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Racetrack opponents and the sleaze factor


OPPONENTS of a 60,000-seat auto racetrack in Pasadena are weakening their cause by resorting to sleazy tactics to defeat the project.

For the past week, they have issued denunciations of people associated with the track -- from Linda Gilligan, chief of staff of the Anne Arundel County executive, to track spokesman Robert L. Douglas -- that would have made the red baiters of the 1950s proud.

The current witch hunt is not against communists, but against people who supposedly have violated ethical standards and have conflicts of interest that should, in the opponents' view, disqualify them from participating in decisions involving the proposed racetrack.

This uproar over associations began when The Sun pointed out that Michael Gilligan, a former county councilman and attorney who co-chaired County Executive Janet S. Owens' transition team, had been retained as a lobbyist by the track's developer. He failed to file the proper disclosures.

Owens betrayed

Ms. Owens rightly dismissed Mr. Gilligan from his volunteer position after the report broke. Not only did Mr. Gilligan fail to comply with county law, he betrayed Ms. Owens by not fully disclosing his relationship with Chesapeake Motorsports Development Co.

His failure temporarily embarrassed her and cast a cloud over her fledgling administration. Ms. Owens' decisive action sent a clear message: She will not tolerate unethical behavior in her administration, including by close advisers.

It is intolerable, however, when legitimate ethical concerns are twisted to advance other agendas.

Linda Gilligan is the sister-in-law of Michael Gilligan. It is unfair and illogical to assume they have common interests because of that relationship. Yet that is what racetrack critics would have us believe.

Whatever wrong Mr. Gilligan committed, it is unfair to use them to smear his sister-in-law unless she colluded with him. No such evidence has been produced.

Racetrack critics used the same deplorable technique to make the illogical argument that Comptroller William Donald Schaefer should be prevented from voting on whether the state should lease waterfront land for the proposed track.

Critics of the project claim that since Robert Douglas, spokesman for Chesapeake Motorsports, was press secretary for Mr. Schaefer when he was governor, he would have some insidious influence on Mr. Schaefer.

Schaefer compliant?

Apart from the patent absurdity that the headstrong politician would follow the wishes of a former employee, critics make quite a leap to assert that Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Douglas continue to have common interests.

There should be a statute of limitations on linking former employees to their bosses. Mr. Douglas served as press secretary when Mr. Schaefer was governor, but left that job in 1989 to practice law.

Working at a particular company or for a particular politician doesn't mean lifelong allegiance. In many cases, people leave jobs under contentious circumstances. It is wrong to assume that employees automatically remain on good terms with former bosses. Some do. Some don't.

Yes, it is probable that Mr. Schaefer would more quickly return a phone call from Mr. Douglas than from Marcia Drenzyk, a leader of Citizens Against the Racing Stadium Site. But to assume Mr. Schaefer would only talk to racetrack supporters is a stretch.

Guilt by association is a shabby and cheap tactic to discredit opponents. The methodology is simple: Vilify a person, organization, city, nation or county and then link your target to them.

Chesapeake Motorsports is a developer, not a criminal. Developers may not be held in the highest esteem in the county, but they have every right to go about their business and employ whom they want as consultants.

Debate in the gutter

By using such tactics, the debate over the wisdom of locating this track on Kembo Road is diverted from meaningful issues such as traffic, air pollution, noise and the possible disruption of the community. Instead, the project's supporters and defenders are engaged in a meaningless debate in the gutter about supposedly tainted policy-makers.

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

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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