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Thornton challenges Slutzky's record in Harford council president race

Richard Slutzky, a 12-year council member, is seeking the presidency of the Harford County Council in Tuesday's general election.
Richard Slutzky, a 12-year council member, is seeking the presidency of the Harford County Council in Tuesday's general election. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Two men with backgrounds in education and experience with Harford County politics are running for Harford County Council president in the Nov. 4 election.

Jim Thornton, a school board member and businessman, is challenging County Councilman Dick Slutzky, who is seeking to move up to the top spot on the council.

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It has been a contentious campaign with Thornton repeatedly criticizing the record of Dick Slutzky, who has been on the council since 2002. Slutzky is a retired high school teacher and athletic coach known by some as "Coach Slutzky."

Slutzky, while responding to charges, says he's primarily focused on running a positive campaign.

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Thornton recently took out full-page ads in The Aegis criticizing Slutzky's leadership on land use leadership, including his support for the construction of Red Pump Elementary School instead of a previously approved site on Schucks Road in the Campus Hills community, tax-increment financing of Beechtree Estates in the Aberdeen area, a proposed retirement community on Bel Air's former Eva-Mar farm and the new Walmart planned for the Route 924 area of Bel Air South. Slutzky refutes all of Thornton's claims.

Thornton, 66, also called out the council's history with county education, saying "we have had enough of passing the buck."

"The County Council can no longer just sit back and say, 'We've done all we can do,'" Thornton said in one advertisement.

Thornton, a Democrat, said he was not attacking Slutzky, a Republican, but rather just giving voters an alternative.

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"We tried to simply give the voters a choice by sharing with the voters my experience and my opponent's record," Thornton, who founded the Thorwood Real Estate Group in 2004. "I don't see a long list of accomplishments, and just to be on something 11 or 12 years shouldn't automatically suggest you are a leader."

Slutzky, 72, said he is concerned about the campaign in terms of having "opposition that is willing to say things that are not accurate or true, in many cases."

"I think there has been a lack of transparency," Thornton said about his problem with the county council. "Whenever you get communities that are up in arms, whether it's the Walmart in [zone] B3 or if it's Eva-Mar, it leaves me with the feeling that there is a lack of transparency somewhere."

"Whether it's the [community input meetings] or the comprehensive zoning, we need to do a better job of informing people how land is going to be used so they understand, as we make decisions, how the land will be used into the future," he continued.

Thornton said he does not have a prescription, but his "concern is more the process itself."

He said he also recognizes developers have their role, but "my goals would be primarily [developing] along the Route 40 [area], where I think we need to fully leverage the opportunities there," he said. "I don't think we have looked at it holistically."

Thornton said his top goal will be to work with the new county executive to figure out how to value county employees more in the future.

Slutzky offered a different view, saying he agrees with Barry Glassman, considered the front-runner to be the next county executive, that the government needs to be "right-sized."

"I think we have to be lean, we have to be efficient," he said.

Slutzky disputed most of Thornton's criticisms, noting the council never voted on projects like Walmart and Eva-Mar. Slutzky said he voted against the plan to re-zone the proposed Walmart site to B3, as "the community lobbied the administration and the county heavily for B3 because they wanted a Wegmans" during comprehensive rezoning, Slutzky said.

The idea of him voting directly against Walmart is "fiction; it's made up," Slutzky said.

He said if Thornton was implying he voted against other zoning changes that may have affected the Eva-Mar or Walmart projects, that was not stated directly.

Slutzky also said he voted against the Campus Hills location for a new school in favor of the Red Pump site because he did not think it made sense to move a school from a site the county had invested tens of millions dollars in to a site the county just bought.

He also said the Campus Hills site had contamination issues and other problems, and "the bid process may have been compromised."

Slutzky acknowledged that the council has to switch gears from focusing on capital projects to human capital, but "when I started off in 2002, all the council heard was, get rid of the [school] portables, they are trying to put buckets in Edgewood [schools] to catch the rain, [etc.]"

Slutzky said the council members were urged to focus on rebuilding troubled schools, undertaking a rare campaign to forward-fund various school projects.

He nevertheless said he is focusing on his own campaign. He said he has mailed out positive literature about his background but added he may have to do more to challenge Thornton's claims.

"We keep working. We keep doing what we do in the campaign," Slutzky said.

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