High praise for mayor as he retires

Yowan applauded for quiet efficiency

May 20, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | By Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Kenneth A. Yowan, who steps down tomorrow after 6 1/2 years as Westminster's mayor, has a sense of collegiality and professionalism that helped transform a formerly contentious relationship between his predecessor and the council into a harmonious one.

Not that he will tell you any of this himself, of course. He's not the bragging type.

"The mayor steered the ship through some pretty rough waters," said Damian L. Halstad, a lawyer who is president of the Common Council. "He restored civility to the council. He creates goodwill and generates similar behavior. He's a professional."

Yowan is soft-spoken and methodical, more interested in sharing credit than taking it. In his 20 years of involvement in Westminster city government - on the Board of Zoning Appeals, as city council president and as mayor - his quiet, strong leadership set the tone for others on the council.

But now, he says, it is time for him to leave it all behind.

Kevin E. Dayhoff will be sworn in tomorrow as the city's 46th mayor.

Yowan, a 59-year-old native of western Pennsylvania, plans on retiring soon from his job as a physicist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and wants to travel with his wife, Joy, to whom he has been married 37 years.

Yowan moved to Westminster from Montgomery County in 1975 with his wife and sons, then ages 9 and 11. He was fleeing the traffic and congestion of suburban Washington and sought out Westminster at the suggestion of a co-worker who grew up here.

He fell in love with the city immediately. "I thought this would be a great place to raise children," said Yowan, now a grandfather of five. "Turns out it was."

Yowan decided to run for city council in 1979, even though, unlike the majority of elected officials at the time, he had not been born and raised in Carroll.

He campaigned door to door. He was the fourth candidate in a field that included three incumbents. He lost. "Only by 40 or 42 votes," Yowan said brightly. "It was a lot closer than I think they thought it would be."

After serving on the Board of Zoning Appeals, he ran for council again in 1983 after three council members had decided to retire. Twelve candidates filed to run, including Yowan. This time, he came in second.

Yowan resigned from the council in August 1986 when he was transferred by his employer to Hawaii for three years. Soon after his return, Mayor W. Benjamin Brown asked him to be chairman of a panel on downtown revitalization.

By then, the relationship between Brown and the council had broken down to the point that Brown often didn't sit at the same table as the council during meetings. Not long before the city election in 1991, the council stripped the mayor of most of his power and gave it to a newly hired city manager.

Yowan ran for one of three council seats as one of seven candidates. He came in first with 887 votes.

Yowan retained his collaborative spirit as he was elected council president in May 1993. He became mayor in November of the following year, when Brown was elected county commissioner.

He knew he wanted to focus attention on what the city was doing, not on fighting among elected officials.

"The mayor shouldn't be the news," Yowan said. "The city should be the news."

During his tenure as mayor, Westminster lost its downtown post office and its family-owned department store, and seen plans for a $6 million office complex at Liberty and Green streets by Carroll County Bank and Trust Co. dashed when the bank was acquired by BB&T Corp.

But the toughest challenge he faced as mayor was the death of Sam R. Leppo, the city's police chief of 23 years, in a car accident in August 1999.

"He was not only the police chief - I regarded him as a dear friend," said Yowan, who gave one of the eulogies at Leppo's funeral and still gets choked up when he talks about the afternoon he learned of Leppo's death. A tree will be planted in Leppo's memory at 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

In addition to attending Orioles games together, Yowan often sought Leppo's opinion on city issues. He still yearns for his friendship. "Even now, two years later, there have been evenings when I wish I could call Sam and see what he thought of something," he said.

Today, the city's downtown is often held up as a model for controlling sprawl and preserving Main Street. Westminster worked closely with the county and the state to get the $310,000 in Program Open Space funds it needed to acquire the old Carroll Theater and start the transformation of the building into a $1.4 million center for the arts that's expected to help revitalize the city's west end. In addition, the city approved plans last year for a $3.3 million retail, office and housing complex on the long-vacant site where the Carroll County Bank and Trust project was supposed to go.

The city's population has grown by 28 percent since 1990, but the growth seems to have been managed well. There are no tax increases proposed for next year. And Westminster has seen crime go down every year since 1993.

"You have to look at what's been accomplished in Westminster the last several years," Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman said in praise of Yowan's leadership. "Westminster has created partnerships with businesses and the state and private companies to repair and rebuild some significant buildings downtown. They managed to do a lot and didn't make a whole lot of to-do about it. That's not easy."

Yowan, although pleased with the city's successes, stops short of taking credit for them. "There's been much accomplished these last 10 years in the city," he said. "I know it's not because of me. It's because of everyone working together."

And that's why he is certain the work will continue, even after he leaves the mayor's office.

"Westminster was founded in 1764 - it got along for many, many years before I came along," Yowan said. "I'm confident it will get along for hundreds of years without me."

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