Volume 14, Issue 32 ~ August 10 - August 16, 2006

Shades of Green

Is Anne Arundel County Executive candidate George Johnson serious about the environment and can he go from sheriff’s khaki to Kermit’s green?

By Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly Editor

How is Anne Arundel County Sheriff George Johnson, a leading candidate for county executive, different from Kermit the Frog?

For Johnson, it’s been easy being green — or at least being seen as green.

In truth, there aren’t many opportunities for conservation in securing the court house, serving warrants and escorting prisoners to and from jail.

“Honestly I can’t,” Johnson replied, when asked to point to an environmental achievement he’d made as sheriff. The 52-year-old’s 34-year career in law enforcement — the first 22 as an Anne Arundel County officer and the last dozen as sheriff — hasn’t put environmental issues front and center.

Rather than green, brown was the color of Johnson’s best remembered environmental encounter, when a pair of bomb- and gun-sniffing dogs working for the sheriff caused a stink because handlers weren’t carefully scooping after the dogs’ potty-breaks on courthouse grounds.

Yet when green endorsements are handed out, it’s Johnson — among seven candidates for county executive, including fellow Democrat Dennis Callahan and five Republicans (see The Herd of Elephants: Vol. xiv, No. 20: May 18) who goes home looking like Kermit.

With the primary less than a month away, Johnson has collected three key environmental endorsements, three more than any of the other contenders.

Last month, The Sierra Club of Anne Arundel County threw the support of its 1,400 members behind Johnson.

“None of the seven candidates has had experience that’s directly environmental,” said Sierra Club spokesman David Prosten, explaining the endorsement.

“But Johnson’s written response to our questionnaire was by far the longest and most thorough of all the candidates for county executive,” Prosten said. “We also spoke to him at length and we’re impressed with his knowledge of environmental issues from the Bay to stormwater runoff to development. He struck us as someone who’s thought about these issues substantively and cares about them.”

None of the seven candidates for Anne Arundel County Executive have any specific environmental records, yet Johnson, second from left, has picked up the endorsements of professor and author Howard Ernst, left, Alliance for Sustainable Communties founder Anne Pearson, right, and the Sierra Club.

In a Bay Weekly interview, Johnson had this to say:

“I genuinely care, and I’m willing to learn about the latest technologies and recommendations. Anne Arundel County has 500 miles of shoreline, the largest among Maryland counties, so we need to take a leadership role and work with our partners at the state and federal levels so they’ll stand up and take notice.”

In a second endorsement, Howard Ernst — author of Chesapeake Bay Blues, a book documenting how little we are getting from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Bay restoration over two decades — has certified Johnson as a Blue Crab Candidate.

“George understands the price of restoration and feels strongly that the Bay is worth the cost of restoration,” Ernst said. “He does not have the record of some of his fellow Blue Crab Candidates, but he is a quick learner and has gained the trust of the environmental community.”

Third, Anne Pearson, founder of Alliance for Sustainable Communties, has endorsed George Johnson as “the only county executive candidate advocating for a Watershed Restoration Fund.”

Funded like the Flush Tax on a per-home ($5 per month) and business basis, the fund would raise $35 million a year to restore Anne Arundel County rivers and creeks by improving the management of pollution-laden stormwater.

“We took most of the candidates on a bus tour of problems and solutions,” Pearson said. “George was the only one who said, I see the problem, it’s tremendous. I’ll help!”

Johnson’s Shade of Green

“I’m the only one who has stepped up on the money for retrofitting our areas in need of better infiltration systems,” Johnson said, explaining his support of the proposed fund.

Infiltration, Johnson said, means ponds dug to trap stormwater that runs off impervious surfaces. The ponds are so constructed as to “filter and trap nutrients and sediments now going straight into river beds.”

Communities built from the 1980s on, he said, have infiltration systems. Earlier developments, including Anne Arundel’s traditional waterfront communities, were built before such mitigations were imagined. “It’s those communities we need to identify, and reach out to use the latest technology to trap nutrients going off into our waters,” he said.

“If we put these in — and many out there need them — we will do our fair share to clean up the Bay and tributaries.”

Johnson also said that he would “push the governor, whoever he is” to use proceeds from the Flush Tax to help people in Anne Arundel’s older communities purchase new sewage systems.

Maryland’s Critical Area law is another Bay protecting-tool. Anne Arundel has postponed revising its law until after the November election [see Alexandra Brozena’s story “Critical of Maryland’s Critical Area Law?” on page 12]. So the next county executive will have a say in that revision.

“We have to have a strong law,” Johnson said. “We need to do everything possible to protect our waterways, including setbacks, buffer zones and enforcing existing law. We’re probably going to have to bring on inspectors so we have more regulation and enforcement, so we don’t have surprises we can’t properly respond to.”

Responding to critics who see him as a good-ol’ boy lacking the vision to seek sustainable solutions, Johnson countered that, as sheriff, he “really embraced the newest, latest, best practices that have helped the office to do its work better.”

If elected, Johnson says that he would consider “transit zoning, so that developers build along our transit lines and rail systems so that people can go back and forth without cars.”

Outgoing executive Janet Owens’ handling of development issues has alienated conservationists, including some that have endorsed Johnson. How would he stand on development?

“I’m not a no-growth candidate,” Johnson said. “I’m a sensible-growth candidate, looking for solutions like revitalizing our neighborhoods and mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods so we don’t overburden our roadways and overcrowd our schools.

“We need to continue to build, and developers have a role to play. I plan on keeping a good working relationship with developers so they know what is expected from our government,” Johnson said. “But nobody buys my vote or anything from me for any particular purpose.”

Beyond Green

On a broader level, how Johnson has run his 10-month campaign is revealing of how he’d run Anne Arundel County. The clearest lesson is that he’d work at it.

There are not many places you can hide if you’re avoiding Johnson. You could retire to the Ladies Room, but he’d likely be waiting for you outside the door.

Many days, he’s making stops from the deep south to the far north of the county, so you might run into him at, say, Discovery Village in Shady Side in the afternoon and at the Glen Burnie carnival after dark. You’ll see him at church suppers, dedications of public and private works, crab feasts, senior centers, fundraisers, candidate forums, trash pick-ups and, likely, at your door.

August 5, for example, was a Saturday, so Johnson set out on a full day of campaigning. He started at 8am in Glen Burnie, handing out freshly assembled lawn signs to supporters. By 9:30am, he was working with Democratic Senate hopeful Ben Cardin to help clean up Edgewater Beach (pictured above). He spent the afternoon at the Blessing of the Fleet waterman’s festival at Discovery Village in Shady Side. From 6 to 11pm, he revisited the carnival in his home community, Glen Burnie, where voters — not the rides or the midway or the junk food — were the big attraction for Johnson.

His bountiful energy has made him as familiar to Anne Arundel County voters as Kermit is to Muppet fans.

“We have to have a strong law. We need to do everything possible to protect our waterways,” said George Johnson, 12-year Anne Arundel County sheriff who is campaigning for county executive.

The new county executive will manage a budget of $1.1 billion. That’s far and away bigger than his $6 million sheriff’s budget. But, said, Johnson, “The same kind of administrative skills have to be used to run any fiscally responsible agency.”

He’s raised more money than any other candidate: roundly $800,000, from some 2,000 donors, according to his campaign. That achievement is another indicator of how diligently a candidate works. It’s a rule of politics that to raise money, you’ve got to ask for it.

For money or for votes, asking is more efficient when the asker has a magic touch. You can succeed in politics without it, as Richard Nixon did. But the gift of affability — of stepping forward, grasping a hand, opening a conversation, locking eyes, patting a back, engaging attention, patiently listening — makes success easier.

For most of us, the complex chemistry of commitment has as much — maybe more — to do with what a politician makes us feel than what is promised. Johnson is a master at winning support by winning friends.

“I’m a good listener,” he says. “I consider myself a person willing to listen.”

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