Aberdeen City Councilman Bruce E. Garner, a Harford County businessman who fought for a county hotel tax and negotiated amendments to a controversial Ripken Stadium deal, died unexpectedly Saturday morning, according to his wife. He was 67.
Garner, a Massachusetts native and Army veteran raised in North Carolina, was first elected to the City Council in November 2009, serving a two-year term. He won a second term in November 2011, the first election after council terms were extended to four years, and his current term was to expire in November 2015. The cause of death had not been determined Sunday.
He married his wife, Joanne, when he was stationed at Fort Lee, Va., in 1970, and the two moved to Aberdeen three years later. The couple owned and operated Bayside Homes Ltd. in Havre de Grace for more than 25 years.
Garner was inspired to run for City Council after his daughter, Amy, faced difficulty trying to get a permit to build a home. Garner wanted to make the process easier to navigate. He had pride in the city and people around him telling him he would make a great councilman, friends and family said.
"He was very determined," Joanne Garner said. "He loved Aberdeen, and he was determined to bring it up in the eyes of the county and the state."
She called him "a man of integrity, honesty and generosity," for whom "family was number one."
Amy's husband, Tim Lindecamp, remembered his first Christmas Eve meeting Garner's family; Lindecamp had only been dating Garner's daughter for a few months.
"He took me outside and said, 'Well, you've met the whole family. If you want to get in your truck and drive as fast as you can, as far as you can — go ahead,'" Lindecamp said. "'If you stay, you stay.'"
Lindecamp stared back blankly. "Yes sir," he said, and walked back inside. "I remember it all the time," he said of the interaction.
Connie Travers Cage, a cousin of Joanne, said Garner was a generous, selfless man. During a difficult time in her life, Garner told her, "As long as I have a house, you have a place to live."
B. Daniel Riley, a friend who served as state delegate from 1999 until 2003, said Garner was somewhat disdainful of politics.
"He used to kid me about being in politics: 'How do you do it?'" Riley recalled. But the businessman saw a need for change, Riley said, and "he said the best way to change things is to be a part of it."
If Garner was initially cold to the world of politics, he warmed over time, representing Aberdeen on several state and local committees.
Garner was also a member of the American Legion and an avid supporter of Aberdeen High School athletics.
Among the councilman's chief political concerns was the Ripken Stadium deal, which was costing Aberdeen millions in debt and interest. Under the deal, the city owned the stadium, but most of the proceeds from events, including Aberdeen IronBirds games, was going to Ripken Baseball. Garner and Mayor Michael Bennett pushed successfully to have Ripken Baseball take on more of the costs.
They also pushed for a hotel tax to fund tourism-related endeavors in Harford County, Bennett said.
Cal Ripken Jr. — an Aberdeen native and namesake of the ballpark complex in the city — mourned Garner's death in a statement Sunday night.
"Bruce was a passionate and strong member of our community and he will be missed," Ripken said. "He was a big part of what we were able to accomplish in our hometown of Aberdeen and a man that so many of us at Ripken Baseball considered a friend."
Bennett, the Aberdeen mayor, said Garner was "one of my best friends besides being a great councilman."
"He loved people and put his heart into making Aberdeen a great place to live and raise a family," Bennett wrote on Facebook. "He worked hard to make sure we in city government planned for the future as well as taking care of business every day. I will miss him so much and his willingness to be involved and make a difference. Good bye my friend we will meet again."