Burton on the Bay:
Sizing Up Executive Owens
Shes Got Five Tough Acts to Follow
It is glorys small change.
--Victor Hugo in Ruy Blas, 1838
It seems many folks hereabouts are concerned with Y2K, the big step into the new millennium and the vulnerability of computers when the calendar turns to January of 2000.
Me, Im more concerned with these words of Victor Hugo and how they apply to our new county executive Janet S. Owens. From what weve seen so far, shes a populist: give the common people what they want and in so doing reap popularity.
Sounds nice, democratic and popular. But is it a way to run county government?
Hey, dont get me wrong. I think Janet Owens is a peach of a lady. I voted for her in the primary, but Im troubled: Is she too nice? Is she too intent on being popular?
Of all our presidents, Jimmy Carter was among the nicest and most compassionate, but recall the dark days of his administration.
Five Tough Acts
In Anne Arundel County, Owens has a tough act to follow. Five tough acts involving a quintet of tough players: Act I, Joe Alton; Act II, Bob Pascal, Act III, Jim Lighthizer; Act IV, Bobby Neall; Act V, John Gary Jr.
Four Republicans and a Democrat, all tough administrators and fiscal watchdogs were capable of making difficult and unpopular decisions. Their legacy responsible administrations is a countywith reasonable taxes, service and efficiency.
Somehow, they were business friendly without being too unfriendly to the environment. On some environmental issues we disagreed, but if the bottom line means anything, consider the wealth of parks and other recreational facilities in this county, where we were penniless under the previous county-commissioner form of government.
All five knew how to say no, and our tax rate reflects the benefits of their doing county business in a business-like way. When Joe Alton left office, the tax rate was exactly the same as when he took over. Ill wager that wont be said when Owens departs. One wonders whether she wants to please too many constituents. Or whether there are too many campaign promises to keep. And methinks shes the type who would keep her promises, which is a breath of fresh air. But is she tough enough?
Was it toughness or vengeance when one of her first acts was to can County Police Chief Larry Tolliver? He had a long resume, but she wanted him out because he involved county police in politics: something about a picture of some uniformed cops gathered around Gary in his campaign literature.
Owens was and remains a cheerleader for schools -- didnt I see campaign pictures of her with teachers? But teachers dont wear uniforms, so not much was said about that.
Our new county exec didnt want a political police department, okay. So, lets not have a political school system.
Too Many Promises?
Its nice to put education high on the priority list, but is Owens among those who think that money will solve anything? Pile up the bucks: students will behave and get As.
Education undoubtedly won her the election. Her campaign focused on giving the schools, its teachers, administrators, parents and students anything they wanted.
In an election year, John Gary had the nerve to insist the school system -- so top heavy with bureaucrats -- should be fiscally responsible. Somebody had to ride herd on school spending, and seeing it was his job to run the county, he took on the unpopular task of letting the electorate know it takes more than money to educate kids.
A lot of parents who consider schools as their youngsters day cares didnt like such talk. Who can doubt that now with Owens in the catbird seat, teachers will get more money? Who can but wonder where it will come from?
Nothing wrong with teachers being paid more. Nothing wrong with taking a lot of fluff from the upper echelons of county school administration, either.
Somethings gotta give. When estimates indicate there will be less than $40 million available for new spending by all departments combined and the free-wheeling school board talks of picking up $56 million in new education spending, one needs only basic math to realize somethings wrong with the equation.
Then we hear of a hiring freeze. Owens is apparently considering one as a path to paying teachers and other union workers more. Unless she has some unique idea secreted in the budget shes currently working on, how could a hiring freeze not mean fewer services somewhere else?
Baby Out with the Bathwater?
There are many other questions. Does the new county executive want to toss the baby out with the bathwater in her desire to abolish pensions for the County Council -- and her own job? Certainly, some of the golden parachutes of the past were unreasonable and excessive, but public service warrants reasonable rewards. Emphasis on reasonable.
Hardly had the county chief taken office when she decided she needed bodyguards, something new for her job in this county, and now she has two full-timers, one at a time at her service. Nothing wrong with that either, but it seems out of character.
An avowed critic of the proposed NASCAR track at Pasadena, Owens demoted and transferred her top aide because she was a sister-in-law of a lobbyist for the project.
One can understand why she might fear an appearance of conflict of interest. But as the old saying goes, you can choose friends -- not relatives. If Linda Gilligan was doing her job right, she didnt deserve an $18,000-a-year pay cut -- and wouldnt have gotten one from Owens predecessors. I read in this mornings paper that Gilligan has now left county government.
Even so, Gilligan fared better than the speedway. It has gone down the tubes thanks in great part to Owens opposition -- and her apparent wishes to be a populist in North County, where organized community groups fought a plan to bring big-time auto racing to the area, which would have cleaned up a toxic wasteland, provided jobs galore and improved the tax base.
In Baltimore, stadiums are built at taxpayer expense for wealthy owners. In Anne Arundel, the county executive doesnt want stadiums -- even if the owner pays.
Its going to be interesting as we approach 2000, but hopefully therell be no Y2K glitches in county government.