New district's candidates take public stands

Residents of county's 4th seek better development and voice in government

August 26, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The highly contested race for the new black-majority district on Baltimore County's west side has produced its share of politicking, but in a community that has never had its own representative in county government, it has also sparked an intense discussion of local issues.

About 75 people attended a candidates forum at Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Randallstown on Thursday and grilled the five Democrats and one Republican who attended on how they would increase the quality of development in the community, limit the number of group homes in the district, improve area schools, expand social services and, above all, give residents a voice in Towson, the county seat.

A majority of voters in the new 4th District are African-American, and the county has never had a black council member. The district centers around Randallstown and includes Woodlawn, Granite and parts of Owings Mills, an area that has traditionally been split between a district based in Pikesville and one centered on Catonsville.

The forum was not a polite affair. The moderator forced the candidates to answer embarrassing questions: How many community meetings have you been to in the past four years? Have you taken campaign contributions from developers? If you weren't running, for whom would you vote?

Vocal audience

The audience got into the act, yelling out, "He's not answering the question," every time a candidate started to stray.

Going into the event, attendees said they knew the most about Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat and former chairman of the county's Planning Board who has endorsements from much of the county's political establishment, including County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, state Sens. Delores G. Kelly and Paula C. Hollinger and, most recently, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr.

Although they said they were impressed with his resume, members of the audience said they were concerned about his answers to some questions, fearing he was too closely tied to the status quo.

Only two candidates said they had taken money from developers: Owings Mills Democrat Noel Levy, who said he took $300 from a family friend who no longer develops property in the county, and Oliver.

"I have received contributions from developers and nondevelopers," Oliver said. "If anyone wants to give money to my candidacy, I have no problem taking it."

Sometimes it appeared that his experience and knowledge of the powers and limitations of the County Council worked against him.

When asked about the profusion of group homes and foster homes in the district, a trend residents believe is disrupting their schools and bringing crime to the area, Oliver said: "Let me explain something to you about group homes. The county has nothing to do with group homes. That's a state issue. ... If the county had anything to do with group homes, that would be called housing discrimination."

Oliver emphasized his experience and his ability to work with the other council members.

"You want somebody with the knowledge, the experience and the expertise," he said. "You want somebody to hit the ground running, not just hit the ground."

Development issues

This spring, some of Oliver's early backers dropped their support for him and recruited Clifford J. Collins, a former NAACP official who runs a nonprofit job-training center in the city. Collins sounded similar themes to those of the other candidates: boosting parental involvement in schools, making development more sensitive to community concerns and increasing the role of community organizations.

He said he is not beholden to developers - none of them are supporting his campaign, he said - and that, if elected, he would insist on a review of the qualifications of the county's Department of Economic Development, which he believes is out of touch with the needs of the community.

Penny McCrimmon, a state government worker and community and Democratic Party activist, repeatedly accused the county government of neglecting the district. She said the government is steering businesses away from the Liberty Road area and toward the county's growth centers in Owings Mills and White Marsh.

"You know when you go to the checkout and they ask for your ZIP code? They're doing a survey. They know where you live. These people want to do business, but our own county has been steering them away from Liberty Road," she said.

Levy is vice chairman of Citizens for Property Rights, the group that opposed Senate Bill 509, Ruppersberger's community revitalization plan that would have involved condemning property in Essex, Middle River and Randallstown.

Proclaiming himself the "neighborhoods' first candidate," Levy promised to protect property rights, fight for the area's fair share of government spending and keep communities better informed about development projects.

"I believe our neighborhoods need a break," he said. "By the time they find out about a project, it's too late - the ink is dry and the bulldozers are rolling."

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