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Gullo sparks debate in town

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jack A. "Jay" Gullo Jr. should be the pride of New Windsor.

Gullo has a legacy most would be proud of: Carroll County's youngest mayor ever and at one time the youngest in the United States, a man who helped New Windsor grow and prosper, a small-town boy with a bright future.

Now 32, he said he wants to regain the freedom he sacrificed to take office as mayor the day after he graduated from law school eight years ago.

Town residents, even those ambivalent about Gullo, wanted his departure to be a time for reflection on what he has accomplished and a celebration of what's to come.

Instead, Gullo finds himself at the center of a town divided, the object of barbs from some neighbors who say he's obnoxious and too arrogant to let anyone else run the western Carroll town of 1,400.

The furor, rare for the politically quiet Carroll town, began when Gullo asked to fill two years of a vacant Town Council term, a request the council granted May 2.

He said he wanted only to ease the town's transition from his administration to the next.

Critics say the request was one last power play, Gullo's attempt to haunt his longtime rival, newly elected mayor Sam M. Pierce, a little while longer.

As issues go, Gullo is the hottest in New Windsor.

The debate over Gullo's council appointment drew 80 people. Some said New Windsor couldn't afford to lose his expertise. Others said it would be untoward for Gullo to stick around with Pierce, who lost to him by 12 votes in 1997, about to take office this week.

Commentary became so negative toward Gullo that his father rose to shout back at one juncture.

"People showed up to be hurtful," Gullo said in an interview a week later. "I mean, I've developed a shell over the years, but I'm not the president of the United States. This is a small town. Those were my neighbors whom I've known for years."

Many who were critical of Gullo's character praised his knowledge of government, political connections and devotion to New Windsor. If he had agreed to stick around as a consultant, that would have been grand, several said.

The mixture of distaste and respect prompted several people to compare Gullo with former President Bill Clinton. But Clinton doesn't live on the same street as most of his critics.

"He's rarely seen in public," Pierce said of Gullo. "He's really turned a lot of people off. The average person has to go through a screening at his law office just to reach him."

Anyone can call him at work or walk in his office door, Gullo countered. He can't understand why personal feelings overshadow his record. The town has more people, more money, less debt and a more efficient government than it did when he arrived, he said.

In 1993, New Windsor kept all its records in typed bundles of paper. Gullo put everything on computers.

The water system bled money because the insides of meters had long since eroded. Gullo updated the equipment, and the system hasn't lost money since. Bills often went uncollected. No longer.

The council operated as a panel of elders, Gullo said, hearing unscheduled issues and allowing people to push for same-day decisions. Now, every meeting has an agenda, and if an issue isn't on it, it has to wait.

"I have tried above all else to make the government more professional," Gullo said over an Election Day lunch. "I look at it and ask as a citizen if I'd like it to go back to the days when you went to the town clerk's kitchen at dinner time to get a problem solved. No way."

Even Gullo's harshest critics acknowledge he's done plenty of good.

"Jay's organizational skills have really helped the town," Josh Lindemon said as he stood among a pack of people holding "Time to go Gullo" signs in front of the town hall at the May 2 council meeting.

Before appointing Gullo that night, council members said it would be foolish to forfeit his expertise. He has, for example, led the town's quest to get fair compensation from Lehigh Portland Cement Co. of Union Bridge for a piece of land the company wants to buy from New Windsor.

Moments before town residents debated his future, Gullo gave them a detailed Power Point presentation on the town's negotiations with Lehigh, emphasizing that New Windsor must decide if it wants Lehigh building a railroad spur through what are now the town's ball fields.

"I believe this town is split down the middle, but we need this man's expertise in the Lehigh negotiations, and we need him lobbying for us in Annapolis," said Councilman Terry Petry, before voting for Gullo's appointment.

His critics, united under Pierce, said Gullo has conducted important town business without telling anyone, sought retribution against his political enemies and evinced a smug, flippant attitude toward anyone who disagrees with him.

When Pierce and Paul G. Garver tied in the 1999 Town Council election, Gullo hired several outside attorneys to clarify how the town should break the tie. Because New Windsor's laws didn't call for a runoff vote, the seat was vacant and should be filled by a council appointee, the attorneys said. The council appointed Garver, whom Gullo favored.

Pierce supporters had no grounds for a legal objection but felt Gullo had used town money to buy the decision he wanted.

"I love it when I leave someone saying, 'Doh,' like Homer Simpson because that means I was one step ahead of them and that's when it's fun," Gullo said.

Critics also said Gullo delayed the appointment to the council seat he will be filling until the end of his mayoral term so that he could fill it himself. Gullo said he delayed the appointment until this month because one council member was absent from each of the previous two monthly meetings.

Gullo does not always assume the air of a statesman. He peppers his speech with "yeah, right" and "whatever." He has a habit of comparing himself with celebrities. "I'm like the Tom Cruise character in 'Top Gun,'" he said recently. "I've always had something to prove."

Gullo had no idea what small-town politics would be like when he ran for mayor in 1993. He grew up in Washington and spent summers in New Windsor, where his grandparents lived and where his great-grandfather had been mayor.

His family moved to a farm on the edge of town when he was age 12. He went away to college and law school, and applied for a job with the FBI, but a hiring freeze at the agency stymied that, so he made plans to return home and start a private law practice.

He thought little of running for office until he noticed during a pre-graduation visit that New Windsor's incumbent mayor wasn't seeking re-election. The only other candidate was an 18-year-old high school senior.

Gullo, the elder candidate at age 24, won easily. Between studying for the bar, setting up practice in his grandfather's old barbershop and learning the ropes of town government, he was so busy that he lost track of his girlfriend, he said.

During his first week as mayor, someone at the town's only bar called him late at night and asked him to come break up a fight. He told the caller to call the police.

Another time, Gullo heard that local veterans were complaining because he had allowed the American flag outside his house to fray. He has replaced it.

While keeping his hand on the town's tiller, Gullo also assumed the presidency of the Maryland Municipal League.

He gradually befriended Annapolis power brokers. A barbecue last summer at his house drew Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. He recently had a poker date with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but Glendening canceled at the last minute. People of that stature had no awareness of New Windsor before Gullo arrived, admirers say.

Gullo made his biggest statewide splash in October 1999, when he abandoned Carroll's Republican establishment, which he now compares to the Mafia for its insistence on loyalty, and became a Democrat. He specifically offended fellow Republicans by criticizing a government-sponsored gun raffle, but he had been finding the party's rigid idealism increasingly stifling, he said.

After Gullo switched parties, Carroll Republicans said he had doomed his political future because the party has such firm control of Carroll. Gullo said he's not certain he'll even seek elected office again. "Maybe I'll find that I enjoy influencing things more from the outside," he said. "Maybe I can make more of a difference on a few issues that way."

He'll have his chance as a part-time lobbyist with the Baltimore law firm Funk & Bolton. At this year's General Assembly session, he lobbied for Hagerstown, among others, a job that seemed to be a conflict of interest with his New Windsor Town Council duties, Pierce and others said.

During debate on Gullo's council appointment, Pierce eagerly noted an article in Hagerstown's Herald-Mail newspaper reporting Gullo's failure to win that city any extra money in this year's budget, quoting several Washington County delegates who criticized his lobbying performance.

That was a low blow because his lobbying skills have nothing to do with his performance in New Windsor, Gullo said, adding that he checked the state and town codes of ethics before accepting money from Hagerstown. Such personal attacks, many of them called in to New Windsor's town hot line, have been Gullo's least favorite part of the job. It wouldn't be so bad if New Windsor weren't such a small town, he said.

"These people produce so much venom when they're stirred up, but you don't hear from them at all when you really need their help on the issues," he said. "It's disappointing when you realize that's what your neighbors are capable of."

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