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No tea and sympathy for outgoing executive


A FEW DAYS before he leaves his fourth-floor corner office in the Arundel Center for the last time, John G. Gary seems to be at peace.

He jokes. He smiles. He bears no resemblance to "King John," the supposedly overbearing bully who ran Anne Arundel County for the past four years.

Even more remarkable is that Mr. Gary doesn't look or act like a man who suffered a battering at the polls one month ago. The veteran politician who had hoped to serve another term as Anne Arundel's county executive seems remarkably free of bitterness.

Instead, he exudes relief that he won't have to work seven days a week, make decisions that always leave someone unhappy and work under the intense scrutiny of the press.

"I lost my first race and my last race," he says with a chuckle. He is picking at his usual cheeseburger -- leaving the bun and french fries untouched -- at the Corinthian Restaurant in Annapolis, where he has eaten more meals than he cares to remember the past four years.

Losing to the machine

"I ran for council back when you ran countywide, and I lost to Buddy Ahern," Mr. Gary recalls of his 1978 defeat. "That's when the Democratic machine in this county was strong."

Mr. Gary doesn't dwell on the irony that County Executive-elect Janet S. Owens was not an entrenched incumbent like Mr. Ahern, supported by the party, but was a dark horse who lacked the backing of the Democratic establishment.

Although the conversation drifts toward a post-mortem of his unsuccessful campaign, Mr. Gary doesn't care to revisit the defeat that seemed impossible this time last year.

Mr. Gary steers the discussion to the county's future -- not because the defeat was so painful but because he is still engaged, even entranced, by the decisions needed to keep county government operating smoothly.

"I am afraid that she is going to be up against a lot," Mr. Gary says, sounding almost sympathetic toward the victor.

He rattles off a number of obstacles: a stagnant property tax base; a County Council of neophytes; employee expectations for substantial across-the-board pay raises; the desire of residents on Annapolis Neck and the Pasadena peninsula for a building moratorium; a large bill for school repairs and the possible immense impact of electricity deregulation on the county's tax collections.

Without hesitating, Mr. Gary then begins to talk about how he would overcome these obstacles.

Unlike many elected officials who relish the pomp and prestige of high public office, Mr. Gary is a policy wonk who loves the intellectual and political challenges of solving nuts-and-bolts problems of government.

Ask him what his legacy will be and he lists accomplishments guaranteed to make the eyes of the average citizen glaze over: extending the life of the landfill another 60 years; raising the recycling rate to about 40 percent of the solid waste stream; bringing the police force to "full strength"; building a new courthouse and detention center; restructuring the pension and personnel classification systems; and creating a pay-for-performance system for county managers.

These may not be issues that excited residents, but Mr. Gary DTC nevertheless believes they were major problems that needed and got his attention.

Mr. Gary seems content that much of his administration's legacy will be "unseen," but nevertheless vital to the county's success.

In this category, he includes the groundwork for the county's general development plan and small area plans, which although not complete, have allowed an unprecedented amount of citizen input this far.

Unsolved problem

The structure and funding of the education system is one problem Mr. Gary wishes he had been able to solve. Even though his frontal assault on the school system may have cost him the election, he doesn't regret the effort.

"The system is broken and needs to be fixed," he says. "It was never a power grab. I never asked for more responsibility. I have enough to run already."

Had Mr. Gary served another term, he would have built police and emergency medical services substations in communities not currently well-served and constructed more senior centers. He would have spent more on libraries and the community colleges.

He also would have tackled the school repair and rehabilitation issue. He might have even decided to bring to referendum a change in the basis for the property tax cap formula. "The consumer price index has nothing to do with government," he says.

Despite his cornucopia of ideas and his passion for government, he says he has "no designs" on future office. But he also admits he isn't closing the door. "It's wrong to say never."

Mr. Gary has met with Ms. Owens and is impressed with her. "She has good common sense."

"I am going to help this lady. I am prepared to offer her my good counsel."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/6/98

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