Laying aside air of enmity


The Carroll County commissioners are continuing to restore relations with their predecessors' harshest critics, having met most recently with Hampstead's Town Council to discuss issues between the two boards.

Though the meeting last week produced no official policy changes, the commissioners proposed compromises on several problems that have affected the relationship between the town and the county in recent years.

Hampstead leaders in turn praised the commissioners who were elected last fall - four-term Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge and newcomers Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich -as being more receptive than members of the previous board. Mayor Christopher M. Nevin compared the new board to the Hampstead reform slate he led to victory in 1995.

"I must say it's a good thing to see," said Nevin, who announced recently that he won't seek re-election in May. "I'm glad this day has finally gotten here."

The cooperative meeting came a day after a similar encounter Monday between the commissioners and officials from Baltimore and Baltimore County. After the commissioners agreed to a regional watershed protection agreement that the previous board had refused to sign, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley hailed a new era in intergovernmental relations.

The commissioners also were supposed to meet Thursday with a group of Finksburg activists who frequently criticized the old board, but that meeting was postponed to March 27 because of snow. Nonetheless, leaders of the Finksburg Planning Area Council think they will have a better relationship with the new commissioners.

"So far, this board is moving in the right direction - and quickly," said council President Debbie Ridgely, whose husband, Neil, was recently appointed county zoning administrator. "The meeting in March will give us an opportunity to see just where they are headed."

The commissioners, who have traditionally met annually with representatives of the county's municipal governments, are scheduled to sit down with officials from Mount Airy this week.

Going into the meeting with Hampstead leaders, the commissioners had addressed the most contentious issue between the two governments - control of the town's old elementary school. The county canceled a planned auction of the 91-year-old building in December and gave the property to the Town Council so a development team could proceed with plans to transform the school into a senior housing center.

Hampstead officials consider the project the centerpiece of their downtown revitalization plans. They beamed as the commissioners gave them a letter supporting a bid for state tax credits for the project.

The meeting then moved to another touchy issue: the lack of financial help for a town police force that responds to numerous calls at North Carroll High School, a county building in the town. Hampstead leaders have long argued that such support is promised in the town-county agreement, which governs the financial relationship between the commissioners and Carroll's eight municipalities.

Hampstead leaders have estimated that they spend as much as $100,000 a year policing the school without county compensation.

Previous commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier expressed little sympathy for the town. Dell once told leaders that they should de-annex the school or keep quiet.

Nevin waded carefully into the issue, saying he understands that the county is facing a budget crunch. "We're not trying to hang the county out there, but we do feel there's an inequity to it," Nevin said.

Gouge quickly offered a compromise under which the county Sheriff's Department would take over policing at the school. In that scenario, the town police force would respond only to emergencies at North Carroll.

Town officials seemed surprised that the commissioners were so easy to work with on the issue.

"That's certainly a sound counteroffer," Nevin said. The two boards agreed to work out the details of the arrangement over the next several months.

At that point in the meeting, any lingering tension seeped out of the room. Town Manager Ken Decker whispered something to county chief of staff Steven D. Powell, who replied with a laugh, "Well, would you rather fight?"

Members of the two sides sounded like old buddies as they discussed planning and economic development philosophies. Both want to eliminate billboards from county roads, and both want to limit strip malls on land zoned for industry. Laughter and nods of assent replaced the furrowed brows and resigned smirks that used to characterize encounters between the two governments.

"It's a whole new tone," Nevin said at the end of the meeting, as he thanked the commissioners for coming to town.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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