Exiting mayor has quiet Carroll town rumbling

New Windsor is divided over Gullo's 2-year term on the Town Council

May 13, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Jack A. "Jay" Gullo Jr. should be the pride of New Windsor.

Gullo has a legacy most would be proud of: Carroll County's youngest mayor ever and at one time the youngest in the United States, a man who helped New Windsor grow and prosper, a small-town boy with a bright future.

Now 32, he said he wants to regain the freedom he sacrificed to take office as mayor the day after he graduated from law school eight years ago.

Town residents, even those ambivalent about Gullo, wanted his departure to be a time for reflection on what he has accomplished and a celebration of what's to come.

Instead, Gullo finds himself at the center of a town divided, the object of barbs from some neighbors who say he's obnoxious and too arrogant to let anyone else run the western Carroll town of 1,400. The furor, rare for the politically quiet Carroll town, began when Gullo asked to fill two years of a vacant Town Council term, a request the council granted May 2.

He said he wanted only to ease the town's transition from his administration to the next.

Critics say the request was one last power play, Gullo's attempt to haunt his longtime rival, newly elected Mayor Sam M. Pierce, a little while longer.

As issues go, Gullo is the hottest in New Windsor. The debate over Gullo's council appointment drew 80 people. Some said New Windsor couldn't afford to lose his expertise. Others said it would be untoward for Gullo to stick around with Pierce, who lost to him by 12 votes in 1997, about to take office this week. Commentary became so negative toward Gullo that his father rose to shout back at one juncture.

"People showed up to be hurtful," Gullo said in an interview a week later. "I mean, I've developed a shell over the years, but I'm not the president of the United States. This is a small town. Those were my neighbors whom I've known for years."

Many who were critical of Gullo's character praised his knowledge of government, political connections and devotion to New Windsor. The mixture of distaste and respect prompted several people to compare Gullo with former President Bill Clinton. But Clinton doesn't live on the same street as most of his critics.

"He's rarely seen in public," Pierce said of Gullo. "He's really turned a lot of people off. The average person has to go through a screening at his law office just to reach him."

Anyone can call him at work or walk in his office door, Gullo countered. He can't understand why personal feelings overshadow his record. The town has more people, more money, less debt and a more efficient government than it did when he arrived, he said.

In 1993, New Windsor kept all its records in typed bundles of paper. Gullo put everything on computers. The water system bled money because the meters malfunctioned. Gullo updated the equipment, and the system hasn't lost money since. Bills often went uncollected. No longer.

The council operated as a panel of elders, Gullo said, hearing unscheduled issues and allowing people to push for same-day decisions. Now, every meeting has an agenda, and if an issue isn't on it, it has to wait.

"I have tried above all else to make the government more professional," Gullo said over an Election Day lunch. "I look at it and ask as a citizen if I'd like it to go back to the days when you went to the town clerk's kitchen at dinner time to get a problem solved. No way."

Even Gullo's harshest critics admit he's done plenty of good. "Jay's organizational skills have really helped the town," Josh Lindemon said as he stood among a group of people holding "Time to go Gullo" signs in front of the town hall at the May 2 council meeting.

Before appointing Gullo that night, council members said it would be foolish to forfeit his expertise. He has, for example, led the town's quest to get fair compensation from Lehigh Portland Cement Co. of Union Bridge for a piece of land the company wants to buy from New Windsor.

Moments before town residents debated his future, Gullo gave them a detailed Power Point presentation on the town's negotiations with Lehigh, emphasizing that New Windsor must decide if it wants Lehigh building a railroad spur through what are now the town's ball fields.

"I believe this town is split down the middle, but we need this man's expertise in the Lehigh negotiations, and we need him lobbying for us in Annapolis," Councilman Terry Petry said before voting for Gullo's appointment.

Gullo had no idea what small-town politics would be like when he ran for mayor in 1993. He grew up in Washington and spent summers in New Windsor, where his grandparents lived and where his great-grandfather had been mayor.

His family moved to a farm on the edge of town when he was 12. He went away to college and law school, and applied for a job with the FBI, but a hiring freeze at the agency stymied that, so he made plans to return home and start a private law practice.

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