Howard executive weathers criticism of his actions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, whose nice-guy image helped him pull off a huge upset in his first campaign, has made so many people angry in little more than 100 days on the job that some are questioning his effectiveness in the political arena.

Morale among county employees has plummeted since he called for layoffs, with one union official reporting that workers have called her at night crying because they fear losing their homes if they are laid off.

Teachers outraged by his dogged efforts to cut school spending and force a roll back of their 6 percent pay raise have branded the former deputy superintendent a traitor to education and will picket and work to rule for a week in protest.

Mr. Ecker's first big appointment, the county administrator, provoked more controversy than any in recent memory. Civic leaders accused him of kowtowing to developers by selecting homebuilder John C. Mardall, who withdrew his nomination last week.

And, the executive's plans to raise property taxes and cut services brought more than 1,000 angry citizens to a public hearing to complain that they expect more from Howard County, one of the nation's wealthiest communities.

"His inability to negotiate the competing demands with the different groups in resolving the budget crisis and his insensitivity to community concerns by his appointment of home builder John Mardall have undermined his effectiveness at least in the short term and possibly the long run," said County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.

"He still possesses political capital of being a common man who is accessible, but one who may be in over his head," added Mr. Gray, who is considered a potential challenger to the Republican executive in 1994.

Rarely has a Howard County executive undergone such personal attacks for his actions.

"Talking about the rape of Kuwait. We are talking about the rape of Howard County employees by this executive," said Cecilia Fabula, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67.

Civic activists like John Taylor, vice president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, worry that Mr. Ecker is too inclined to believe the old saw that what's good for business is good for the county.

"There has been no balance to his appointments of chamber- and developer-type people," said Mr. Taylor, of Highland. "It is very disturbing and probably will lead to disaster because when economic times turn around there will be no incentive to control growth by the leaders in his administration."

Even in the school system, where he was a popular figure, Mr. Ecker is being accused of turning his back on education. Educators are angry because he got an attorney general's opinion that local governments can contribute less than they have in the past toward keeping spending per pupil steady, a ruling that could cost county schools $3 million.

"He has set the quality of education back by his attacking the funding formula tied to increased enrollment, and his proposed cuts are horrendous," said Jim Swab, president of the teachers association. "He will be held responsible for increased class sizes and layoffs if he gets his way."

Mr. Ecker is taking his lumps in stride.

"I'm the focal point, but the buck stops here," he said, flashing a sheepish grin. "I am going to do what is right for Howard County -- and not because it will elect Chuck Ecker."

The 62-year-old Mr. Ecker says the financial mess he inherited forced him to make the unpopular decision to order all departments to cut spending for next year by 16 percent, which would require layoffs.

He took office facing a $20 million deficit that forced cuts in the current operating budget. To make matters worse, revenue for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is expected to be $24 million less than this year's.

Despite the dark clouds, Mr. Ecker professes to see relief ahead. He says "biting the bullet" now will place the county on a sounder financial footing -- and demonstrate his ability to make the hard choices many politicians might dodge.

The question is how much understanding the public and the County Council will show for his predicament.

Dick Pettingill, president of the county Chamber of Commerce, believes the public will understand.

"Nobody likes more taxes or layoffs, particularly if it affects you or your family," he said.

"But it appears something has to be done. It takes a courageous politician to analyze and implement a program of action like this."

Michael W. Davis, a Columbia lawyer who is among Mr. Ecker's closest advisers, believes the executive has retained his effectiveness, although he has "taken some pretty sharp hits."

"The public understands the magnitude of the problems facing him and he is balancing the conflicting interests the best he can," said Mr. Davis. "Frankly, he is going through a breaking-in process, and all things considered he has made few missteps."

There are, however, early indications that the three Democrats on the five-member County Council may stick together against Mr. Ecker on key issues, which could prove problematic for the Republican executive.

The Democrats have flatly rejected the executive's offer to join with them in appointing a committee to study the politically charged issue of redrawing council districts based on the U.S. Census.

The three Democrats also are raising questions about Mr. Ecker's nomination of Nelson Fenwick, a businessman and member of the Republican Central committee, to the County Planning Board.

State Senator Thomas Yeager, D-Howard, said he sympathizes with Mr. Ecker because the executive has inherited "almost an unwinnable situation."

But Mr. Yeager warned that in his zeal to have the government run like a business, Mr. Ecker may be turning off a large segment of the public by surrounding himself with business people.

"Government is not a business. It is for the people," said Mr. Yeager, who was a strong supporter of former executive Elizabeth Bobo. "Democracy is not a line organization, and his business associates could have an undue influence on government."

"The model he has chosen could take him down some risky and unwise paths," agreed schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, the executive's old boss.

Mr. Ecker's reply is that running the government like a business merely helps him meet people's needs by doing things more efficiently.

He points out that he has an "open government" policy in which he and his department heads are accessible to the public. And he notes that he has appointed citizens to committees looking into a variety of issues, including the super-charged question of how to control growth.

"I have kept both my office door and my mind open, and it will continue to be so," Mr. Ecker said. "I believe that an important part of providing leadership is active listenership. I meet with anyone, day or night, and have fire hall chats two Saturdays a month."

Scot Hoeksema, president of the Coalition of Community Associations, agreed that it is "much easier to get information from the county government than during the previous administration."

"There is no effort to pit one group against another," said Mr. Hoeksema, a member of a committee the executive appointed to study proposals to steer growth to areas where roads and schools are equipped to accommodate it.

Although Mr. Ecker admits to a "stubborn streak," he also showed that he was politically shrewd enough to make a U-turn when he sees trouble ahead. He backed off from a proposal to lay off 40 police officers, and reversed a decision not to give severance pay to employees who lose their jobs.

He also said he had learned to do more advance work before putting his proposals before the public -- a lesson driven home by emotional testimony during a hearing on budget cuts suggested by department heads.

During the hearing, one elderly woman with tears in her eyes asked the executive not to cut the lunch program for seniors because it meant so much to her husband, who had suffered a stroke. He stood beside her in a walker.

"I never had any plans to cut the lunches for the elderly," said Mr. Ecker after the stormy hearing, but the damage to his image was done.

Next year, the executive said, he would personally review the departmental budgets to avoid facing a teary-eyed senior citizen and a hostile audience.

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