Seniors' meeting with Gray canceled

GOP objected on grounds that he's running for office

`It was inappropriate'

July 05, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A datebook item in this month's Senior Connection seemed innocent enough - a free lunch at the Elkridge Senior Center on July 22 with state Senate candidate and Howard County political institution C. Vernon Gray.

But the event listed in the free publication of the county Department of Citizen Services' Office on Aging has been canceled, and the notice has become a lesson for county employees on walking the nonpartisan tightrope between public service and political advantage this election season.

Gray, a five-term County Council member, is a Democrat battling Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader to represent the county's southeastern District 13 for the next four years.

The match is key to Democrats' efforts to gain control of the county's General Assembly delegation. Although the filing deadline for candidates is days away, both candidates are running hard.

Schrader said she is "disappointed" over the episode.

"My opponent has been in office 20 years. He understands the rules, and he understands what `over the edge' is. It's a good idea to go to the senior center, but you cannot use the county resources to foster your campaign."

Gray said that his campaign manager made the arrangement with the center director and that he had no direct involvement in it.

"The mistake was not on our part. We followed proper procedures. We learned later it was an error," Gray said, adding that his campaign requested time to speak to seniors and it was granted.

Gray says he is confident of victory based on his record and a district that is friendly to Democrats.

Schrader was appointed to the post in January after Sen. Martin G. Madden resigned.

Madden, also a Republican, has been successful in the area. Schrader's husband, Dennis, served the area as a county councilman; he ran for county executive in 1998 but lost.

County officials said employees did not intend to favor either campaign and made an honest mistake - an explanation accepted by Republican County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, who noticed the datebook item and complained.

"It was inappropriate. We canceled it," said Manus O'Donnell, director of the county Department of Citizen Services.

"All the candidates fully appreciate the position the Office on Aging has of not taking sides," he said, promising to clarify the nonpartisan policy in the next issue of The Senior Connection - a monthly publication distributed throughout the county.

About 10,000 copies of The Senior Connection are printed monthly at no cost to the county by the publisher of Generations, a private publication for seniors.

The publication is distributed in Howard senior centers and libraries, O'Donnell said.

Schrader said this is the kind of perceptual abuse that can occur when one party has too much strength, as Democrats do in Annapolis.

Merdon said he felt that O'Donnell's response was adequate.

"That's fine. I think for 3 1/2 years, you work with council members and set up these types of events," Merdon said, so it may be difficult for county workers to distinguish the changed circumstances in an election year.

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