Questions undermine successes

The Baltimore Sun

When Kenneth N. Oliver was elected to the Baltimore County Council in 2002, he was the first African-American to hold the post, and he brought with him the hopes of an area that had long felt itself to be at the margins of politicians' interests.

Since then, Oliver - whose black-majority district covers Randallstown, Woodlawn and parts of Owings Mills - has seen his star dim, not only by what some constituents see as a lackluster performance on the council, but by the news this week that he has been indicted on felony charges involving the personal use of campaign funds.

Community activists give Oliver credit for getting revitalization projects off the ground in an area traditionally lacking in economic stimuli, but some say he could be more active than he is.

"I have not concluded that people in this area are really impressed," said Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council and a 35-year Randallstown resident. "He can't just sit there. There are certain things he has to do."

"People don't want to knock him - he's down already," she said. "But when people don't have glowing praise, there's a problem."

Patricia Ferguson, president of the county's NAACP branch, said she thought that, with Oliver's election, the group "would have an open line of communication, but he didn't extend himself to that."

The councilman, she said, "needs to be visible and in touch with grass-roots organizations in Baltimore County."

Oliver, 63, was indicted Monday by a Baltimore County grand jury on two felony theft charges for writing two $2,000 checks, one to his wife and another to himself, from his campaign account. He was also indicted on six counts of campaign law violations requiring submission of receipts and keeping separate account books for petty cash. If he is convicted, he would be forced to give up his council seat.

Oliver - who repaid the $4,000, writing to elections officials that the money was a loan - said Monday that he was innocent of the charges. The next day, he agreed to an interview with a reporter, but his three lawyers later declined to make him available.

One of the attorneys, Paul W. Gardner II, provided a list of the councilman's accomplishments, among them his role in the construction of Windsor Mill Middle School, the addition of about 7,000 square feet to the Woodlawn Library and senior housing projects in Woodlawn and Owings Mills. Oliver also says that, as he had promised, he helped attract businesses to the area, such as a Wal-Mart in Randallstown and a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant on Liberty Road.

Van Ross, founder of the Woodlawn Community Education and Development Association Inc., said that Oliver's relationship with the group "got off to an excellent start," with frequent meetings and consultations for his first two or three years on the council.

"We went to Mr. Oliver with the idea to build the senior center and to renovate the library," said Ross, who has lived in Woodlawn for 29 years. "Without him, those wouldn't have gotten done. Now, it seems like he's more concerned about businesses than about the concerns of the community. ... I don't know what changed or why. I can't explain it. He sort of turned a deaf ear on our concerns."

The 4th District to which Oliver was elected in 2002 was created specifically to encourage the election of an African-American for the first time in the council's history. Oliver promised to improve the area's economic profile, promote community conservation and growth management, control traffic and improve education. At the time, Randallstown residents had been complaining that the community, despite having one of the highest median household incomes in the county, lacked the kinds of stores and restaurants found elsewhere.

When he first ran for the seat, Oliver had the spirited support of African-American leaders, including Campbell and state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who pushed him as a "consensus candidate" who might keep others from entering the race. But three months before the primary, some criticized his campaign style as remote and said he seemed arrogant at one forum. Some threatened to support another black candidate.

"The complaint I was hearing was a lack of vigor," Kelley said at the time. She did not respond this week to a request for comment.

Oliver won by a slim margin, and was handily re-elected to another four-year term in 2006.

Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, who was Baltimore County executive from 1994 until 2002 and now represents Maryland's 2nd Congressional district, said Oliver "did a good job" as chairman of the planning board and that he admired Oliver's civic commitment.

After Oliver's election to the council, Ruppersberger saw him often at community functions. "He always seemed on top of his issues," Ruppersberger said. "He was a good advocate for his constituents."

Of the indictments, Ruppersberger said, "It's very upsetting, I know, to a lot of people who know him and to his family."

Vincent J. Gardina, an 18-year veteran of the County Council, said Oliver has "always been kind of quiet and laid-back," and that he had not had much direct interaction with him. "He hasn't approached me and asked for support for any policy initiatives," Gardina said.

Dallas Griffin, vice president of the Woodlawn Estates Homeowners Association, credited Oliver with making the Woodlawn Senior Center a reality. "He did get that done, and we appreciate that," Griffin said, adding that he always found Oliver receptive and willing to talk. "But you know politicians - they don't always do what they say they're going to do. From my point of view, I know you can't always get what you want, but I felt he could have taken a more active role on behalf of the community in some cases."

Kenneth N. Oliver

* Oliver, 63, a Democrat, was elected to the Baltimore County Council in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.

* He and his wife, Thelma, have three children.

* He has been an assistant professor at Coppin State College, a senior vice president of the Development Credit Fund and a commercial lender at Harbor Bank of Maryland. According to a financial disclosure statement, he left Harbor Bank in November 2007.

* He holds an MBA degree in finance from Morgan State University and a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Baltimore.

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