Oliver tries to keep support in turbulent council tenure

Councilman held state job in apparent charter violation

  • Baltimore County Councilman Ken Oliver is shown at his Randallstown office.
Baltimore County Councilman Ken Oliver is shown at his Randallstown… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
November 16, 2011|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

The councilman wouldn't return their calls.

Shirley Supik and her husband, Jeff, were trying to stop Baltimore County from tearing down the historic former Underground Railroad safe house they own. So, Jeff Supik stuck a note on the front door of Councilman Kenneth Oliver's home. The politician called them, angry that the man had gone to his house, but he quickly changed his tone.

"[My husband] said, 'I am a constituent and I need help. And you didn't answer my call, and I was desperate,'" Shirley Supik recalled of the encounter about five years ago. "And Councilman Oliver said, 'You are right. I'm listening now.'"

During his nearly 10 years in office, Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, has won over constituents such as the Supiks. But he's also disappointed former allies in a tenure that's proven turbulent.

Two years ago, Oliver pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, admitting that he wrote $2,300 in checks to himself from his campaign account. And recently he agreed to give up his job with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, because it apparently violated a county charter rule against council members holding state employment.

The latter incident led County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to propose adding teeth to the charter rule in an ethics reform package he unveiled this month, a measure council members are to vote on in December. And this week, the county Republican Party called on Oliver to return the council salary he earned while working for the state.

"People in the area are embarrassed" by Oliver's latest stumble, said Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council. "I think people are shocked that something like this happened a second time."

In a recent interview at his district office in Randallstown, Oliver said he doesn't let the complaints get to him.

"As long as I'm pleasing 80 percent of my constituents, and possibly 90 percent of my constituents, I'm fine," he said. "I don't care what you do, somebody's going to complain about it."

A sharper spotlight

Supporters and critics alike describe the 66-year-old Oliver as affable. He's a quiet man who brushes off criticism and traces his desire to improve his community to a childhood in Baltimore housing projects.

In 2002, new people showed up every Wednesday night for meetings at a two-story house that served as Oliver's campaign headquarters as he made his first bid for public office. He was running in a newly created district in the northwestern part of the county, one that helped increase the chances that a black member would be elected to the County Council. No African-American had served on the panel before.

"They were energized," recalled Oliver's former campaign manager, Billy Chase. "They finally had a voice. Instead of being part of a district, they were the district."

People were excited about Oliver's credentials, said Leronia Josey, an attorney who challenged the councilman in last year's primary and finished third among six candidates. He chaired the county planning board, worked in banking, and took an active role in the community.

"We were very happy to have somebody of his stature," she said, but once he got into office, his leadership style was "bland."

"I don't know anybody who would say he's not a nice man," Josey said. "But nice doesn't cut it, especially in a district like this."

Josey thought Oliver should have been more outspoken about failing schools. She also contends that he hasn't communicated well with constituents about economic development in the area.

"Maybe the man had a plan, but not many people knew about it," she said. "Maybe Mr. Oliver is just a quiet man who works out of the limelight."

Oliver fended off the host of challengers last year, winning re-election by 98 votes.

He is proud that he's attended every council meeting except two: He was absent once for his father's funeral and a second time for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, whose image adorns his wristwatch.

Born in Montgomery, Ala., Oliver moved to Baltimore when he was 3 months old. An aunt and uncle raised him in the McCulloh Homes community.

"I grew up in a household with a lot of love," said Oliver, who has three daughters and four grandchildren.

In elementary school, he won a scholarship to the YMCA, where he learned to swim. That's why he pushed for an indoor swimming pool at the Randallstown Community Center, a two-year-old facility behind his district office.

"I wanted other people to have the same opportunity," he said.

The community center — the county's largest — is among the many projects that he points to as major accomplishments in the 4th District. Others include the opening of a Home Depot in Randallstown, the construction of Windsor Mill Middle School and the expansion of the Woodlawn Library.

Oliver won't talk much about his stint at the state agency, except to say that he didn't know he broke any rules because he was a contract employee.

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