Earlier this month, I completed my 40th year of working for The Aegis. I'm not exactly sure what day I started back in July 1972, but it was a Monday in the third week of the month.
Coming to work when I did, I thought I really had missed most of the excitement. I had spent the better part of the previous two years living and working in Ocean City - with a few months in D.C. and a few others in Illinois to complete my post-graduate degree. From afar – and, folks, in those days Ocean City was truly at the end of the world from September to May – I had read or heard or watched about the H. Rap Brown trial, the fall 1971 floods, the Bel Air fire and, of course, Tropical Storm Agnes, which I encountered on a brief visit to Bel Air the day I was hired.
By the time I filled up my desk in the old newsroom on Hays Street, the post-Agnes excitement was starting to wane and most of the talk gravitated to the approaching completion of Harford Mall three months away (some no doubt remember the Montgomery Ward (the current Sears space) had already opened and the approaching elections where not only would all the state and local offices would be filled, but voters were also going to be asked to select a new form of county government called home rule charter.
I wish I had some words of wisdom to share four decades later, but I really don't. If I had thought Ocean City was a backwater after growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and then spending five college years in Chicago, I wasn't exactly sure what to make of Harford. It seemed a little more hip than the lower Eastern Shore, but maybe not so much. Life on the Shore out of the summer season had reminded me very much of reading any William Faulkner novel or story you wished to choose - "The Reivers" was a good choice then because the movie had recently been out and I read the book in the summer of 1970 courtesy of the Worcester County Library.
Right before I left Ocean City, a friend and I had dinner together. He was a lawyer and the Ocean City solicitor and on his way to eventually becoming a distinguished state judge. Politics is serious business up there, he said in words to that effect. Harford was rife with political factions and alliances locked in a fight to death to see who would come out on top. My friend suggested that the newspaper would be closely involved and not necessarily as a detached bystander. With whom, he did not know, he said, but he advised me to keep my eyes open.
It was good advice, but when I look back to those early days, I sometimes think I was probably as much in the dark about what might have or might not have been going as was my friend who was counseling me before I left on my journey north.
Over the years, however, we've sort of wrung a lot of the politics out of the local media to the extent that we tend not to play any favorites, some people's views to the contrary. Still, the door is always open to talk and much more effort is made to get everyone's point of view in a story that has political ramifications. Frankly, I think that's a good thing, and something I will be happy to take partial credit for helping to change.
Aside from the philosophical, here are a few numbers I thought I would share with you:
In 1970, Harford's population was 115,000; today it is estimated at 246,000 by the Census Bureau - an increase of 140 percent.
The county's operating budget in 1972 was approximately $33 million, give or take a million or two. Today it is $618.3 million, an increase of 1,772 percent.
I couldn't find a comparative figure on total county debt for 1972, but I can assure you the $70-plus million the county just spent to build the Abingdon Water Treatment Plant expansion would have dwarfed the 1972 total debt by a factor of at least two.
Today, Harford's government - meaning its citizens - owes about $840 million in principal and interest on various debt instruments. This figure, which does not include another $42 million in booked future liability for landfill closing costs, works out to every man, woman and child living in the county owing $3,428.57.
In the fall of 1972, voters in Harford County approved the home rule charter by a comfortable margin and ushered in the era of a county executive and county council. In the same election, voters in neighboring Cecil County rejected a milder form of home rule and then did so with regularity for a number of elections afterward until 2010 when they approved home rule with a county executive and five member county council.
Cecil will be electing its first executive and three members of its first county council this November, plus two additional council members in 2014. For years, home rule foes in Cecil held up Harford's experience - and the rising cost of its government - as a reason not to approve home rule in Cecil. That argument didn't work in 2010, however, as the Cecil voters finally approved a charter.
Well, it may take another 40 years to see who was right, but 40 years ago, I believed the charter and home rule were the progressive approach that Harford should take to governing itself in the future. Was I a naive 20-something then? Perhaps.