In Bel Air, 7 vie to be on board

Candidates for 3 open seats talk of budget, growth

Polls Open Tuesday

November 04, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Amid a thorny, three-part question on downtown revitalization at the Bel Air commissioner candidates forum, a dog's bark broke the tension.

The responding candidate paused briefly, made a joke about the pooch and launched into his answer.

"In 10 years as a police spokesman doing live interviews, I learned to go with the flow," said Edward Hopkins III, one of seven candidates vying for the three available seats on the commission.

The hefty chocolate Lab at the back of the room belonged to Commissioner David E. Carey, who is not running this year. He was walking the dog and stopped in to hear the candidates. Duncan frequently accompanies Carey's wife to her job as a political consultant, so he mistakenly assumed that the pet would feel right at home.

A crowd of more than 50 residents listened as the candidates introduced themselves, answered a series of questions and made a pitch for their election on Tuesday to a four-year term on the five-member board.

Robert J. Reier, who was appointed to the commission last year when his predecessor won a seat on the County Council, welcomed the audience, telling them, "Good government starts with citizen participation."

"The tools for addressing our problems are right here in this room," Reier said later. "We need constant feedback from citizens."

The Bel Air Downtown Alliance organized the forum, drafted the questions and posed them in random order. The first question dealt with the ability to handle the town's $15 million budget.

Bel Air's budget was $10 million four years ago, when Terry Hanley took office as a commissioner. The last two years of his term, he has served in the honorary role of mayor, and he hopes to keep the job.

"The budget has grown, but we have not raised taxes, and the quality of life has not gone down," Hanley said.

Reier, a chiropractor, said running his practice in town and participating in the fiscal 2008 budget process have given him a good background in fiscal management.

John Janowich, a state prosecutor who previously maintained a private law practice on Main Street, said, "No matter what the amount, the same principles apply: careful management before a dime is spent and consideration of the long-term impact."

As an assistant captain at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, Richard R. Davis helps oversee millions in assets and equipment. Hopkins, also a longtime volunteer firefighter and former president of the company, said, "You learn quickly where the money comes from and how to be fiscally prudent."

Patrick T. Richards, the chairman of the town planning commission, manages a $9.5 million operating budget for Laureate Education Inc. James Decker described more than 40 years experience with the town's budget, including a previous term on the commission.

The candidates also tackled questions on growth, parking, law enforcement and the expansion of town hall. Most agreed on the issues.

"We have made significant progress in the past four years," Hanley said. "But, as Bel Air has grown, we are feeling the pressures of growth and trying to maintain our small-town charm."

Decker, who has served on the planning commission and the board of zoning appeals, said that strategic planning and adhering to established guidelines were the keys to smart growth.

"We should get in harmony with the county government on growth," Decker said. "This county executive is more cooperative with the town than any we have seen in a long time."

Davis stressed the need for strong law enforcement and a productive Main Street. He said he would push for increased police salaries.

"We need strong police first," he said. "We need to get our police staff up to speed with the tools they need. Once we give them the dollars, we will retain them."

Hopkins said alleviating the parking shortage would encourage businesses to locate downtown and residents to shop there. A few candidates called for building a second multi-level parking garage. Janowich called that option a last resort, and Richards, who said he would like to see more residences downtown and a pedestrian-friendly environment, asked for a study.

"We should creatively look at the existing garage and see how well it is utilized before we consider a new facility," Richards said.

Although Bel Air has estimated a $5 million cost for an expansion of Town Hall, most candidates said they would rather keep government in the same building and use the funds for other, more critical projects. Hanley has twice voted against the expansion.

"We can't take on a capital improvement of this size without raising taxes in the next five years," Hanley said.

Those in the audience said they were impressed with the candidates' dedication, candor and knowledge of the issues.

"In elections like this, where there is not a great divergence, it is hard to decide," said Charles Clough. "You have to go with the competence you infer. I was impressed with the answers. Now I won't be voting for a meaningless face."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

BEL AIR VOTE

Voters will elect three town commissioners from seven candidates. The new commissioners will serve four-year terms.

When:

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where:

Bel Air Town Hall, 39 Hickory Ave.

Mayor selection:

On Nov. 19, the board will designate a member to serve one year as honorary mayor.

Information:

410-638-4551.

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