When Baltimore County wanted to put a water tower in a wooded area of Reisterstown, residents knew nothing of the plan until they spotted surveyors on the property, George Harman recalls.
The community eventually got the project scrapped. But Harman, a Republican, says such lack of consultation with residents is part of what's wrong with the county administration led by Kevin Kamenetz. The Reisterstown community leader is trying to unseat the Democratic county executive in the November election, saying he can run a more transparent local government.
Harman sums up his platform like this: "Open, honest and ethical government."
His plan includes taking steps to encourage residents to get more involved. For instance, he has proposed a longer review period for significant legislation and evening County Council work sessions so that more people can attend. Work sessions are currently held on weekday afternoons.
A former president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council and the Hanover Road Association, Harman said he learned about the ins and outs of the local legislative process and the way developments are approved.
"I enjoyed the process so much — the interaction, the intrigue, the learning," he said.
Harman, 70, is an environmental consultant who grew up in Catonsville but has lived in Reisterstown for about 40 years. He won his party's primary by just 20 votes, prevailing over former county GOP chairman Tony Campbell. The official results weren't known for several weeks after the June 24 primary election because Campbell asked for a recount.
It's Harman's third run for public office. He ran in 1994 for the House of Delegates in a district that was heavily Democratic, he said, "more for education and understanding of the process." He also ran for County Council in 2010 and lost in the primary.
Harman worked for the state for more than 30 years, retiring in 2008 from the Maryland Department of the Environment, where he was a program manager. He said he supports land and water preservation, with a particular focus on water quality. He supports the work that is to be funded by a controversial stormwater fee, but opposes the levy, saying the county should have used existing revenues.
A self-described fiscal conservative, Harman said Kamenetz deserves credit for holding the line on property and income taxes. But the Republican said he would find ways to lower taxes, which he believes would stimulate business growth.
He said he would not support layoffs or drastic budget cuts to reduce government spending, but rather gradual changes and attrition to make operations more efficient. He supports the role played by the unions that represent county workers, calling them "very essential for public employees."
"You have to have a process for collective bargaining, and you have to have a process for dispute resolution," Harman said.
Harman's work in the community has given him an understanding of the nuances of local government, said Mary Molinaro, an officer of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council. He's able to explain things "the average citizen may not understand," like the county development process and environmental issues, she said.
"He's been helpful to the citizens that need help maneuvering through the system," she said.
Harman said he would strive for more resident input for local projects.
"Most of the development process is held behind closed doors," he said. "Developers, if they sit down and work with the communities upfront, typically can be encouraged to come to a compromise whereby both parties can benefit."
Kamenetz has been criticized by some for the political contributions he's received from developers, and Harman's campaign is tapping into that sentiment. His yard signs advocate "The best government money CANNOT buy."
A spokesman for Kamenetz said the executive did not wish to comment for this article.
Right before the primary race, Harman had just $100 in his campaign account, compared to Kamenetz's more than $1 million.
That disparity and the county's voter registration breakdown — Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1 — make him a decided underdog in the campaign. The county last elected a Republican county executive in 1990, choosing Roger Hayden over incumbent Democrat Dennis Rasmussen. In the last election, Republican Ken Holt garnered 46 percent of the vote.