With five candidates lined up for the race to be the next president of the Harford County Council, county voters will get to narrow down that field in the June 24 primary election.
This is one of the few local primary races in which there is a contest in each party. The incumbent council president, Republican Billy Boniface, is not seeking re-election after serving since late 2006.
Democrats will be choosing between James Thornton, of Bel Air, and Christopher Boardman, of Joppa, both of whom say they plan to boost the school system if elected. Thornton is an appointed member of the Harford County Board of Education, while Boardman has run unsuccessfully for offices before, though many years ago.
Republicans have a three-way race, with of their two candidates possessing extensive county council experience.
Richard Slutzky, of Aberdeen, who has held the council's District E seat representing Aberdeen and Churchville, is running for the presidency, as is Robert Wagner, who lives near Churchville and spent 16 years on the council from 1990 to 2006, the final four as council president.
The third candidate is Todd Paterniti, an Abingdon resident who has never held elected office in the county. Paterniti did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this article.
Polls around the county will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Primary Election Day June 24. Early voting, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., runs from June 12 to 19 at four locations: the Jarrettsville and Edgewood library branches, the University Center (formerly the HEAT Center) in Aberdeen and the McFaul Activity Center in Bel Air.
Richard Slutzky, known for spending 31 years as an Aberdeen High School teacher and wrestling coach before entering local politics, said he hopes to bring continuity to the council during what he expects to be a time of transition.
"I decided to run after Billy Boniface decided not to run for elected office and other members indicated they might seek higher office," Slutzky, 71, explained, adding he "would offer a great deal of experience and institutional knowledge."
"I also believe that a lot of leadership is about relationships, and I have had the opportunity to develop a lot of positive relationships with county agencies over the past 12 years," he said.
Slutzky was first elected to the council in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 and 2010. He won convincingly all three times but has never run in a countywide race, as the council president is elected by all the county's voters and district council members are elected only by voters living in their districts.
Slutzky said he is taking the race as "a very serious challenge," but he did not want to comment on his opponents, including Wagner, with whom he once served on the council.
"He is going to run his race and I am going to run mine," Slutzky said.
Slutzky said the economy and revenue streams will continue to pose challenges for Harford as for the rest of the state, including the threat of federal government sequestration by 2016.
Any more federal shutdowns would be "devastation" for Harford, which has a military economic engine, he noted.
"I think at this point, the seriousness of the issues that have been ongoing still have a grip on the county and on most of the state of Maryland," he said.
Robert Wagner said he hopes to make a comeback this year.
The 56-year-old Bel Air resident served as council president from 2002 to 2006 and held the District E seat for a dozen years before. He and Slutzky, who replaced Wagner in District E, served together during Wagner's term as council president.
Wagner lost the council presidency to Boniface in the 2006 primary and then made an unsuccessful bid for county executive four years ago, losing to David Craig in the primary.
Despite his enmity toward Craig – Wagner voted against Craig when the council picked him to fill the vacancy in the county executive's office in 2005 – Wagner says he gets along with Sen. Barry Glassman, who is the favorite to succeed Craig as county executive.
"I would enjoy working with him again and bringing back the checks and balances that's been lacking on the council side," Wagner said, noting he served with Glassman on the council from 1990 to 1998.
Wagner is self-employed, partly running his farm, doing freight brokering and operating rental homes.
He said he was disappointed with the council's response to plans for an Emmorton-area Walmart and a retirement community on the Eva-Mar site near Bel Air, both of which have spawned mass protests.
"I think that could have been handled in a much different fashion," he said. Wagner's family farm, part of which has been developed for houses, is near the proposed Eva-Mar residential and retirement community development.
Wagner explained he does agree with adjusting regulations to accommodate residents' complaints about the Walmart and Eva-Mar projects, as the council must have known those projects could come in when the zoning code was originally passed. The current council made an effort to rescind the Walmart zoning legislatively, which got nowhere and angered opponents of the project even more.
Regarding the Eva-Mar, he said: "Harford County could certainly use a [continuing-care retirement community]. I don't believe that [site] is the location for it."
"There is not a whole lot that I can agree with," Wagner said of this council, noting he also opposes the cut rate tax-increment financing they approved for the Beechtree and James Run Corporate Campus developments.
Wagner also said it was "wrong" for the council to propose stepping down as the zoning board of appeals and planning commission, roles it has had since the inception of charter government and the council itself in 1972-73.
The council members could vote as early as next week on a proposed charter amendment to end those roles, though the amendment would still have to be adopted by voters in November. Slutzky is one of the more vocal backers of the proposed change.
"My stance has been bringing transparency and accountability and leadership back to the council," Wagner said.
Christopher Boardman, 67, said he is concerned about Harford's teachers, who he said have been denied a living wage.
He said there is a "serious issue" with school funding and said he would focus more on the teachers, not building schools.
He is also interested in transportation and would propose to extend the Baltimore-area light rail system from Hunt Valley to Harford County.
Boardman added the county must start making plans to reduce traffic congestion on Route 40 and I-95, as well as improving interior roads.
Boardman said when he was a council candidate in 1986, the Joppa wastewater treatment plant provided hookups to developers and he is now equally concerned about the former Joppatowne swim club, which residents have been pushing to be used as a community center.
"We have got a big problem with the county because County Executive David Craig has been very difficult and uncooperative and hasn't seen that this is a significant recreation and quality of life issue," he said.
Boardman, who is 67 and works as a nurse as well as in a Baltimore transition center for the state's prison system, said he was urged to run because of the Joppatowne issues and others. He has been married for 45 years, has two children and grandchildren.
Boardman said he opposes the proposed charter amendment to change the council's status as the county's final authority in zoning appeals and piecemeal rezoning cases.
"We shouldn't burden the taxpayers and the court system will the expenses and time delay that will be incurred with this bill," he said, explaining he would keep the council serving as the zoning appeals board, but keep it to five council members.
"Those who would not hear the appeal would be the district council person for the area where the appeal is being held, and another person from the council," Boardman suggested. "The reason for five persons is to make the appeal board decision final without a tie vote."
Boardman also said he will suggest the council kill that charter amendment "until voters have had a chance to weigh in on the subjects during the election."
He added he is concerned about an amendment allowing for deputy department heads to be appointed.
"I think this is a freedom of information issue as it seems the [County Executive David] Craig administration does not want knowledgeable administrators talking to the press either before the primary or general elections about issues that might be embarrassing to Craig if the public knew more," Boardman said. "If this is not the case, then why the urgency?"
James Thornton says he hopes his three years as a school board member will translate into votes from residents dissatisfied with the funding of Harford County Public Schools.
With Harford teachers regularly pushing for better wages, Thornton, 65, said he wants to have more influence over the funding debate by serving as a council member.
Thornton said he believes a well-run school district can "also serve as an economic engine."
He said the county "should be more aspirational" when it comes to its school system, which can "position Harford County as a desirable place to live."
Thornton is retired but previously ran his own firm, Thorwood Real Estate Group, LLC, and has 35 years of corporate experience in senior management positions with MBNA American Bank and Sears Automotive. He has also served on various county and Baltimore-area boards, and was president of the New Harford Democratic Club.
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Thornton said the school system gets less than 50 percent of the annual county budget, which "positions us in the bottom tier" among other school systems in terms of funding. Part of the problem, he continued, is the "aggressive capital construction" the county has engaged in for the past few years.
"We need to have a high level of rigor around those capital projects" and understand their implications, he said.
Like Boardman, Thornton opposes removing the council as the final zoning authority.
"The council has offered no solid rationale for why this bill will better serve the needs of property owner," he said, adding he considers the explanation of Slutzky and other members who support the change "without merit."
A 2012 charter amendment "makes it very clear that council members can discuss any development or neighborhood issue until the time an actual zoning case is filed," Thornton said, citing one of the arguments supporters of the change have used, that they can't discuss pending zoning matters with constituents.
Thornton said the legislation gives the zoning hearing examiner too much authority and would force property owners to incur legal expenses to file an appeal.
He added he also wants to improve transportation infrastructure, find more funding for highway construction and work with the county's three municipalities to invest more in the Route 40 corridor, which he said "has significantly been underserved."