Elections board due a nearly full turnover

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

April 01, 2007|By Larry Carson

With the presidential primary election less than a year away, Howard County's elections board soon will experience a nearly complete turnover in membership.

Because of the election of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland's local elections boards will change from majority Republican membership to majority Democratic membership. In Howard, Chairman Guy L. Harriman, a Republican and 10-year board veteran, and Democrat James E. Poole, a six-year veteran, are leaving. Brenda Morstein, the other Republican, has not attended meetings since an internal board dispute last summer.

The Republican alternate spot is vacant, so Ann Balcerzak, the alternate Democratic member, will be the only person to continue on the board after June, when the changeover will occur. The board consists of three members -- two of whom are from the governor's party -- and two alternates, one from each party.

The two new Democratic members will be Ethel B. Hill, who serves on the county's Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board, and Ray Rankin, vice chairman of the county Democratic State Central Committee. Their names, along with Balcerzak's, were confirmed by the state Senate after they were submitted in February.

Rankin, a 12-year central committee member and a systems administrator with Anne Arundel County schools, said he will resign his party posts in May. As a central committee member, he abstained from voting on elections board appointment recommendations, he said.

Hill, a retired Social Security employee and an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1994, served as an alternate elections board member in 1993-94. She said she looks forward to dealing with issues such as whether voting machines should produce a paper record for recounts.

"I think it should be very interesting," she said.

The new Republican member and alternate have not been chosen. Eight names were submitted to the governor's office two weeks ago, according to Loretta Shields, Howard's GOP central committee chairwoman.

Howard's board has had some unusual problems in the past few years, and although Harriman hopes calmer times may be coming he is ready to move on.

"It's time for some new blood and new thinking. It's been a fun 10 years, but it's also been tumultuous," said Harriman, 72.

The tumult began Sept. 25, 2002, when then-board Chairman Roland L. Howard Sr. collapsed from a heart attack while helping to count absentee ballots. He died three weeks later.

As chairman, Harriman led the board through several difficult situations.

They included the introduction of touch-screen voting; a lawsuit over pay brought by the then-board administrator Robert J. Antonetti; a search for the current administrator, Betty Nordaas; and the bitter, public dispute last year with Morstein.

In addition, the board refused to intervene in the court case over the hotly disputed "Comp Lite" zoning law, angering people who gathered more than 7,000 signatures in an unsuccessful effort to place the issue on November's ballot.

Harriman said it makes little difference which political party holds the board majority.

"It's almost like being the board of directors of a small corporation. Most of it is being kind of a steward," he said, and partisan politics rarely intrude. "Howard County has historically run good elections."

Balcerzak, who is an attorney as is Harriman, agreed that the board "really has been through a lot of difficult times. I foresee a smoother sea."

Back in the game

Leonard S. Vaughan, the former county housing director, and Neil Gaffney, his deputy, are re-entering the housing game after County Executive Ken Ulman bounced them for a new team in December.

Vaughan and Gaffney are principals in a new firm called the Shea Development Group, they said, which will specialize in helping smaller public housing authorities in the mid-Atlantic region by providing expertise in arranging private financing for renovation projects.

"We're looking to do some development work with public housing agencies," Vaughan said. "One of the things we're looking at doing is arranging for private financing to rehabilitate public housing." Another prospect involves developing single-room occupancy quarters -- similar to old-fashioned boardinghouses -- for people on the edge of homelessness.

Smaller authorities often can't afford such expertise in-house, providing a business opportunity and a way for the two men to continue working in their field.

Vaughan, 66, was county housing director for 16 years, and Gaffney, 60, was his deputy for a decade. Ulman hired Stacy L. Spann, a 33-year-old former Baltimore housing official who once lived in Howard County's public housing, to run the department, with veteran attorney Thomas Carbo as his deputy.

"Right now, we're just working from home," Vaughan said, adding that "things are looking pretty promising" although no contracts have yet been signed.

Gaffney said he named the company for the late Catherine Shea, his feisty 86-year-old aunt who died recently of heart disease. "I kind of liked that spirit," he said.

Government on TV

Cable television subscribers using the new Verizon service now can see the same government meetings available to Comcast subscribers for years.

Verizon users can tune to channel 44 Wednesday night to see the County Council debate and vote on the property tax cut for homeowners age 70 or older. On Comcast, the government channel is 70.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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