Baltimore County executive candidates take questions on development, safety

Three men who want to be the next Baltimore County executive took questions Wednesday night at the Randallstown Community Center, covering points about blight on Liberty Road, traffic congestion, public safety, education and economic development.

County Council members Kevin Kamenetz and Joseph Bartenfelder, campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 14 primary, and former member of the House of Delegates, Kenneth C. Holt, who so far is the lone Republican in the race, talked for 90 minutes before a gathering of some 70 people. Although billed as a "debate," the format called for the candidates to respond to two designated questioners, but not to rebut each other.

Asked about getting rid of "blight" on Liberty Road, Bartenfelder offered the possibility of creating an "arts and culture district" on Liberty Road to draw visitors and spur economic development, although he offered no specifics about what that meant. Kamenetz argued for more vigilant enforcement of existing building codes and creating a "homeowner loan fund" to improve property. Holt said a "community conservation job corps" could work to clean the streets and plant flowers along Liberty Road.

Kamenetz had the most specific answer about traffic congestion in the Randallstown area, saying the problem would be eased eventually when the county completes the extension of Owings Mills Boulevard south to Liberty Road, a project now in the first phase that calls for an extension as far as Winands Road to be completed in a couple of years. Kamenetz also said curb cuts could be reduced on Liberty Road.

Asked how they would revive a struggling Owings Mills Mall, Holt said the mall was built quickly, and would benefit by a more carefully thought out, two-to-five-year revival program, including a new community center and a library and expansion of the Owings Mills extension campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Kamenetz said the multiple ownership of the mall made it difficult to establish a plan for change, and said he did not believe the mall could "thrive in its present format." Bartenfelder argued that the White Marsh mall is doing well because of the amenities around it, including the Avenue at White Marsh, a restaurant and entertainment strip. Owings Mills could benefit by following a similar model, he said.

In response to a question about whether cameras installed to catch speeding motorists were meant to improve safety or boost county revenues, both Bartenfelder and Kamenetz said they were meant to enforce traffic laws. Kamenetz said the county was "barely breaking even" on the cameras, which suggested that they were working. Holt said he disapproved of a government using speed cameras as a "revenue grab," but he did not say if he thought that was a fair description of the county's program.

Holt was clear about what he would do to improve county schools: make uniforms mandatory and establishing a "mentoring" program to help struggling students. He also said he would advocate a "school voucher" program, saying "choice in education is the right of any parent." Kamenetz stressed giving the schools the "resources" they need to improve student performance, but he did not offer specifics. Bartenfelder said programs should be expanded to include more vocational training for students who were not planning to go to college.

A question about where Randallstown would stand on the candidates' priority list allowed Kamenetz to point out that he announced his candidacy in Randallstown, not the county seat of Towson, as a demonstration of his commitment to the area where he grew up. Kamenetz was raised in Lochearn, and announced himself at the opening of the forum as a "proud graduate of Randallstown High School," although he graduated from the Gilman School, a private institution in Baltimore City. After the forum he said he had misspoken, and said he meant to say that he graduated from the old Campfield Elementary School in Gwynn Oak.