A new Harford County task force is set to take on the thorny issue of traffic safety and how to prevent what safety officials have called a disturbingly high number of traffic fatalities.
At its meeting Tuesday, the Harford County Council unanimously passed a resolution creating a traffic safety task force, to be led by Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane and Maryland State Police Lt. Charles "Chuck" Moore, commander of the Bel Air Barrack.
Health department director Susan Kelly, public works director Bob Cooper and Larry Richardson, representing insurance companies, would also be on the task force. Cooper is retiring at the end of June.
"I am not aware that he is staying on in any capacity with Harford County Government following his official retirement date," county spokesman Bob Thomas wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
Councilman Chad Shrodes, who introduced the resolution, said the county had 23 fatal crashes last year, with about half in his district of northern Harford County, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
"I know it was a rough year throughout the year, but I remember receiving this and I immediately called Sheriff Jesse Bane and said, 'We have to do something about it,'" he said.
"This is to try to hit this head on so we can really make a stand here and try to improve our roads for all motorists," he said.
Bane said Shrodes has been "relentless" in moving this task force forward, and the county has done an "abysmal" job dealing with the fatality rate.
"It's not the responsibility of law enforcement alone to deal with this issue," Bane said.
Harford had the fifth highest fatality rate in the state last year. Bane said the county ranks fourth in the state so far this year and is on track to see the fatality rate continue to rise.
"It's increasing in dramatic proportions to the point that it's time Harford County looks at this issue as seriously as it looks at crime," he said.
Bane said it is not clear why many of the deaths are in the northern part of the county.
He said some of the victims are texting or on cell phones, while others cross over the center line or have other reasons for crashing.
"There doesn't seem to be any consistency or one factor," he said.
Bane said the infrastructure is not able to support all the traffic, and people in the northern end may believe they are in "wide open spaces." Drivers are also more distracted than ever before, he said.
"It's a puzzle that we haven't solved yet as to why the northern end of the county seems to be harder hit," he said.
Moore said the task force hopes to concentrate more officers in high-crash areas, and noted the spike in crashes involving people ages 16 to 26 is "enormous."
"It's like half of the crashes in our database now," he said, adding perhaps students could talk to other students about the problem.
Kelly said public health is about preventing injury and illness, and one of the country's top public health improvements has been reducing traffic crashes.
She said despite these improvements, traffic fatalities are still responsible for one in three deaths among teenagers in America.
She said traffic is "one area where public health and safety really intersect."
The council also approved seven charter amendments, which:
- Remove the two-year ban on ex-council members taking jobs with the county government after they leave office;
- Require that in filling a vacancy in the office of the county executive, the person selected must be of the same political party as the departed executive and be nominated by that party's central committee;
- Change a requirement that notices of legislation, hearings and other official documents be published in two newspapers to one newspaper and on "an official site that is accessible to the public;"
- Move the submission date for the annual budget to the council from April 1 to April 15 and the date for budget enactment from May 31 to June 15.
- Clarify that both major political parties, as well as any other political party with at least 15 percent of the registered voters in the last election, are entitled to two seats on a redistricting commission appointed every two years to recommend changes in council district boundaries;
- Give council members more latitude to discuss zoning matters than they are permitted, so that the ban on discussing such matters applies only to "current cases filed and pending;" and
- Add the positions of council auditor, council attorney and council aide to the exempt service, meaning those are at-will positions.
Councilman Jim McMahan defended the amendment to remove the ban on ex-council members taking jobs with the county government after they leave office, calling that an "antiquated" practice.
"Not only is the practice antiquated, but it deprives the county of using an individual that has gained valuable experience," he said, adding the person could bring needed knowledge to the "sometimes parochial" sphere of government.
Regarding any argument about the elected official having inappropriate power, McMahan said, "I find that argument to be only in the minds of those who do not understand the system and the many layers that exist [in government]."
He said the amendment would put Harford County in line with the 21st century, and said no other counties have this kind of restriction.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti wanted the county executive vacancy amendment to require the council president to immediately assume the position of county executive and the council vice president to immediately become president.
That addition was voted down by the council. Vice president Dick Slutzky said he had "huge" problems with it, questioning if a council president would want to be "thrust" into the role of county executive, for one.
He also said as vice president, he would not necessarily want to take over the council president's role.
"I perceive this as having some difficulties and certainly for myself with this particular amendment," he said.
Lisanti voted against the county executive vacancy amendment, explaining she does not think the temporary replacement should be chosen based on party affiliation.
She said limiting it to political party is "narrow-minded" and "limits access to government."
Councilman Dion Guthrie said he agreed a procedure of filling vacancies is needed, but also thinks it would be better to be open to anyone, regardless of party.
"The only thing that bothers me is it gives it the appearance that it's a partisan bill," he said. "If you're going to look for the best candidate, then you shouldn't cut your selection of the best candidate in half."
Regarding the two main political parties, he said, "the county's 50-50."
McMahan, however, said the amendment is just to fill a vacancy, and the county would still have an election.
"This is, in my mind, a continuation of the same party philosophy," he said.
Councilman Joe Woods pointed out the rule is "good enough" for the county council and the governor and other state jurisdictions.
Lisanti also voted against requiring county notices to only be published in one newspaper.
She said although The Aegis and The Record are owned by the same company, she is "very concerned" about what this bill would do to the future of The Record and what it means for its subscribers.
"Many people who have subscriptions to The Record don't care about what goes on in Bel Air, quite honestly," she said.
Sandra Tracy, an Aberdeen resident representing The League of Women Voters, said she supports the amendment on publication requirements, but suggested specifying the notices be posted on an "Internet" website, explaining it is crucial to include the word "Internet" for future purposes.
She said the League also supports the zoning amendment and the redistricting amendment, as it will "promote active and responsive citizen participation," and is more representative of Harford's growing population and members of smaller political parties.
Joe Fortier, of Fallston, said he has tried to talk with elected officials for five months about plans to build a gas line in Fallston and strongly supported the zoning amendment.
He said he has been "very, very frustrated with the lack of any council member, anyone in Harford County government, even sitting down and listening to what our concerns are."
Fortier said people need to be educated on zoning issues and he does not like "taxation without representation."
The council approved Tim Whittie to replace public works director Bob Cooper, who is retiring.
Lisanti was alone in voting against Whittie's appointment, explaining she felt the appointment has been very "rushed," as he was only announced a week ago, and thinks more time is needed to fill the important position.
In answer to Councilman Dion Guthrie's questions, Whittie said he has overseen a department of only 30 people before, whereas now he would be overseeing about 400.
Asked if he was comfortable with that, Whittie replied: "If I wasn't comfortable with it, I wouldn't have applied for the job."