Chuck ran a slow-growth campaign in 1990, and as soon as he took office, he got in bed with the developers, took all sorts of campaign contributions from them, did basically whatever they wanted," said John W. Taylor, who unsuccessfully challenged outgoing Councilman Charles C. Feaga in the 1990 and 1994 elections.

Ecker said such critics have unrealistic expectations.

"I think some of them want no new residential growth," Ecker said.

Taylor is a particularly harsh critic, refusing to give Ecker credit for what many believe is his greatest strength, managing the budget. He erased a $23 million budget shortfall in his first year in office by eliminating dozens of jobs and raising the property tax.

He borrowed heavily to build roads and schools to catch up with the population boom of the 1980s, which is where Taylor and some others take issue with Ecker. He also installed budget measures such as a "rainy day" fund that helped earn the county low interest rates on its debt.

His fiscal caution also led to what many Republicans and Democrats consider his greatest mistake while in office: his handling of this year's education budget. In a year when the county was flush with cash, Ecker proposed a cut in the local piggyback income tax while giving the schools $9 million less than educators requested.

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