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Muffing the deal, muffling the din

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On one level, the arguments rage in public.

Supporters and opponents of Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's hotly contested community renewal plans thrust and parry in newspaper opinion pieces and on radio shows. Perhaps the most visible clashes have been the formal debates between the executive and Republican Del. James F. Ports Jr. of Perry Hall.

But there is another layer of discussion that is harder to see.

It consists of secret meetings, private telephone conversations, and hushed proposals and counteroffers.

On Sept. 18, for example, Ruppersberger arrived at the Holiday Inn in Timonium for a breakfast meeting not on his public calendar.

Joining him were a half-dozen of the most active opponents of the executive's plans, which rely on expansion of the county's condemnation powers and are the subject of a Nov. 7 referendum. They included Ports, Democratic Del. Diane DeCarlo of White Marsh, and Middle River business owners Janice Hundt, Richard Impallaria and Bradley Wallace. They outlined an offer to the executive: Renounce your plan in public, urge people to vote "no" in the referendum, and we'll work with you on new proposals that don't include condemnation authority.

Ruppersberger said no.

Robert J. Barrett, a Ruppersberger aide who was in attendance, said the executive went to hear what his detractors had to say. "He was there to listen," Barrett said. "He was called. They contacted him. He went to the meeting."

But Ports said Ruppersberger and the executive's staff arranged the get-together after they reached out to Gene Bremont, the owner of Randallstown Amoco, one of the businesses targeted for acquisition. "Dutch set up the meeting so fast it made my head spin," Ports said. "They paid for the room. It's obvious Baltimore County held this meeting. Look at the hotel records."

Barrett had contacted the service-station owner a week earlier, extending an olive branch. "He said we have a very bad image problem, and we are doing damage control," Bremont said.

It's not surprising that Ruppersberger would share coffee and Danish with the people whose grass-roots activism has created perhaps the most pressing challenge of his political career. During his years as a county councilman, he developed a reputation for forging behind-the-scenes consensus on tricky issues.

But the meeting reinforces the notion that as Election Day draws closer, Ruppersberger and his supporters are working harder than ever to turn back a tidal wave of opposition that began as a trickle eight months ago.

Administration officials acknowledge that they would like to close as many land purchases as possible in the revitalization zones before the November vote. Their message: We're serious about community renewal and can accomplish many of our goals without using eminent domain.

"Those that want to sell are coming to us directly," said Barrett. He has had many visits from and talks with foes of the condemnation legislation, known as Senate Bill 509, because "that's a part of what I have to do. That's a part of my job. It's more courtesy calls than anything else. It's not a strategy for 509."

Ports says the private talks aren't getting anywhere.

"Several people have been approached by different people working on the county's behalf," he said. "Each one of the private offers was rejected by these individuals, because they said it's not about them personally; it's about the community and getting rid of the bill."

Ruppersberger acknowledges he made a tactical mistake when he asked for the bill to be introduced in the General Assembly in January. SB 509 lists 312 addresses in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown where the county could use condemnation powers to buy businesses and apartments to create larger parcels that would be attractive to developers.

The executive says he should have contacted the property owners before drafting the bill. Instead, he used his lobbying skills to persuade the county's legislative delegation and other lawmakers to back it despite repeated rallies by opponents in Annapolis.

In recent weeks, Ruppersberger has been knocking on doors in Essex-Middle River, explaining to voters that his redevelopment plan only targets certain properties and cannot be expanded without legislative approval. The three areas are badly in need of an economic boost, he says.

And if the executive can't be everywhere, his backers are pursuing the same goal. Attorney John B. Gontrum of Essex is a leading redevelopment proponent involved in talks with SB 509 opponents. A zoning and land-use law practitioner, Gontrum is a partner of Robert J. Romadka, the former county Democratic Party chief who is a part-owner of the Essextowne apartments. The complex, assessed at $962,3000, could be acquired by the county if the referendum passes.

A few weeks ago, Gontrum called Wallace, the owner of Wallace Engine Co. The two talked about the possibility of dividing Wallace's property at 1801 Eastern Blvd., a potential condemnation target, so the engine business could be moved while his parents remained in the adjacent home.

Wallace says he cooled to the proposal after asking whether other Middle River business owners could enjoy the same benefit. The answer, he said, was "not necessarily."

Gontrum "may be a facilitator for the county. He may be testing the waters for one of his clients. I don't know how the game is played," said Wallace. "Too much of this stuff is an ambush."

Gontrum has also talked with Phillip J. Blythe, owner of a towing company at 1821 Eastern Blvd. that is also on the condemnation list. Ron Wasmer, owner of J&H; Tires Inc., another eminent-domain target at 1786 Eastern Blvd., wants to spruce up his business rather than sell to the county. He has hired Gontrum as his lawyer.

"Everybody knows around here that [Romadka and Gontrum] are the two guys who know the politicians," Wasmer said. "They are who you go to."

The offers and behind-the- scenes talks fuel suspicion in some quarters that several opponents of the condemnation proposal are more interested in positioning themselves for higher profits.

"There are a lot of people who are not coming clean about who they are negotiating with," Wasmer said.

Gontrum said he is not looking to silence opponents on Ruppersberger's behalf.

"I don't see myself as working for the administration," he said. "They do their thing. I do my thing. If you ask me, am I working for revitalization, the answer is yes.

"I haven't solicited anybody that hasn't come to me or has expressed interest in selling their property."

Ports, however, suspects a different strategy is at work.

"I've said on several occasions that it's my feeling the administration wants to divide and conquer [the SB509 opposition]," he said. "And it's not working."

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