Howard executive ponders staff change

Planning director's fate undecided after 5 months

May 03, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After nearly five months in office, and with two major planning-led reviews of Howard County development ready to begin, County Executive James N. Robey still hasn't decided whether to keep Joseph W. Rutter Jr., his director of planning and zoning.

Rutter, a 33-year planner who has been director for eight years, has often been the target of criticism by slow-growth advocates who think he's been too sympathetic to developers' interests.

Several critics say they'd like to see Rutter replaced, and are wondering when a decision will be made. Robey said shortly after the election that he might take his time concerning department chiefs held over from the previous administration.

"I haven't finished my decision-making process yet," Robey said recently, adding that he has been concentrating on his first budget but is "close" to announcing whether several department heads will be retained.

Asked what the critical factor in the choice is, Robey replied about Rutter: "Just when it feels right. I've heard from some people that he should go, while others want to see him stay."

Peter Oswald, past president of the Greater Beaufort Park Citizens Association, wants Rutter replaced.

"I see only positives for getting someone else in there. Joe's had his shot with the last [1990] General Plan. He's very, very pro-development," said Oswald.

Although Oswald is upset about plans for two large mixed-use developments that could place 2,500 new homes with large office and retail components near his Fulton home, he and others don't dismiss Rutter's extensive experience lightly.

"The big question is retaining expertise to run planning and zoning," Oswald said, adding that he had assumed Rutter's job was safe after hearing nothing about a change for so long.

John Adolphsen, another Beaufort Park activist, thought so, too, but said he's learning about Robey's style of governing: "I'm coming to a conclusion that [Robey's] a good fence sitter."

Despite that, others say a decision should be made soon. Gregory Fries, president of the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee, said: "You can't wait much longer to resolve something that important."

Robey and three new County Council members were elected partly on promises to better control development and its effects on traffic and crowded classrooms.

This week, two administration-appointed committees are due to begin work on drafting the next 10-year General Plan to guide development and reviewing the county's adequate-public-facilities law, both of which require leadership and staff support from Rutter's department.

Robey, a Democrat, hasn't fired any department heads who served under former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, and has often said that he worked with them when he was police chief under Ecker.

Like Rutter, Robey was a career civil servant, serving 32 years as a county police officer before his election to the top job.

In addition, he said he's not worried about disrupting important planning initiatives if he does decide to make a change.

Jim McGowan, a former county school official who heads the 34-member General Plan committee, agreed with the executive.

"I don't think that [a change in planning directors] will make any impact whatsoever," McGowan said.

Rutter, meanwhile, is trying to cope with the uncertainty as best as he can.

"It's awkward," Rutter said. "It makes it more difficult in trying to deal with people if they don't know if you'll be around a day, a week or a year."

County Council members say they won't quibble with whatever decision Robey makes.

"It's his decision," said freshman Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat who sponsored the bill to rein in mixed-use developments. "I want Jim to have the people he wants to have. I'll work with who's there."

Freshman Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, says pressure to replace Rutter has subsided since the November election.

"People were a lot more concerned right after the election. It's tapered off," Merdon said about the many post-election calls for a change.

But Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said time is running short.

"I think he's reaching the outside point" in making a decision on Rutter, Gray said.

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