A year has passed since suburban Baltimore voters chose a mostly new slate of county leaders.
Democrat Janet S. Owens upended an incumbent in Anne Arundel. Two law-enforcement professionals, Democrat James N. Robey in Howard and Republican James M. Harkins in Harford, put new parties in control of their jurisdictions. Carroll County elected a different board of commissioners, with one new face, one incumbent and one who served previously. The only executive elected to a second term was C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in Baltimore County.
These leaders aren't burdened by the recession that confronted their predecessors, but problems related to growth, education, redevelopment and crime are as complex as ever in these burgeoning, and aging, suburbs. They govern three of every four residents in the region today, twice as many as in their counties a couple of generations ago.
On the anniversary of their inauguration, it's report card time:
JANET OWENS looked worried but calm as she entered an Italian restaurant in Glen Burnie. Calm, though Hurricane Floyd had just battered some parts of Anne Arundel County. Worried because a homeless man remained in a temporary hurricane shelter. He didn't want to leave.
Ms. Owens has more than 460,000 citizens to worry about. But after touring storm-damaged areas, she focused on one soul. She knew the county would find the man another shelter, but she didn't want to evict him.
This, it seems, is typical.
"She doesn't just say things. She really is a sincere person," said Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat.
In her first year as executive, she has brought warmth to the Arundel Center rather than the mercurial heat that marked her predecessor, John G. Gary. Her style is to erase divisions, including those along party lines.
Although she headed the county's housing and aging departments in the 1980s, she had little political experience when she won the executive's seat. A social worker by training, her biggest weakness coming into office was understanding business needs. She worked to learn, visiting executives in New York and Chicago to hear what they desire in relocation sites. She responded when conflicts of interest arose in the quasi-public Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp., although she hasn't gone far enough to remake the board.
Her family goes back generations in rural South County, so she was expected to be -- and has been -- sensitive to environmental concerns. She fulfilled her campaign promise to boost school spending, giving teachers their first pay raise in three years. She also earmarked $40 million to renovate schools.
"If you do what you say you're going to do, you ought to get high marks," Republican Councilman John J. Klocko III acknowledged. But two concerns linger.
Ms. Owens has allowed a vacancy at the top of Planning and Code Enforcement for too long, especially when the need to speed the county's permit process is critical to attracting business.
And the county continues to operate under a stifling property tax cap, approved by voters in 1992, which impedes the government's ability to provide necessary services. County politicians have been reluctant to rail against it, fearing voter reprisal. But the budgetary margin for error is slim and will tighten further when the economy inevitably slows, forcing cuts in essential areas.
Ms. Owens foresees that and remains calm, but she's worried.
Economic Development: B
Dutch treat in Towson
WHEN Dutch Ruppersberger begins talking about his job as Baltimore County executive, he can't get the words out fast enough. His face becomes animated, his hands start gesturing.
Interrupt him? Forget about it.
The still-burly former school athlete runs county government with zest and strikingly little criticism in a place known for combative politics. He's also considered a serious contender in the governor's race for 2002.
Now in his fifth year leading the region's largest jurisdiction, Mr. Ruppersberger appears as comfortable in the job as when he started. He suggests that he conquered his roughest political challenge before he even became executive when he faced down a vigilant anti-tax contingent as a councilman in the early '90s.
His preferred political technique, however, is not confrontation, but behind-the-scenes compromise. He likes nothing more than to bring all parties into a room, seduce them with deals they can't refuse, then obligate them to support his position. By treating the County Council as part of his "team," it has become a virtual rubber stamp. Even personal injury hasn't slowed him: After orthopedic surgery required him to wear bulky leg casts, he got shorts to match his tuxedo jacket to attend formal events.