Activist to run for seat on Balto. County Council

Myer, organizer for Isabel victims, may face Olszewski in primary


September 22, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,Sun reporter

A future in politics was the last thing on Bernice Myer's mind as she slogged through layers of bureaucracy, looking for answers after Tropical Storm Isabel devastated her Millers Island home and the homes of her neighbors.

But after organizing fellow victims to fight against a system they believed had shortchanged them on insurance payments - a fight that she said left her disillusioned with her local councilman - Myer said she decided she might have an easier time getting answers if she was part of the political establishment.

That and the encouragement of people she met through her Isabel efforts led to her decision to run for a seat on the Baltimore County Council, she said.

"If half the fight is just getting heard and being taken seriously," Myer said, "then that's a battle I won't have anymore - at least in this district."

Myer's entry into the race sets up a likely Democratic primary battle next year against the incumbent, John Olszewski Sr., a two-term councilman from Dundalk who coasted to re-election in 2002.

The race would pit a neighborhood activist and Baltimore homicide detective known mainly for her work on behalf of Isabel victims against an established councilman who has nearly $100,000 in his campaign account.

Olszewski, 45, said he has not officially declared his candidacy but that running for re-election is "my intention right now."

"I applaud anyone who tries to get involved in public service, but I'm pretty proud of my record," Olszewski said.

Myer, a 41-year-old Baltimore native with plans to retire from the Police Department early next year, said she knows she's entering the race as the underdog. But she said she has reaped results from her efforts as president of the Millers Island Community Association and as an advocate for Isabel victims.

Myer gained a measure of name recognition in the aftermath of Isabel as she organized families whose homes had been devastated against a flood insurance program they saw as broken - and, in some cases, as fraudulent.

"Without somebody like Bernice to pull these people together, these victims would have been looked at as a handful of malcontents rather than the dreadfully aggrieved group they truly are," said Steve Kanstoroom, a Talbot County resident who continues to work on behalf of victims of Isabel and other storms.

Myer, a married mother of two daughters, moved to Millers Island in 1995, became involved in the community association, and in 2001 became its president. The early part of her tenure was marked by efforts to build up membership and work on projects to improve the area, she said.

Then, Isabel hit in September 2003, flooding the first floor of her home.

She said she thought she and her neighbors would be OK - they had enough flood insurance to cover their homes if a big storm hit - but "it became clear real quick" that the help residents expected wasn't coming. Still, she said, all she heard from some politicians early on was that it was a "federal problem."

Myer said she began speaking to groups and rallying victims. Her Isabel Victims Citizens Group claimed about 200 members at one point.

During the process, she said, she became disillusioned with Olszewski, in part after he questioned a decision by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. to pay former Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen to investigate the insurance industry's response to Isabel. Larsen's report "validated our complaint," she said.

Olszewski said his only concern with the report was that it might duplicate state efforts already under way.

Olszewski said he worked hard to help Isabel victims, organizing meetings and writing letters to officials. "I applaud her for the things she did with Isabel, but people in the community know what I did as well," he said.

Two years after Isabel, Myer said her main involvement with issues related to the storm is through a federal lawsuit alleging fraud in the flood insurance program.

"Isabel may have bolstered me into the public eye, but there's a whole lot more to Bernice than Isabel," she said.

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