Guzzone may be pivotal player on 2 key issues

Swing vote possible on schools, growth

January 18, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone could be the man in the middle on two of the county's most sensitive issues -- crowded schools and development.

It's not a new position for the slow-growth environmentalist. His two fellow Democrats on the council often split with the two Republicans, leaving him as the five-member group's swing vote.

A council public hearing tonight will showcase the tougher issue: whether to include middle schools in the law limiting development around the county's crowded elementary schools.

The other issue is whether to allow former Board of Appeals Chairman Jerry L. Rushing to serve another five-year term.

Guzzone could decide the outcome of both votes, though they are weeks away. He said he's not feeling much pressure -- yet.

"I don't feel any stress," he said about the school issue. "There are other ways to approach the [school crowding] issue. I want to understand whether the middle-school aspect is the one that works."

As for Rushing, he said, "I haven't said I'm getting rid of anybody," despite complaints from slow-growth advocates that Rushing's business as a small custom homebuilder might help make the board too sympathetic to developers.

Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of western Howard are pressing the school-crowding issue, despite a county committee's decision not to include middle schools in the adequate public facilities law and County Executive James N. Robey's vow to veto any such bill.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung and C. Vernon Gray, both Columbia Democrats, support the committee and Robey, a fellow Democrat.

If Guzzone sides with them, he could incur the wrath of residents who want more protection from the effects of development. If he sides with the Republicans, he will force Robey, his party leader, to make good on a veto threat that could be unpopular with voters.

"Obviously, it's a lot cleaner and less difficult if the [middle school] amendment isn't there," Robey said. "Guy's really a pivot, isn't he?" Robey said. "He's an independent thinker."

Robey said he hasn't asked for nor does he expect political loyalty on that vote, although, he noted, "I'll be watching very closely."

So will the Republicans.

`Difficult position'

"I think Guy is in a very difficult position, and he knows it," Merdon said. "He's someone who will listen to both sides and develop an independent position."

It's a familiar position for whoever occupies the southeastern 3rd District seat, which has shifted from Democrat to Republican and back in recent years.

"In this district, there will always be a moderate," regardless of party, said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a former two-term councilwoman from Savage who gave Guzzone a start as her special assistant. Unlike districts based in mainly Democratic Columbia, or in more conservative Republican areas such as the western county or Ellicott City, she said, the 3rd District is a collection of old and new, rural and suburban, and commercial neighborhoods.

"It's a pretty diverse district," said Dennis R. Schrader, a moderate Republican who replaced Pendergrass in 1994 for one term. "You've got Columbia, Allview [Estates], some of old Howard County. In order to be elected in that district, you've got to be thoughtful about the issues. You're elected to represent the people, not the party."

Guzzone's philosophy

That, said Guzzone, is his philosophy. "I vote my conscience and what's in the best interest of the people in my district. Sometimes it goes one way, and sometimes another," he said.

Rushing's fate as a Board of Appeals member has prompted less controversy, and the battle lines are less distinct, but Guzzone's role might be no less crucial. Rushing enjoys strong support from Gray who, like Robey, says Rushing has a reputation for having done a good job.

"He is an element of civility, and he has been a good chair," Gray said about Rushing. Rushing's term technically expired Dec. 31, and the council is preparing to interview six candidates, including Rushing.

Rushing said he assumes, however, that because he wasn't automatically reappointed, his time is up. "I haven't heard any complaints about my performance. It's a good board," he said.

Merdon wants to replace Rushing with someone from the Republican's Ellicott City district, which is unrepresented on the five-member board, and again is allied with Kittleman, who said, "We've had complaints that the board is too open to developers."

Rushing defended

But board member William B. Waff -- a Savage community leader who has opposed large developments there -- defends Rushing on that score. "I've had no problems with him. I think we've all worked pretty good together."

Guzzone appears to lean toward Merdon's point of view, but he could swing the vote either way, depending on how council Chairwoman Lorsung, a West Columbia Democrat and frequent Gray ally, votes. She's not giving clues.

"I'm expecting to interview Jerry along with whatever eligible candidates there are. We need to be very judicious and make another very good appointment," Lorsung said.

Guzzone says weeks of deliberations lie ahead before a vote on the school bill or the appeals board issue. He won't tip his hand on which way he will vote.

The middle, he said, "is an interesting place to be."

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