Bel Air's election ought to be bigger than it is for most folks

Here's an attention-grabbing headline for you: It's election time in Bel Air!

Seriously, folks, don't yawn or turn the page. This is big stuff.

Of course, you wouldn't know it to judge from the few people who bother to vote in these elections, generally less than one of every seven who could participate. To my thinking, 14 percent doesn't scream democracy on parade.

Two years ago, Bel Air had a pretty stoutly contested race for two seats on the town board. If it had been a horse race, they could have thrown a blanket over the top three finishers, separated as they were by eight votes from one to three. Still, fewer than 900 people voted, out of 6,000, in a contest decided by absentee and provisional ballots.

This year, Greg Adolph and Susan Burdette are challenging three incumbents, Ed Hopkins, Rob Reier and Terry Hanley. Typically, the Bel Air town races tend to favor incumbents — one of the consequences of small voter turnouts — but Adolph showed two years ago he could campaign and attract votes.

Adolph finished out of the money, but just seven votes behind Dave Carey and eight behind Rob Preston. Both winners were incumbents with long service. Adolph had never run before and hadn't lived in town very long.

I don't know if Adolph can get over the top this time. Frankly, like many of you, I suspect, I haven't been paying that much attention to the campaign. I don't live in Bel Air, but I do work in town, so I am interested in how the town is run. Who actually governs it may not, in fact, be as critical as who actually does the work.

As a municipality, I think Bel Air is well run and has been for decades. The town staff is dedicated and hard-working. Most of those who work for the town live in it or close by, and they have more than a paycheck interest in how things appear and function. The services the town does provide are typically first rate. It's a clean place, and in my experience, cleanliness and quality of life go hand in hand.

Chris Schlehr, the town administrator, and his predecessor, the late Bill McFaul, have run a tight ship, as would be expected from people educated at the U.S, Naval Academy and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, respectively. Schlehr's sense of history about and genuine love of the place he has called home for most his life shows in how he conducts himself with the staff, the elected officials and the general public.

So, does it matter who actually sits on the town board?

Sure it does, in the sense that all government needs to function as a system of checks and balances if the public's interests are to be genuinely served. Somebody has to be responsible for deciding how to spend the residents' tax dollars and in what priority. Somebody has to decide how the town will look and what will be allowed and what won't. That's what people should be elected to do — protect and defend the quality of life. In Bel Air, that's generally what happens.

For a few, service on the town board has led to bigger, if not better, assignments in the arena of public life. County council, house of delegates, county executive, judge, school board president — Bel Air town board members have gone on to serve in all those offices and probably a few others I've forgotten about. But in the end it's not about starting out on a journey to political fame and fortune. Plenty of other town board members have tried for other offices and failed.

The Nov. 8 Bel Air election may not be a big deal on the world stage, but if you live in town and have an opportunity to participate, why wouldn't you? It's your hometown, after all.

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