'Nice lady' label fades in tough times

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens vowed that if the County Council didn't vote in favor of her employee pay freeze proposal, she would lay off employees.

"I think people didn't believe it," Owens says. "They simply didn't believe there would be consequences."

But when the measure died in June, she issued a stinging statement: "I am required to send out the layoff notices. ... It did not have to be this way." Later that week, she fired 18 employees, including 16 new police officers who had been trained at a cost of $829,200. And she placed the blame squarely on two Democratic council members who scuttled her wage-freeze plan.

Then she cried during a television interview, saying it was the worst day in her life except for Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's the hardest decision I've had to make," Owens says.

Just nine months after her re-election, the 59-year-old Democratic county executive, once referred to as the "nice lady," has seen some of her staunchest supporters become vocal critics. While Owens has begun to set her sights on higher office, at least some of her political base appears to be eroding. Supporters-turned-critics say her priorities have shifted.

"Whatever political endeavor she has, I can pretty much assure you that as long as I'm a part of the union, we'll be out stumping for her opponent," said James Fredericks, president of a police sergeants union that campaigned for Owens in November.

Owens said she has a hard time explaining to the public - and to disgruntled employees - all of her fiscal moves. She says business people who have to make a payroll understand her plight. "We're holding the county strong and trying to protect against real cuts," she said.

She added, "Every elected official's primary mission right now is to address the economic problems of the state, and then worry about running for office."

Owens, the daughter of a tobacco farmer who previously served as director of the county's aging office and housing authority, surprised political observers in 1998 when she defeated an incumbent councilwoman to win the Democratic primary, then unseated County Executive John G. Gary. The only other elective office she had held was as Orphans' Court judge.

November victory

But in November she won by fewer than 6,200 votes.

Some described it as a small margin of victory over an opponent whom she outspent by a 6-to-1 margin. Supporters deemed it an impressive win by a Democrat in a county that Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. carried by more than 50,000 votes.

As she began a new term, however, Owens faced a much more daunting budget situation than she had in her first term.

In her first four years, she focused on preserving land, attracting businesses to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport corridor, and boosting employee pay. She gave firefighters and police officers pay raises, and funded 13 percent raises for teachers. Advancing public safety and public education topped her 2001-2006 goals.

This year brought fiscal uncertainty. Owens sought to nearly halt spending. She proposed wage freezes for nearly all county employees, including teachers. She refused to budge, even after the council freed up additional money to put toward raises.

After public safety unions helped derail her wage-freeze legislation, creating a $1.5 million hole in an $895 million operating budget, she targeted the Police Department for cuts. She also cut positions in the Fire Department and raised health care contribution rates for employees of several unions.

"That she couldn't come up with a million and a half dollars out of that ... I think she will come to bitterly regret that decision," says Alan Doelp, a former Owens supporter who helped found the North County Coalition.

Owens became the state's only county executive to lay off employees this year. She also went from boosting pay rates for teachers each year of her term to becoming the only Anne Arundel county executive ever to propose freezing time-of-service-based raises, said teachers association president Sheila Finlayson.

"Her priorities have really changed," said County Council member Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat who voted against the wage freeze. "For four years, she talked teachers, education, public safety."

Former supporters have responded.

Anne Arundel police officers recently changed the sign in their lodge from "Re-elect Janet Owens" to "Unelect Janet Owens." And the Fraternal Order of Police took out a full-page ad in The Sun Aug. 3. It depicts a gun pointing at the reader and details what it considers her shifts. "The Owens Administration does not believe that you are concerned ... TELL HER TO PUT YOUR SAFETY FIRST!"

In response to cuts and Fire Department transfers, the firefighters union picketed and distributed a flier stating "Owens plans to balance the county budget by compromising your safety."

A group of North County residents recently presented Owens with a petition signed by 450 people opposed to the changes.

The teachers union president says teachers are "confused" and upset by Owens' fiscal maneuvering.

But Owens says that she hasn't made any "political" decisions, and says that she hasn't changed either. "I hope I am a nice lady. I consider myself a nice lady."

And supporters see the beginning of her second term as an important transition.

She hired a new chief of staff, Bob DiPietro - a former delegate and horse racing executive who headed her re-election campaign. She also hired away Howard County's top planner, and recruited former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief of staff, Alvin Collins, to be her human services officer.

"Because of the fiscal problems," aide Carl O. Snowden said, "she's having to live up to her reputation not as a nice lady, but as a tough manager."

She said she continues to meet important goals - paying for new police radios, computers in police cars and the educational initiatives pushed by new schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith. She also funded teacher raises that were dropped by the state.

"I've been extremely impressed with the county executive," said Smith. "I'm one who admires strong leadership."

'Just the inevitable'

O. James Lighthizer, the last county executive to serve two terms, said he is not surprised by criticism of Owens.

"It's just the inevitable, there are ebbs and flows in the fiscal cycle," he said. "When you don't have enough money to feed the constituencies, the constituencies get angry."

He added, "I would presume she has a four-year game plan, and the game plan is do the hard things first ... and then be generous in the out years as you get near the end."

But Owens' critics say it's more than the cuts that have aggravated them. They say she has shut them out of the decision-making process.

During the budget process the Owens' administration revealed to the council that the cost of a new public safety communications system had more than doubled to $35 million. She had waited six months to tell the council.

"Is she running a dictatorship?" Beidle asked.

In the early 1990s - the last time Anne Arundel officials resorted to layoffs - then-County Executive Robert R. Neall gave the unions a choice between pay concessions and layoffs. "I probably took a little bit more strategic tact, and I went out and sold it to folks," he says.

This year, the unions say there was no give and take in negotiations.

"We were told, 'OK, folks, here it is. This is what you have to take. See you later,' " said Keith Wright, the president of the firefighters union.

Union leaders say Owens is trying to score points with voters. "Repositioning herself as a conservative is a necessary part of her political strategy," states a firefighters union mailing.

Term limits will force Owens from the Arundel Center in 2006, but she held a fund raiser this spring that collected $150,000. Though she won't discuss her plans, she has given no indications that she plans to retire from politics in three years.

Just a week before Owens fired 18 employees, her administration spent more than $2,000 installing her name on five brick "Welcome to Anne Arundel County" signs.

Based on the past nine months, longtime Owens friend Charles "Sonny" Tucker says that, if she asked, he would advise her against seeking higher office.

"She doesn't need it. Who wants this?" he asked. "She has been criticized by anyone she's ever tried to do anything for."

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