Dean Minnich says he felt the mistrust growing.
As a longtime reporter, editor and newspaper columnist, he had watched communities around Baltimore lose faith in government, but he never believed that Carroll County had - at least, not until the autumn.
The specifics of the land-use battles that changed his mind are complicated, but Minnich sensed in the frustrated reactions of many a feeling that powerful individuals had too much influence on county government. Feeling the same misgivings, he made a decision that he would have found inconceivable for most of his life: He entered the commissioner race.
"I had an epiphany," he said. "I'm worried that we're headed to the point where people here won't expect anything good from government, and I've encountered a lot of other people who are afraid of the same thing."
Many political observers rate Minnich as one of the strongest challengers to the three incumbents in the Republican primary Sept. 10.
Minnich was not known as a particularly harsh critic of the commissioners until last year, when he began writing about a new zoning law that many said would allow rampant residential development across the county's rural landscape. He and other critics of the law, which eventually was watered down, said members of an appointed committee, including current commissioner candidate Ed Primoff, had crafted the policy to benefit themselves.
Primoff has denied that he would have profited, saying county records show he could have put more homes on his land under other proposals. But Minnich said the episode made him uncomfortable. He had never believed a private citizen could wield great influence, but he changed his mind quickly.
During recent candidate forums, Minnich has linked himself ideologically to incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge, who also has decried behind-the-scenes influences. Although the two aren't running together, they share moderate views, in contrast to the conservatism of Primoff, incumbent Robin Bartlett Frazier and Planning Commission member David Brauning, also a candidate for commissioner.
Gouge said she doesn't mind Minnich's public statements showing that he agrees with her on issues. "If you have a like philosophy with another candidate, it's probably good to say so up front," she said.
Some conservatives such as Primoff say Minnich has turned his back on the Republican ideas he espoused as a columnist, questioning how he and Gouge fit into the party.
Of such criticism, Minnich said, "I'm running not against the establishment but without it."
County reneging on deal
Minnich, 60, grew up in Manchester, the son of a storekeeper. He was an indifferent student, he recalled, until midway through his senior year when an English teacher told him he had best make something of his writing talent.
Although Minnich didn't take her advice immediately, he didn't forget it. After working for an airline for a few years, he answered a classified ad seeking a Carroll County correspondent for the Evening Sun of Hanover, Pa. He got the job and spent the mid-1960s writing about every aspect of county life, from government to the Police Department to social clubs.
That stint coincided with the Carroll government's nascent attempts to impose zoning laws and write master plans instead of allowing willy-nilly development. During those years, Minnich said, government promised that if people trusted it with their land rights, they would receive an excellent quality of life in return. Government isn't upholding its end of the deal, he said, and he wants it to do so.
Minnich held various business, editing and writing posts at the Hanover paper, the Baltimore News American and the Carroll County Times. He wrote occasionally about government but focused on Carroll's history, customs and families. He was known as a conservative but also as a friend to people across Carroll's political spectrum - until he emerged as a critic last year. He discontinued his regular column in the Times early this year, when he decided to run for office.
Varied input sought
Minnich said that if elected, he would quickly call a meeting of the county's town leaders, education officials, firefighters and any other interested parties. He would ask them whether they think the county's master plan works and what they would change about it.
The best ideas won't come from the commissioners, he said, but from people who deal with the county's problems daily. Once the assemblage agrees on a plan, the commissioners must devise better enforcement laws, he said. He argues that current laws such as the county's "concurrency management" ordinance, designed to prevent growth from overwhelming infrastructure, are rife with loopholes.
The debate in this year's election has centered on growth, with many candidates saying residential development has swelled out of hand. But the overall growth rate might not be the problem, Minnich said. Instead, the county should worry about areas where growth has compromised the quality of life. The commissioners should listen to teachers who say their classrooms are too crowded or fire chiefs who say one more subdivision will make their jobs impossible, he said.
When Minnich announced his candidacy, he said he would not court the county's familiar political backers for financial support. His signs appear beside farms and in yards throughout the county. His donation list, which at about $8,500 puts him near the top of the fund-raising pack, features scores of small donations from people whose names aren't familiar in county political circles.
He has earned an endorsement from the county's teachers. When he walked into Harry's restaurant in Westminster on Wednesday, people at several tables seemed to know him.
Despite suddenly being involved in political intrigue instead of writing about it, he said, he hasn't found the transition from writer to candidate difficult.
"I get to express my opinions more and show a little more enthusiasm about them," he said. "I don't expect everyone to agree. I'm not selling anything."