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Harford County Council president picks [editorial from The Aegis]

The race for president of the Harford County Council is open because of incumbent Billy Boniface's decision not to run for public office, so the field of candidates seeking the post is relatively large.

The job is important. Since the establishment of in-district elections for council members, council president is one of the few countywide elected posts, and one of only two that bears responsibility for the overall county budget and tax rates (the other being county executive).

The council president is responsible for setting the legislative agenda - in much the same way that the speaker of the house is responsible for setting priorities in the national and state legislatures. Unlike in the national and state assemblies, where the leader is chosen by the elected representatives or delegates, the legislative leader for the council is chosen by the voters.

The person who holds the office needs to be able to build consensus to advance any meaningful legislative program. For more than a decade, pre-dating in-district elections, there has been no such consensus building, and the council has been largely a body that simply reacts to proposals put forth by the county executive.

In the coming primary, two Democrats and three Republicans are seeking the office, and a fourth Republican will be on the ballot, though he has pulled out of the race.

In the Democratic primary, voters have a choice between James D. "Jim" Thornton, of Churchville, an appointed member of the Harford County Board of Education, who is the principal owner of Thornton Real Estate Group, and is a former senior executive vice president of MBNA Bank America, and Christopher C. Boardman, of Joppatowne, a longtime political activist who has unsuccessfully run for office.

The choice is clear: Thornton's public office experience on the school board - limited though it may be - coupled with his substantial executive level experience in large corporations make him the best candidate.

The Aegis recommends Democrats cast ballots for James D. Thornton when they go to the polls June 24, or participate in early voting June 12-19.

Even since before Harford County became a Republican stronghold, the office of the county council president has been held by a member of the GOP. While there's no guarantee that trend will continue - politics always seems predictable until there's an upset - there's nothing in the air to indicate the next council president will be of a different party than the last five.

Though four Republicans are on the ballot, Jim Rutledge, of Norrisville, has withdrawn, and Todd Paterniti, of Abingdon, who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat, has maintained a low profile on the many media outlets for people seeking public office.

The two heavyweights in the GOP primary are incumbent Aberdeen-Churchville Councilman Richard C. "Dick" Slutzky and Robert S. Wagner, who served as president of the county council before Boniface and as the Aberdeen-Churchville county councilman before Slutzky.

Though both have experience in public office, much of it is unremarkable.

Wagner's career in public office, especially as council president, was noteworthy for its general lack of accomplishment. Budgets were passed, zoning issues were addressed, but these things end up on the agenda regardless of who is in office.

Slutzky, meanwhile, a career educator and legendary high school wrestling coach, who led athletes and teams from Aberdeen High to state titles, has brought an attitude of toughness to local politics.

He has met with a measure of success in advancing his agenda, though generally only when that agenda relates to softening development regulations, notably in the Churchville area on what had been the edge of the county's defined development center. He also was successful in getting a new elementary school built in an area where development pressure is strong, even as it meant the cancellation of construction of another elementary school that had been planned in close proximity to the most overcrowded elementary school in the county at the time.

In short, his public policy victories have been in the direction of minimally regulated development in a county whose voters often bemoan the rapid pace of development.

The choice is between Wagner, who represents a likely continuation of legislative lethargy, and Slutzky, who can be expected to be a bit more active, though in a way that allows for increasingly unfettered development.

Because Slutzky has shown himself to advocate for development policies generally not shared by the electorate, The Aegis recommends Republicans cast their ballots for Wagner.

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