Balto. Co. Council to elect chairman

Bartenfelder likely to return to post he held in 1997

January 03, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Much of Baltimore County's business this year could be negotiated from the seat of a Ford tractor.

At its first meeting of the year tonight, the Baltimore County Council is expected to select Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, as its chairman.

A farmer whose thick hands are covered with calluses from growing tomatoes, corn and kale on his family's farm, Bartenfelder is known to return telephone calls from atop rumbling farm machinery.

But don't try to call him there -- only his wife and his mother, he says, have the cell-phone number.

"All the farmers, they go to him with whatever they want. He thinks like the farmers," said Bill Richardson, a White Marsh poultry grower who has known Bartenfelder since he was a boy.

A majority of the County Council said it will support Bartenfelder for the post, which rotates yearly among the seven council members.

The council has no vice chairman to rise naturally to the top, and Bartenfelder will try to solidify his votes in the hours before the meeting tonight.

Under Baltimore County's charter, the council chair -- which Bartenfelder held in 1997 -- is less powerful than similar jobs in other legislative bodies, such as president of the Baltimore City Council.

Still, the chairman runs meetings and work sessions, and interacts more frequently with the county executive than do his colleagues.

The job pays $5,500 a year more than the $38,500 council salary and is an attractive post for Bartenfelder, who is considering a run for county executive in 2002.

Just rewards

"It definitely gives you more visibility, but it's not something you do looking toward running for another office," he said. "The worst thing to do is to do the job to manipulate yourself into a higher office. If you do the right job now, and the people know that and respect the job you've done, you're going to get the reward at the end."

Bartenfelder would replace Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, as chairman. Democrats hold a 5-2 advantage on the County Council, and chairmanship has been a perk for the party in power -- one of the few signs of partisanship on a largely collegial body.

Working with Ruppersberger

No dramatic changes in council operations are expected.

Kamenetz and Bartenfelder enjoy close ties to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and fully support the executive's agenda of economic development, spending on school construction and preservation of older neighborhoods.

While in nearby counties -- notably Montgomery -- the council and the executive clash frequently, Ruppersberger's "team" approach sets the tone in Baltimore County.

"I feel like my relationship is good with the council and with the executive," Bartenfelder said.

Professionalism

The most pressing task the council will face under Bartenfelder is deciding on 600 requests from property owners and community groups to rezone property, a laborious process every four years. Through rezoning, the council can confer great wealth on landowners, or can limit what can be built on their property.

Bartenfelder raised eyebrows by holding a fund-raiser after the rezoning process officially began last fall, shunning an informal council guideline. To avoid appearances of impropriety, he has agreed to return money to any donor who has filed a rezoning application.

At age 42, Bartenfelder ranks among the most politically experienced members of the County Council. He was elected to the House of Delegates at age 24, was re-elected twice and served as head of the county legislative delegation. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988.

Five generations

His family's roots extend five generations in Baltimore County, and his down-to-earth style is appreciated by many.

Richardson, the chicken farmer, likes to talk about the time Bartenfelder looked at bids the county received for lawn-mowing tractors and quickly realized taxpayers were spending $20,000 too much.

"It does good to have some people running things who do run their own business and know what things are worth," Richardson said. "They spend money better than people who never worked for a dollar."

`Laid-back approach'

Even-tempered with an unhurried speaking style, Bartenfelder said he expects his return to the chairmanship would be marked by a "low-key, laid-back approach."

When asked how he would be different from Kamenetz, an attorney who enjoys quick retorts and can ask pointed questions of staffers, Bartenfelder said, "That could be a loaded question, in light of what I just said."

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