The race is on

Our view: Baltimore County voters tend to like a quiet, steady government in Towson, but big questions will await the next executive

May 03, 2010

With County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder's official announcement Friday that he will run for county executive, it's looking like we'll have the most hotly contested race for the county's top job since 1994. Mr. Bartenfelder, a veteran councilman and former state delegate, will face Councilman Kevin Kamenetz in the Democratic primary, and at least one credible Republican candidate, former Del. Ken Holt, will seek the GOP nomination. No matter what, the election will mark the biggest turnover in county government in more than a decade; in addition to a new executive, there will be a majority of new County Council members come December.

It often seems that Baltimore County voters believe the government that governs best is the one that governs most quietly. So long as it provides good schools, keeps crime from getting out of hand, picks up the trash on time and doesn't raise taxes, county voters seem generally satisfied. An Anne Arundel County-style tax revolt didn't go anywhere in Baltimore County, but neither would a progressive Montgomery County-style government. Term-limited Executive James T. Smith Jr. hasn't made a lot of waves in the last eight years, and, other than an ill-fated East Side redevelopment plan, neither did his predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Not surprisingly, none of the candidates who've announced so far are looking to change that, saying they will focus on bread-and-butter issues such as maintaining the quality of the county's education, public safety, economy and fiscal health. There's no doubt that those are the issues most important to county residents and should be the top priorities. But the next executive won't be able to run on autopilot. He (or she, if you can imagine such a thing in a place that has only elected one woman to the County Council ever) will face a series of tough issues in the next four years. Here are a few of them:

•Renaissance. An idea so central to Mr. Smith's first campaign for executive that he made it a verb, "renaissance" is the promise that older suburban communities can be redeveloped into attractive places for families to live, work and play — and most crucially, that this can be accomplished in a way that honors the wishes of the people already living there.

Eight years later, the results have been mixed. A building boom in places like Middle River subsided as the economy soured, and other parts of the county tagged for "renaissancing" (such as the Liberty Road corridor) have seen moderate improvements, not transformative change. Following through on Mr. Smith's vision is going to be essential if Baltimore County hopes to get a piece of the prosperity expected to accompany the move of military and related jobs to the Aberdeen area starting this fall.

•Uneven education. Some of Baltimore County's schools are among the best in the state. Others are far from it, and the gap between top performers and the bottom is growing. Eight years ago, the graduation rate at the top high schools in the county was about 15 percentage points better than the worst. Now the gap is 33 points. The promise of high-quality schools has always been one of Baltimore County's major draws, but a decade in which it has rapidly grown more diverse, both racially and socio-economically, has coincided with a time in which that promise was unevenly fulfilled. County executives don't set school policy, but they do determine the budget, and that gives them significant influence, if they choose to use it.

•Transparency. Tune in to a County Council meeting on cable, and chances are, no matter how closely you watch, you'll have no idea what just happened. Work sessions, when any actual debate about county business is conducted, occur in the middle of the day, when most people can't attend. Actual council meetings, which take place at night and are broadcast on the Baltimore County channel on Comcast, are a flurry of 7-0 votes bookended by the Pledge of Allegiance and adjournment.

•Fred Homan. Many people haven't heard of him, but County Administrative Officer Fred Homan has almost certainly been the most influential figure in county government during the last 20 years. Formerly the county budget director, he is without peer when it comes to keeping spending in check and is probably more responsible than anyone for the fact that county property taxes haven't gone up. The next executive would be well advised to take advantage of his talents but also to realize their limits. The most cost-effective solution isn't always the best.

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