3 vying to be mayor of Mount Airy

Holt says demand of outside job is why he won't run


Three candidates have emerged to succeed Mount Airy Mayor James S. Holt in an election in which accommodating the town's rapid growth is likely to dominate the campaign.

Holt, a write-in candidate in the 2002 election who narrowly defeated a three-term incumbent, announced last week that he would not run again because of the demands of his job as a structural engineer.

Seeking his job at Town Hall in the May 1 election will be three men of varied political background: Richard Swanson, Frank Johnson and Keith Gehle.

Swanson, 61, a retired auditor for the Defense Department, is supported by Holt because the two both believe in balanced growth.

"When you grow you need to balance residential with commercial development," Swanson said. "Development is the umbrella issue in the election. Regardless of your position on growth, we have to face the fact: We need a new water source."

Johnson told the Carroll County commissioners that he would step down from his position as the county's legislative liaison in May. Even if he isn't elected, Johnson, a former president of the Town Council, plans to practice law again or take a job with a nonprofit organization.

Johnson, who worries about growth that outpaces the water supply, isn't concerned about balancing the responsibilities of work and public office. While council president until 2003, he commuted to Prince George's and Montgomery counties as a full-time attorney.

"I like to stay busy," Johnson said. "I'll put in the time to get the job done."

Gehle, 57, is a retired administrator who spent 32 years with the FBI in Washington. He echoed a message of controlled growth for Mount Airy. While serving on the town's planning and zoning committee, he supported the adequate public facilities ordinance adopted in September, which caps residential development.

The victorious candidate will earn $8,500 a year, up from the current $2,500 salary for the mayor.

The Town Council also voted to increase council member salaries from about $300 to $4,000.

Because of the demands of his new position with the Pentagon, Town Council President John Medve also has opted not to run.

In addition to incumbent Councilman Chris DeColli, three residents were named Monday night as candidates for two open seats on the council. They are John Woodhull, a retired satellite communications director, Gary Nelson, a high school teacher, and Jay Neuman, who is on the town's planning and zoning committee.

Candidates can be nominated in writing until April 7.

"I got interested in town government last summer, with the various water issues," Woodhull said. "During that process, I found the Town Council was actually discouraging citizen participation, the opposite of what it should be doing. We need more open government planning in the future."

Holt said the "battling and bickering" among the council members over growth, annexation and the water supply got to him. But that's not why he's giving up his seat as mayor.

Holt said he will be busy with a project to design a bridge outside Baton Rouge, La. He said he can no longer balance a long workweek and serve as mayor.

"Rather than doing two jobs halfway, I'd rather do one job well," Holt said. "That has to be the one that pays for the bread and butter."

With the exception of Baltimore, Annapolis and Frederick, most cities and towns in Maryland pay mayors token salaries. On top of mayoral duties, they must balance full-time jobs, unless they are retired or independently wealthy.

More than 90 percent of Maryland's mayors are paid less than $10,000 a year, said Jim Peck, research director for the Maryland Municipal League.

"Family and professional obligations do make it difficult for people," Peck said. "The demands of public office require significant hours put in, sometimes taking on thankless tasks."


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