Bay Weekly As a candidate for county executive, you’re a marathoner. How long have you been running?
George Johnson We started out in February of 2003 with our first fundraiser toward raising the necessary money.
Bay Weekly How often during this campaign have you had a night at home?
George Johnson Oh lord … For the last year and a half to two years, its been almost every day, every day, with very few nights I’ve been able to spend a full evening at home.
I have a tremendous wife, Linda, who knew going in that I had to be out and about in public because people needed to know I would look out for them.
Bay Weekly Taking into account what you did right and the opposition did wrong, what won you the primary?
George Johnson I like to just accentuate what we did right. We put a team together. We had a strong organization, and we divided the county up into sections and had people who helped us in putting word out. We were very active, out and about. We talked to civic associations; we talked to community groups. We knocked on doors. We had a great media approach. We had a great mailing approach. We used every available resource to get the message out, and I believe that’s where our success rose.
I like to think people met me and got to know George Johnson, they saw a very sincere and genuine person who tremendously cared for Anne Arundel County.
Bay Weekly You and your general election opponent had the biggest election bank accounts going into the primary. How much did you spend to win the primary?
George Johnson A ballpark figure? Around $250,000.
Bay Weekly How much more will you spend to defeat him?
George Johnson Whatever it takes. [The campaign would not release its holdings.]
Bay Weekly Have you paced yourself so you have the reserves to finish strong?
George Johnson Absolutely. Both personally and financially, we’ve got the resources, and I’ve certainly got the energy to get it done.
Bay Weekly What strategy will you use?
George Johnson The same as in the primary. I was very successful knocking on doors, phone banking, going to meetings, connecting with people all grass roots things. We’re hard campaigners and we’ll continue until the polls close at 8pm on November 7.
My schedule is page after page after page [which he flips through].
Bay Weekly Assuming your strategy will work again, let’s look at how you’ll run the county.
This is a huge county, and with so little local government nothing besides you and the seven county council people it’s hard for citizens to have a say in their future. What will you do to bring citizens into active, effective partnership?
George Johnson Any way, shape or form we can make it so our citizens participate in government is what I’m going to be all about. Bringing people together is the theme of our campaign.
We’re going to do signage, and there are electronic notifications that are possible to let people anticipate what’s going to happen and respond to change. There’s a constituent services bureau attached to county executive’s office, and I plan on using that to get the message out about any kinds of variance hearings. We’ll use the civic association meetings that the constituent services representatives attend. We’ll develop an information tree for emails. Wherever we can use an opportunity to share information with our public, we’re going to reach out and embrace it.
We have several appeals processes, and I want people involved as much as they can possibly get, as much as the law or government can allow. My bottom line is that I want this county to be an open book.
Bay Weekly The best partnerships in my memory were the Small Area Advisory Committees, begun under John Gary and making their plans under Janet Owens. Now, they’ve dissolved and who knows what’s become of their plans, which were supposed to direct growth community by community until 2025. What will you do to resurrect those plans and put them to work?
George Johnson Next year the General Development Plan is going to be revisited, and part of that is Small Area Plans, in which our citizens are going to play a very important role. We’re going to have representatives from the community with small area planning. They live in those areas, and I want their voices to speak to how growth occurs.
Bay Weekly How? Are you planning to reconvene the same citizen groups?
George Johnson Basically. Not the same people but we’re going to have the same representation from the various communities that make up the small area groups.
Bay Weekly The Small Area Planning process took several years. Are you talking about repeating that kind of process?
George Johnson No. I want to expedite. I don’t want the same laborious, long-term, drug-out situation. I’d like to see it done in a much quicker fashion so we can get all these plans in place, so we know early on in the 10-year plan we’re going to have this Small Area Plan to work with.
Bay Weekly What are you going to do with the original plans?
George Johnson I would hope with all the old plans that we won’t have to reinvent the wheel. You’d take the old plans as a base line to work with and move from there.
Bay Weekly Speaking of development: Everybody does, and never with any kind words. We’re past the time where we can rush heedlessly into the future. Do you believe in managed growth?
George Johnson Absolutely. But sensible managed growth. I am not a no-growth candidate but one that’s going to profess a very sensible way of growing.
We have got to slow this growth down; it cannot continue at this pace. But we still need growth. I’d like to see more effort toward commercial growth in areas of the county where it would benefit us the most. Commercial growth will not bring in traffic that residential communities bring. That will help us keep more green space. At the same time we’ve got to create more open space so we do not have what we’re facing today in congestion and sprawl.
Bay Weekly How will you manage growth?
George Johnson I think that’s going to come with the General Development Plan.
Bay Weekly Commercial growth is a scary word in lots of Anne Arundel County, especially in the south. Developers found that out when they tried to bring Safeway to Deale, where you joined in a forum at the Elks Lodge the other night; they’re learning it again in Wayson’s Corner over Target. Where do you intend to direct commercial growth?
George Johnson Certainly not our South County. We have eight million square feet of commercial available, basically in our northwest sectors, that can still accept commercial growth, and we can benefit from the revenues it brings in. I want to keep South County in the pristine shape it’s in and do everything humanly possible to make sure the Small Area Plans down there are adhered to and make sure our farmland and all the open space in South County is cared for and preserved
Bay Weekly What do you think your biggest challenge is going to be should you move into the Arundel Center?
George Johnson The biggest is the BRAC movement [Base Re-Alignment and Closure: the national, large-scale shifting of military jobs] into Anne Arundel County. It’s going to be very important for me as county executive to make sure I connect with every player involved in BRAC because this is really going to be regional.
We as Anne Arundel residents are going to be the hardest hit because it’s situated right in our county. It’s not a question of if it’s coming. It’s a question of when. It’s projected to be here by 2010. There’s going to be some early movement of people, but the bulk of 5,200 jobs is going to be here in 2010. With each job come two subcontractor jobs, realizing 15,600 jobs in that time frame.
Along the way NSA, the National Security Agency, is hiring, I’m told, between 1,500 and 1,700 new jobs every year now, so we’re realizing that influx of new jobs, as well. All told, it looks like 25,000 new jobs coming to this area by 2010.
All this affects our infrastructure, so it’s going to be very important that we get together with the builders, the developers everyone involved so we’ll be prepared when they send those jobs up from Northern Virginia. We’ve got to make sure housing is available, that our roads are properly addressed to handle the increase in traffic, our police and fire response is taken into consideration.
Bay Weekly How are you going to get to the Arundel Center from your home in Glen Burnie?
George Johnson Drive.
Bay Weekly By 2010, when you’re seeking reelection, all of us drivers are likely to find ourselves gridlocked. What are you going to do about congestion on our roads?
George Johnson This is where our managed growth effort has to take place. We need to embrace more mixed use so we can get people to live, work and be near shopping. We need to create more public transportation to get cars off the road. Now’s the time to do it. Even though we’re seeing gas prices drop 60 or 70 cents a gallon, there’s nothing to say prices won’t go back up again. Gas at $3 a gallon is making people think of using public transportation.
It’s getting to the point that we’re considering a separate department of transportation to deal with congestion so we can encourage more confidence in public transportation.
Bay Weekly Metro works, but it takes a long time to build. What sort of options do we have in Anne Arundel County?
George Johnson I think we need to walk before we run. We need to develop some reliable bus transportation, for instance working with the city of Annapolis on the West Street and Forest Drive corridors. For instance extending the Metro Green Line for BRAC coming out of D.C., going to BWI and Fort Meade.
But that’s going to take time. In the meantime, you need quicker fixes, and for me the quickest fix is a good bus system that people will be confident in using because it’s predictably on time.
The real thing is creating walkable neighborhoods. I think you’re going to see more of that in Anne Arundel County going right from their homes to businesses or using bicycles, and that does a lot for our environment and getting people the exercise they need.
We’re thinking also of Transit Zoning right next to our MARC and light rail corridors. Wherever we can find where we can build homes walkable to transit, people don’t have to resort to vehicles.
Bay Weekly Since you’re thinking sustainably, how will your plan lessen harm to our waterways, which give our region shape and character?
George Johnson The biggest is to have a good Critical Area Law to protect waterways and make sure we have buffer zones and proper zoning and the proper number of inspectors to deal with violations so we continue to show aggressive protection.
We also have terrible stormwater runoff. In our older communities, banks are eroding and nutrients making their way into the waterways. It’s put our Bay and rivers in bad shape.
We need to come up with a dedicated funding source after we use the county budget and grants the federal and state government offer.
We’re going to have to take leadership in Anne Arundel because we have the most shoreline in the state. If we do that, we feel state and federal government will step up to help us.
Bay Weekly You have supported the Watershed Restoration Fund proposal for a fee similar to the Flush Tax
George Johnson Yes I have. What I want to be clear is that I also want to use the county budget process and grant procedures first before we reach out and ask our citizens for additional tax monies, fees, whatever word you want to put to it. And I want to make that as minimal as possible.
Bay Weekly Working under a revenue cap as you must, where will you get the money to do all we’re asking of you?
George Johnson The tax cap is not going away; we all know that. It’s a mandate set down by citizens of Anne Arundel County years ago, and set down in a very definitive way: 70 percent of the county said they wanted it.
We’re going to have to be very creative and innovative in our approach to bringing monies and developing additional revenues to come into the county. We’re going to have to work with our state and federal governments to bring in monies, because state government is a partner in a lot of projects, schools and roads, as is the federal government.
There’s only a finite amount of money to go around, so we’re going to have to establish priorities on what is important one, two, three, all the way down the line and work with the money we have on hand.
Bay Weekly What’s your Number One in that line?
George Johnson Education. Education has to be the first priority of any county executive. An educated society is a successful society. We have to make sure we do everything humanly possible to provide the best possible education we can. The way of doing that is providing the necessary resources to our superintendent and school board to carry out their plan so our children from kindergarten through high school and community college are looked out for.
Bay Weekly What’s one way you’ll do better than our last county executive?
George Johnson I think our present county executive has done the best she thinks she can do. The area that is probably going to see the biggest improvement in my administration is communication. I’ve always been a strong proponent of making sure everybody is informed and has an opportunity to speak. I’m a good listener and plan on being active out in the community and giving people opportunity of saying what concerns them.
Bay Weekly County executives are like development in that you seldom hear a good work spoken about either. Are you sure you still want this job?
George Johnson Absolutely. I love this county.
Delegate John Leopold, Republican
Bay Weekly In this race, you’re a marathoner facing a marathoner. When did you get in?
John Leopold I started in April 2003.
Bay Weekly At this stage of the long race, how’s your energy? Have you the reserves to finish strong?
John Leopold I always believe when you round third, you need to accelerate.
Bay Weekly How are you going to do that?
John Leopold Continuing the effort begun three and a half years ago: As much personal contact as possible, reinforced by direct mail and newspaper ads.
As of September, there’ve been 23 forums of county executive candidates. September 29 was at the Odenton Firehall; the night before that at the Deale Elks, in a precinct I won in the primary.
My primary strategy was to stay close to one competitor [Phil Bissett] in South County and another in the west [David Boschert] and win in the north. I was pleased that I did win the north and also not only stayed close in their areas but also carried precincts. So my strength was across the county. That augurs well for the general election, because if I can do that well among the hard-core Republican base, my greater strength lies with more moderate voters.
Bay Weekly What won you the primary taking into account what you did right and the opposition did wrong?
John Leopold I don’t think they did anything wrong. They ran strong campaigns.
I knew I had to engage in a Herculean effort to prevail. I’ve always believed in the force of personal contact, and that would require three and a half years of hard work.
It’s like studying for a test. If you do your homework every day, you don’t have to cram the night before.
Bay Weekly You and your general election opponent had the biggest bank accounts. How much did you spend to win the primary?
John Leopold $125,000.
Bay Weekly How much more will you spend to defeat him?
John Leopold Money won’t be the question. I have enough to reinforce personal contact, $325,000 in the bank as we speak and will have more from fundraisers this month.
Bay Weekly Assuming your strategy still works, let’s look at how you’ll run this huge county with little place for citizens at the table. What will you do to bring citizens into the decisions that affect their lives?
John Leopold While I campaign individually, I govern collaboratively and have for 30 years. My constituent service has been hailed by many, including my opponents, and I hope to enhance and expand that service as county executive. One of my priorities is to institute a 311 system, similar to 911, so if a citizen contacts a department and does not get the prompt, courteous service he or she deserves, that individual can call a live human being in my office, the county executive’s office, and we’ll cut through bureaucracy.
I also commend the incumbent executive for her excellent community service program, which I intend to retain in its current form, with community relations representatives in all parts of the county. I intend, if I can, to have a north county office, spend some time there each week so I’m more accessible.
But again, I want to provide essential services at less cost, so I’m not going to increase the cost of government.
Bay Weekly The Small Area Advisory Plans were created by citizens to direct growth community by community until 2025. What will you do to bring citizens back into planning for their futures?
John Leopold I’ve just met with riverkeepers interested in the revision of the Critical Area Law, and I welcome input in a formal way on specific subject areas such as the environment, managing growth, inspection and permits, public education. I intend to have committees of citizens to provide input on key issues.
I welcome ideas even if they’re not in sync with my own. It’s important in the cauldron of ideas to hear different voices. I don’t have any trepidation about oversight. If these citizen committees I create also provide oversight over actions I take, legislation we create and my administration, I think that’s a plus.
So I’ll be very hands-on, very collaborative, as l have been in my 20-year tenure in the General Assembly.
Bay Weekly So you’re saying you believe in managed growth?
John Leopold Managing growth is the central issue in the county.
Bay Weekly How will you manage growth?
John Leopold I intend in my first year to begin the revision of the General Development Plan. That is the central guiding force of channeling growth. It involves preservation of open space, keeping South County rural, revitalizing older communities where the infrastructure’s in place, and an interdependent network of transportation issues, transit-oriented development: All those factors are going to be coalesced in the General Development Plan, where citizen input will be critical.
At the state level, there is a consolidated transportation program that receives input from all local jurisdictions. Everyone knows when projects are going to occur. There hasn’t been that kind of certainty with planning in Anne Arundel County. I intend to institute a capital projects schedule so everyone citizenry, community associations, developers understands when projects will be designed and built.
There’s been too much readiness to allow development without providing the necessary infrastructure. And, I add, we look at the impact of individual subdivisions without looking at cumulative impact of many subdivisions.
Bay Weekly You’ve funded much of your own campaign. Have you also accepted campaign contributions from developers?
John Leopold I’ve received money from that segment of the population. There are two kinds of developers: Those who want access and those who want control.
The county executive should be accessible but not controlled by the development industry. That is one of the reasons I ran. The perception is that all the county executives we’ve had since charter government began have been too closely tied to the development industry. Their voices should be heard, but they should never be the dominant driver of public policy in the county.
Nobody will control this county executive.
Bay Weekly Since you’re thinking sustainably, tell us how you plan to reduce the harm we do to our waterways …
John Leopold Strict enforcement of critical area and sediment control laws and other antipollution laws, like noise abatement. Part and parcel of that is providing adequate enforcement and personnel and realistic sanctions that bite.
Bay Weekly And to preserve land from development?
John Leopold If you were to plot the percentages of developed land and preserved land, in recent years developed land supercedes. I want to bring that back into balance. That means managing growth more effectively and securing Open Space state dollars for agricultural easement, open space and recreational facilities. The whole purpose of the transfer tax [the source of Open Space funding, paid on real estate transactions] was money to be used to preserve land.
Bay Weekly How are you going to get to the Arundel Center?
John Leopold Drive.
Bay Weekly That’s what we all say. How do you plan to cut through the congestion when we all drive?
John Leopold One of my priorities is to provide neighborhood shuttle service so that people will use mass transit. They’re not getting out of their cars if it’s not convenient to go from home to where mass transit is available. We have two such shuttles in the state, both in Baltimore. I’ve tried to get more money out of the Transportation Trust Fund for these shuttle services.
I also support the extension of the Metro Green Line from New Carrolton up through Forte Meade to the Odenton Town Center and BWI.
I intend to make as priority the expeditious funding of MARC parking at Odenton, and elsewhere where we need MARC funding. We’ve got a demand we’re not meeting.
Bay Weekly Working under a revenue cap as you must, where will you get the money to do all we’re asking of you?
John Leopold We’re a tax-averse county. Seventy percent of the people in this county support the tax cap. That’s reality.
When I was in the legislature, I had to be able to count to 71 because I needed 71 votes to get a bill out of the House. As county executive, I need four votes. Here’s what I mean.
Our stormwater pollution problem is a serious one I’m going to address and find the money for. But I’m not going to do it with tax increases. The four Republican members of the County Council today will all be reelected in my judgment, and I’ve not found one to champion the cause of a tax increase.
The votes are not there on the County Council today for that tax, fee, whatever you call it.
Just as I did in the General Assembly, I don’t ask for a bill unless I have a fighting chance to get it passed. It could be counterproductive in the future if I suggest this solution that doesn’t have support.
I hope to use the savings from restructuring county government to achieve the cost, about $20 or 25 million. I can save maybe a million dollars, while showing people I’m going to cut costs to provide essential service. And I can use those services to leverage state dollars. I hope to do the same with storm management, school maintenance.
Bay Weekly That doesn’t sound like enough money.
John Leopold We already have a way to bring in more.
Since we’ve had the tax cap in this county, 1992, there’s been $150 million we could have used for essential services but didn’t.
Rather than taking the maximum tax allowed under the cap, county governments have reduced the tax rate, thus bringing in less money than we could have had. That money is lost forever.
Reducing the tax rate is very popular, and I don’t intend to do anything different until I can establish that foundation of trust. It will take me about a year to restore a foundation of trust on fiscal matters in the county.
If in the future I’m able to prove to citizens I can reduce costs and utilize those monies to leverage state dollars, maybe we can talk about maximizing the dollars within the tax cap.
What’s more, the General Assembly looks skeptically on any local government that’s not willing to step up to the plate and make its contribution.
Bay Weekly So you’re also talking about filling the gap with state money?
John Leopold State dollars are another source. Consider transportation.
Two years ago, I was successful in the General Assembly in getting legislation that says whenever there’s a budget surplus, $50 million of that must go back to the State Transportation Trust Fund.
It’s called the Transportation Trust Fund because people are supposed to trust their government to spend money as intended. Instead, the state has essentially balanced the budget by reducing money in three pots that would go to local governments. Waterway Improvement Fund reductions; Project Open Space reductions; Transportation Trust Fund reductions. This governor isn’t the only one who’s done that. There was a policy decision made not to increase sales of income taxes, which was a fine decision, but at the same time, when money’s taken away from the Transportation Trust Fund and moved into the General Fund to balance the budget, local governments get the short end of stick.
We desperately need a constitutional firewall for transportation funding. To restore that foundation of trust, we need a constitutional amendment that says whenever the state administration takes money from the trust fund to balance the budget in an emergency, they have to repay that money within a certain period of time.
I tried to get the current administration to do that. Unfortunately, they did not push that, but I’m going to continue to prevail on the General Assembly and the state administration to set up that constitutional firewall. I think only then will the public be willing to support further enhancements for the trust fund.
Bay Weekly What do you mean by further enhancements?
John Leopold The state spending more money on transportation.
Bay Weekly More taxes?
John Leopold Well, I’m not saying that, of course, because I want to survive politically. But I think that eventually we’re going to have to face the reality that we need greater investment in transportation.
Bay Weekly Will your experience in the legislature help you to eventually turn on that pump?
John Leopold The second largest source of revenue for Anne Arundel County is the state. First is property tax and third income tax. So the relationships I’ve built are invaluable as I seek to secure much-needed dollars for Anne Arundel County.
That’s why I think it’s extremely important for the county executive to have legislative experience. All but one came from the General Assembly, Janet Owens, and her lack on occasion was telling.
Number two, it may well be that the Board of Public Works will have two members with legislative experience, Nancy Kopf the state treasurer and, likely, Peter Franchot the next comptroller. I’ve enjoyed an excellent relationship with both of them. In terms of getting Public Works support for Anne Arundel County, I have a leg up.
Bay Weekly With all this on your plate, what will be your first order of business when you move into Arundel Center?
John Leopold Find the men’s room.