Carroll commissioners show united face

Critics say officials go against conservative spirit

November 30, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

At virtually every campaign event they attended last year as candidates, the Carroll commissioners heard complaints about infighting at the top of county government.

The previous board's term featured a string of 2-1 votes on contentious issues, with Julia Walsh Gouge often the one and her more conservative colleagues, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, the two. But Gouge and her fellow Republicans in last year's general election, Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich, promised that if elected, they would tone down the contention.

In the year since they took office, Gouge, Jones and Minnich have hardly disagreed in public and have not cast a single disputed vote on a major issue. They've raised taxes, imposed a growth freeze and made major personnel changes, and one endured an ethics investigation. But never have they appeared divided.

That unity has been refreshing for critics of the previous board. It has been disheartening for those who say the commissioners have gone against the county's conservative spirit by approving an increase in the county's "piggyback" income tax and by imposing obstacles to some property owners' ability to develop their land.

"This is the most competent board I have seen," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, who often clashed with Dell and Frazier. "This is the way it should have been. This board has a daunting task in that they have to dig the county out of the enormous hole previous boards have put us in, and they are doing it."

But Scott Hollenbeck, a former member of the county's Republican State Central Committee, said, "The commissioners have pretty much abandoned Republican principals by expanding government in the county."

The board's solidarity, which they say comes from a natural like-mindedness, has manifested itself most powerfully on growth issues. Previous boards had often voted on the side of property rights when considering growth matters. But these commissioners were elected on promises to slow growth and, six months into their term, passed a development freeze that thrilled many activists and leaders.

Critics say the commissioners are little more than political opportunists who have trumpeted an anti-growth message because it's an easy sell to voters.

"It doesn't have a lot to do with planning, just politics," said Dick Hull, president of Carroll Land Services Inc., a Westminster development company. "The bulldozers are just too easy a target."

The commissioners say they're following the will of the majority.

"I don't think any one of us does the job with a personal agenda," Jones said. "I think we make the effort to go around the county and hear what the citizens want, and then we do it."

Gouge, Jones and Minnich did not start last year's campaign running together. Gouge entered as one of the county's most experienced politicians and strongest advocates for growth control.

But Minnich entered as a political novice whose newspaper column had rarely criticized the conservatives who controlled county government until a few months before last year's campaign began.

Jones was a former Democrat who had kept a low profile as mayor of Union Bridge.

But the trio emerged as a de facto moderate slate and defeated a pack of conservatives in the primary before winning easily in the general election.

They entered office Dec. 2 and immediately cast several major votes, canceling Dell and Frazier's plans for a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park and reconfiguring several of the panels that help make policy. Those strokes pleased the activists who had fought to elect a reform-minded board.

"It showed they were willing to listen to us," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens Council, an Eldersburg-based group that opposed Dell and Frazier's plans for Piney Run. "We had no influence, zero, with the last board."

But the commissioners faced criticism when they announced plans to disband the county's ethics panel, which was investigating allegations against Gouge. In the ensuing weeks, word also broke that state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli was investigating some of the same charges against her.

Jones and Minnich backed Gouge throughout the turmoil, saying they believed she had done nothing wrong and that her political enemies were grasping for any way to bring her down.

"You can't imagine how much I appreciated these people standing beside me and behind me," Gouge said.

Montanarelli issued a report clearing Gouge of criminal wrongdoing but saying her actions showed "the appearance, if not the fact, of impropriety."

Even as the ethics controversy swirled, the commissioners turned their attention to growth.

County planning director Steven C. Horn - whom they hired in December, when they also named Steven D. Powell to be the county government's chief of staff - called for a yearlong halt to growth so he and his staff could work without distraction on revamping the county's land-use policies.

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