Owens, councilman forge new relationship

After rocky start, they work together

May 21, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The blowup came last May, as the County Council chairman kept trying to poke holes in the budget presented days earlier by his fellow Democrat, County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Fed up with Daniel E. Klosterman Jr.'s criticism, Owens grabbed her hair in frustration during the private meeting. "I'm not John Gary!" she said, referring to her Republican predecessor. "Don't treat me this way."

A year later, Owens vividly recalls the clash with Klosterman, which occurred early in their terms. "It was as if he and the other council members thought I was the enemy," she said.

These days, when Owens and Klosterman sit across the table from each other, it's likely to be at the Ram's Head Tavern, Sean Donlon pub or some other Annapolis restaurant. And instead of bickering, the two are often engaged in a pleasant chat about this year's budget or some lighter topic.

The newfound political alliance owes to a variety of factors, observers say. Hoping to grease the legislative skids,Owens has reached out more to Klosterman -- and taken care of his North County district in this year's budget. One example is the inclusion of design money for a swimming pool in Glen Burnie that he badly wants.

Klosterman, after reminders that Owens holds the purse strings of county government, has moderated his criticism of the executive. At one point last year, some council members wondered if his negative comments signaled his desire to challenge Owens in 2002.

"I think both of them have kind of settled down and have probably reached a meeting of the minds, more or less," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat.

Love is one of several state legislators who took Klosterman aside and warned him to stop bad-mouthing Owens in public.

"I think Danny realized where the money is," Love said. "I'll be honest. He and I were talking, and I said, `The governor has the money; the county executive has the money.' "

Owens said she senses that Klosterman has gained a greater appreciation of the chairman's role -- that he needs to look out for the entire county and not just his constituents.

But she denies any shift in her approach or that she is playing favorites with certain council members. "I don't think I'm any different than I was," she said. After a moment's pause, she modified her assessment slightly, suggesting she pays less mind to the inevitable political squabbles. "I've gotten better at disguising," she said.

In November 1998, when voters swept Owens into office and six Democrats onto the council, the stage seemed set for harmonious legislative-executive relations similar to what Gary enjoyed with his Republican-dominated council. But if anyone expected the new council to be a rubber stamp, they were wrong.

Klosterman, who declined to comment for this article, frequently criticized Owens on everything from a proposed sewer bill to actions by her land-use officials. Their working relationship reached a nadir during last year's budget battle.

"Probably for a period of two months -- I won't say we weren't talking, but things weren't on the friendliest terms they could have been," Klosterman said recently.

Vice Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat who often accompanies Klosterman to meetings with Owens, said the main problem -- since corrected -- was a lack of communication from the executive's staff.

"[Owens] felt it was personal," Murphy said of Klosterman's criticism. "It really wasn't."

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., a Glen Burnie Democrat who has known Klosterman for years, worried that the chairman's comments "came across as arrogance." So he told Klosterman last year to ease up.

He says his message to Klosterman was: "You're direct, speak directly. That's not all bad. Sometimes it's interpreted differently than what you intended."

DeGrange said Klosterman has found "a softer way" to make his points and attributed the rocky first year to inexperience. "I think we all go through that; I know I did," he said.

By March, Klosterman was articulating a strong desire to work with Owens. On May 1, in a move that did not go unnoticed in the council chamber, he praised her budget before she addressed the council about it.

But the true test is yet to come. This week, the council goes to work on the budget, and Owens is counting on Klosterman to keep the council from taking a blade to her $1 billion spending plan.

While she is grateful for the cooperative spirit she and Klosterman share, she wonders why it didn't blossom earlier.

"I think it's taken a long time," she said.

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