Harford council to select new executive

2 of 6 candidates appear to be favorites as board prepares for vote tonight

Panel's choice will replace departing Harkins

July 05, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

The Harford County Council is poised to select a new county executive tonight, the first time since the county charter was adopted in 1972 that voters will not pick the leader of their government.

The council is scheduled to vote on a replacement for James M. Harkins, a Republican who is leaving 16 months before the end of his second term to take a key environmental post in the Ehrlich administration. The replacement will serve out the balance of Harkins' term until the election next year.

Of the six candidates who asked to be considered for the job, two have emerged as front-runners, council members and political observers say.

Havre de Grace Mayor David R. Craig had been planning for some time to run for the post next year and has raised more than $100,000. Many political observers considered Craig, a Republican, to be the strongest candidate when Harkins announced May 25 that he was stepping down.

In contrast, Democrat Lucie L. Snodgrass, a former Harkins adviser who also has attracted support from council members, has pledged not to run in next year's race for the job. She said she believes the candidates considered by voters in the election should not include an incumbent chosen by the council.

"No one deserves the advantage of incumbency without the consent of the governed, and that's taken directly from the Declaration of Independence," said Snodgrass. "If Mr. Craig or anyone indeed wants to run for the office of county executive, then he or she should do so on the same playing field as anyone else."

Craig did not return several calls seeking comment.

The other candidates up for consideration by the council tonight are Republicans Susan B. Heselton and Frederick H. Ritzel, and Democrats Gunther D. Hirsch and Thomas E. Norris II.

Harkins' departure for Annapolis had been rumored for some time. He left last week to become the director of Maryland Environmental Service, an independent quasi-state agency that operates dozens of water and wastewater plants around the state.

Harkins' move created an unusual situation for the council, which has never had to make a midterm replacement of a county executive. The county charter gives scant guidance, stating only that the majority of the council must settle on a replacement within 30 days of the predecessor's departure.

The council went to work to devise a process for selecting a replacement, requiring interested candidates to submit letters of intent and scheduling a vote for tonight. The new executive would take office tomorrow.

The vote comes at a critical time for the county of 233,000 residents, which led the state in job growth last year.

In the next year, the county executive will lead the process of comprehensive rezoning, during which landowners can apply to change their property's zoning. A property's zoning designation determines how many homes or businesses can be built on a particular parcel and thus helps set its market value.

"What happens in the next 14 months is likely to shape the future direction of the county," said Richard Norling, a Harford County Democrat and former adviser to Harkins in his first term. "The comprehensive zoning review is going to govern ... where development happens in, say, the next 15 years."

Snodgrass, 47, said three council members have privately pledged their support for her and that Craig has gained the support of three other council members, with Councilman Richard C. Slutzky holding the key vote.

Slutzky would not say who he favors, but his criteria seem to point to Craig: The councilman prefers a Republican with executive leadership experience who would commit long-term to the county executive position.

However, Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said he is undecided between Snodgrass and Craig.

"The county executive is a very powerful position," Guthrie said. "When you can have a person in a position to draft a budget that is over a half-billion dollars and the rest of the entire county has little to nothing to stay about it, that's a lot of power."

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