New leaders take charge Robey, Democratic council majority stress need for unity

December 08, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A Democratic executive and a Democratic-led council officially took over county government last night, ending four years of Republican rule and setting the stage for changes in how Howard County plans growth, funds education and pays its police officers.

There was little talk of change, though, as James N. Robey and five County Council members were sworn in at a ceremony at Howard High School in Ellicott City. Robey and the council members stressed the need for unity as they embarked on a four-year term that could be marked by debates over growth, money and redistricting.

"We have many major challenges facing us," said Robey, 57, upon taking the oath to succeed Republican Charles I. Ecker. "Together, we can improve the quality of life in Howard County."

Three Democrats and two Republicans took their seats on the County Council and elected 16-year council Democrat C. Vernon Gray, the body's senior member, as chairman. Second-term Democrat Mary C. Lorsung was elected vice chairwoman.

"To be sure, our citizens will differ in the future as we have in the past," said Gray, entering his fifth and final term on the council. "As we work through these inevitable differences, we must not lose sight of that essential common purpose."

Three new council members -- Democrat Guy J. Guzzone and Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon -- succeed Republicans who did not seek re-election: Dennis R. Schrader and Charles C. Feaga, who both ran for county executive, and Darrel E. Drown, who chose to sit out for four years to spend time with his family.

After four years in the minority, Gray is eager to help Robey set the county's agenda.

Gray and the council are expected to work with Robey to increase spending for schools and public safety, but party differences could emerge over money. The council's Republicans have emphasized lower taxes, while the Democrats have avoided talk of tax cuts.

Party differences are likely to harden when the council handles redistricting after the 2000 census. The power to draw new councilmanic districts is perhaps the Democrats' biggest prize for reclaiming the majority, giving the party a chance to solidify its base by shifting conservative voters from the three Democratic-held districts.

The three new council members could play pivotal roles in how the county decides to manage growth. All three won landslide victories after promising to slow the pace of homebuilding, an issue on which party lines tend to blur.

In other area suburbs yesterday, swearing-in ceremonies were held for Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat who won re-election, and Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, a Republican. Anne Arundel Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat, took the oath of office Sunday.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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