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 that a private citizen could wield great influence, but he quickly changed his mind.
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.
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."
Minnich, 60, grew up in Manchester. In the mid-1960s, he began working as the Carroll correspondent for the Evening Sun of Hanover, Pa. He wrote 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 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.
Minnich said that if elected, he would quickly call a meeting of the county's town leaders 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.
Despite suddenly being involved in political intrigue instead of writing about it, he said, he hasn't found the transition difficult: "I get to express my opinions more and show a little more enthusiasm about them. I don't expect everyone to agree. I'm not selling anything."