Leopold transition begins

County executive-elect sets up 50-member team, meets with Owens

November 15, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

With less than three weeks until his swearing-in as the new Anne Arundel County executive, Republican John R. Leopold set up this week a transition team of 50 members and began working in a no-frills government office on Riva Road.

Leopold, a five-term state delegate from Pasadena who emerged as the winner after absentee ballots were counted late last week, will announce some of his major picks to head agencies tomorrow. This week, he met with outgoing Executive Janet S. Owens, a two-term Democrat, to discuss the transition.

There's no time to lose in setting up shop, the newly elected executive said. Besides, the $125,000-a-year post is a dream Leopold said he's held for at least a score of years. - echoing Abraham Lincoln, whom he quotes often.

"Independence" is a watchword for the iconoclastic politician, who waged a one-man campaign that involved knocking on thousands of doors, waving signs along local roads, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his personal fortune.

Leopold and Owens discussed the future of the Crownsville property, a shuttered psychiatric hospital site badly in need of an environmental cleanup, he said, along with Fort Meade, the Army base due for a major expansion during his term. He did not disclose details.

More broadly, the executive-elect said, he has a message to send to large developers.

"They should have a seat at the table but they should not be allowed to drive public policy," Leopold said. "My government is not going to be controlled by them."

Outreach is also part of the plan, said Leopold, who has been known as somewhat of a loner in the legislature. He will get a threefold pay increase; as a legislator, he is paid $43,500 a year.

The first speech on Leopold's schedule - after declaring victory Friday - was at a local NAACP dinner over the weekend. He has named P. Tyson Bennett, a Republican lawyer from Annapolis, and a former city mayor, Democrat Dennis Callahan, as co-chairmen of his transition committee. Callahan lost in the Democratic primary for county executive.

"I've often said my administration will reflect diversity and build bipartisan bridges," said Leopold, 63. He gave up his seat in the House of Delegates to run for county executive and, although the race was too close to call on election night, he ultimately defeated his Democratic opponent, county Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, 51 percent to 49 percent, according to unofficial returns.

Among his top priorities, Leopold says, is revision of the county's general development plan at a time of fast growth that critics say has no limits.

"We should encourage mixed-use developments that include transit, places like Odenton's center," Leopold said. "And we should keep South County rural."

"I'd like to be a responsible steward of fiscal and natural resources," he said in his temporary office yesterday.

But, Leopold said, he doesn't intend to keep things at a standstill.

"I'll start a capital project schedule so that public facilities, work force housing and infrastructure keep pace with development."

Establishing a foothold and footprint quickly is a first priority, he said, given that several days of absentee and provisional vote-counting delayed the election outcome.

One perk that Owens has enjoyed is a daily security detail provided by county police. Leopold refused to say whether he will continue the practice, which has been criticized by some Republicans as a financial burden on the county.

"The public safety experts haven't determined what form [of protection] to take in this day and age of heightened security," he said. "We haven't come to any decision."

Unlike Owens, Leopold comes to the job lacking significant experience running a large agency, much less a county government with a $1.3 billion budget and 4,000 employees. But he's not worried, even though, for example, 10 union contracts expire in the first year of his term.

"We'll have a complete organization of a new government," he said. "This is the right time and place to begin. I have experience and know-how in federal, state and local government which will be helpful in establishing a new government."

His confidence held up well over the course of his old-fashioned campaign, in which Leopold became identified with the large red sign he held up in the middle of traffic.

"We peaked at just the right time," he said.

County Council member Ronald C. Dillon, Jr., a Republican, who was tapped to serve on Leopold's public safety and criminal justice transition group, noted that Leopold will have the benefit of a working majority on the council, which will again have four Republicans and three Democrats.

"My advice would be to make well-thought moves, not quick decisions" by his Dec. 4 inauguration," Dillon said. "The next four years are the most critical the county's ever had, with [real estate] recordation fees and housing revenue slowing down. He'll find out how people perform, who fits into his administration and who doesn't."

Dillon added wryly: "So far, Leopold's done a good job, but he's probably the most popular person in the county right now."


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