County Council hopefuls face off

Four candidates discuss development and other issues in west-side forum

New majority-black district

April 08, 2002|By Andrew Green | Andrew Green,SUN STAFF

Although west-side political leaders hoped to discourage opposition through their early endorsement of Kenneth N. Oliver for the new majority-black Baltimore County Council district, other candidates have begun to challenge him, saying he is partly to blame for the area's problems.

The four declared candidates, all Democrats, made their first joint appearance last week at a candidates forum sponsored by the Fieldstone Community Group, attended by more than 60 residents from across the district.

In a series of questions on the hot-button issues of the area - development, zoning, education and the prevalence of group homes - battle lines of the infant campaign emerged.

Oliver, 57, was endorsed in August as the "consensus candidate" for the district by state Sen. Delores G. Kelley and other west-side leaders. Baltimore County has never had a black council member and they feared that a competitive primary in the district, which runs from Woodlawn to Granite, might help a white candidate to win.

At the forum, Oliver highlighted his experience as chairman of the Baltimore County planning board and, on almost every question, was able to point to his involvement in addressing the problems, much in the way an incumbent would run on his record.

In discussing the revitalization of older communities, he pointed to his role in increasing funding for it in the proposed budget. When someone asked whether the candidates would advocate the Liberty Action Plan, he said he would because he helped draft it. The Liberty Action Plan is a revitalization plan for the Route 26 corridor.

At other times, he sounded like a high school civics teacher, explaining the precise relationship of the County Council to the executive and the mechanics of the development process.

"I am the most uniquely qualified person in this room to tell you what the issues are in this county and how to change them," Oliver said.

The other candidates, most notably Charles E. Arthur, 56, a retired state and county government employee, took Oliver to task for his record, saying that he should share the blame for the community's problems.

The good with the bad

"If you're going to take credit for what the planning board does and you think is good, you should also take credit for what is negative," he said.

Although the west side is home to a burgeoning black middle class, residents there say the county hasn't given the area its due.

Students in schools there perform much worse on standardized tests than those in parts of the county with the same economic profile, poor planning and zoning has choked the Liberty Road corridor with a glut of low-quality commercial development, and huge apartment and townhouse developments have clogged the streets with traffic.

"There are enormous amounts of vacant stores, empty apartment buildings that cause vandalism," said Penny McCrimmon, 52, a political and community activist who filed for the seat two weeks ago. "There has been a failure in planning, a failure in administration and a failure in execution. The quality of life in this community has degenerated because of a failure to enact [the Liberty corridor] plan."

The fourth candidate, Noel Levy, 47, is vice president of Citizens for Property Rights, the group that helped defeat County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's community revitalization plan in 2000. Levy, the only white candidate, said the county needs to do a much better job of sitting down with neighborhood leaders and getting their support for planning and development.

Two hours of questions

Residents at the meeting, about an even mix of white and black, questioned the candidates for nearly two hours, most of them scribbling extensive notes the whole time. Their comments afterward reflected no clear winner of the debate.

Eugene M. Weinzweig of Fieldstone said he was impressed with Oliver's qualifications.

"You're going to have to be able to work with the system and advocate the community's ideas within the system. I think he can do that," Weinzweig said.

Lonnie L. Hill Jr. of Woodlawn said he liked Arthur's determination.

"The person who's going to get out there and work for me is Mr. Arthur," he said.

`A lot to learn'

Levonne F. St. Clair of Randallstown brought her daughter, Tiffany N. Lawson, who will vote for the first time in this election. St. Clair said she liked McCrimmon and thought she best answered the questions, especially about education.

For Lawson, it was between McCrimmon and Levy. Arthur and Oliver, she thought, were far too negative.

"The other two, they just harassed each other," she said.

"Oh, honey," her mother said, smiling at her. "You've got a lot to learn."

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