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Assessing the suburbs' outgoing leaders: Legacies: Executives who exit today piloted counties in trying times of population boom and recession.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A CHANGING OF the guard occurs today in Maryland's suburbs. The county executives and commissioners elected a month ago will be inaugurated. They replace people who gained the job -- one of the most demanding in local government -- as population boom and economic strife collided in the early 1990s.

County executives John G. Gary in Anne Arundel, Charles I. Ecker in Howard and Eileen M. Rehrmann in Harford and Carroll commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates leave office for different reasons.

Two served the maximum two terms and lost bids for governor; two lost races for re-election; one didn't seek re-election, and instead ran unsuccessfully for a delegate's seat.

They governed in a period when their counties grew collectively by 20 percent. These suburban and exurban areas now represent nearly 44 percent of the Baltimore region's population, up from 39 percent at the start of this decade.

We assess their tenures below:

Anne Arundel: John Gary

Many of Mr. Gary's accomplishments as Anne Arundel County executive the past four years are invisible to the average citizen.

That does not make them less important. He did oversee dramatic public works projects -- a new courthouse in Annapolis, a detention center in Glen Burnie, but his most indelible imprint is more subtle, on day-to-day government.

He reformed the county pension system so that officials don't receive a windfall upon retirement. He extended the life of the landfill 60 years and made the county one of the state's most successful for recycling solid waste.

He proved especially adept at working under the constraints of a property tax cap. He added 100 police officers and increased aid to education, libraries and parks.

Mr. Gary's needlessly nasty push for more control over the education budget, 43 percent of county spending, proved his undoing. Future executives will likely approach it much differently.

Overall, the wheels of Anne Arundel government turn more smoothly, thanks to Mr. Gary.

Harford: Eileen Rehrmann

Ms. Rehrmann's largely successful two terms as Harford executive bore some likeness to her run for the Democratic nomination for governor: She came out swinging, had dramatic moments and won praise from high places, then fizzled at the end.

When she took office in 1990, a landfill was leaking poison, the water and sewer systems couldn't accommodate all the homes being built, classrooms couldn't accommodate the children living those homes.

Her predecessors prided themselves on frugal government. But Ms. Rehrmann grasped that what succeeded for Harford as a largely rural place, bolstered by jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, would not suffice for an increasingly suburban locale whose new residents were more dependent on the region for employment.

She introduced a "fast-track" permit process to attract business and landed some major ones, such as Frito-Lay and Clorox. She built the Higher Education Applied Technology Center for high-tech training as well as a handful of schools to bolster a system that the state superintendent praised as a model of efficiency.

She tried to keep ahead of the sprawl and updated the zoning map with an eye on containing it.

But complaints about crowded schools and roads and the need for open space rang loudly during the '98 election -- areas for her successor to address. Perhaps preoccupied with the gubernatorial run, she lost focus her final year, getting bogged down in squabbles over plans to build a senior-youth center in Bel Air and a "Ripken Stadium" to host minor-league baseball in Aberdeen.

That was uncharacteristic for Ms. Rehrmann, who had an impressive grasp of details but didn't typically let them get in the way of good ideas. Harford was fortunate it had her at the helm of a new era.

Howard: Charles Ecker

Mr. Ecker leaves office after eight years with comparisons to another folksy fiscal conservative, Ronald Reagan. Like the president who left office with the nation's debt at an all-time high, Mr. Ecker leaves the county with Maryland's highest per-capita debt.

Howard's bonded indebtedness exceeds $400 million. Bond-rating firms continue to give Howard their highest grades. The county's affluent population can afford higher taxes if necessary to cover the debt service, but that trend can't continue indefinitely.

Even so, Mr. Ecker has been a good financial steward. He built schools and other infrastructure to serve one of the fastest growing jurisdictions in Maryland. Under his lead, the county stopped writing budgets that anticipated surpluses that didn't occur. Howard's tremendous job growth was partly due to Mr. Ecker's insistence on more commercial development to expand the tax base.

The right mix of commercial and residential growth to keep Howard prosperous is a crucial decision for the incoming leadership.

Carroll's commissioners

Carroll's three county commissioners wrestled with weighty issues this term -- not always successfully or decisively. Reluctantly, they were forced to catch up with long delayed needs of a rapidly growing population.

Yet they quibbled over petty expenditures, rejecting large state and federal grants for parks and historic preservation just to avoid spending matching funds.

Richard T. Yates and W. Benjamin Brown were elected in 1994 as part of a rising growth-control movement. Donald I. Dell -- the only member returning for another term -- promoted a similar rural-based conservatism. But the alliances shifted, and Mr. Brown was often the odd man out.

A low moment was the board's attempt to undermine the movement to bring charter government to Carroll with a single county executive -- a change voters rejected last spring.

The board's last major business was a secret ploy to increase by 650 percent the daily allowance the commissioners collect, in addition to salary. Mr. Brown futilely objected. Public rebuke caused an immediate rescission of the raise.

This board did, it should be noted, tackle significant issues: It approved construction of six schools and nearly $100 million in bonds to finance them; significantly raised property and income taxes to help foot the bill; imposed a housing moratorium to buy time to overhaul a 20-year-old land-use plan; and launched a program that ties growth to the capacity of public services.

These commissioners showed some backbone, although with the pay raise gaffe as their final act, they will likely be remembered for the times they didn't.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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