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COUNTY POLITICAL SHUFFLE BECKONS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With several longtime members retiring or running for other offices - and two whose legal woes could make them vulnerable - the Baltimore County Council is facing what could be its largest turnover in two decades.

Two members, each having served four terms, are considering leaving the council to run for county executive now that the current officeholder, James T. Smith Jr., has reached the end of a two-term limit. With the longest-serving member, Vincent Gardina, opting to retire, at least three of the seven council seats could be up for grabs.

"We could see an entirely different cast of characters on the council in 2010," said Donald Norris, professor and chairman of the department of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "And you never can tell what that might mean because right now we have no clue about those characters."

Composed largely of multiterm veterans, the council is known for stability and consensus decisions that often are made with little public discussion and few disagreements with the Smith administration. An influx of new faces next year, on the council and in the executive's office, potentially could shift the way the county does business.

In fact, the length of time council members tend to serve, and specifically, the generous pensions they will receive upon retirement, prompted calls for reform recently.

In a policy set decades ago, Gardina, the first council member to hit the 20-year mark, will retire from the part-time job next year with a lifetime pension equal to his $54,000 salary. He announced in September that he will not seek a sixth term representing the 5th District, Towson and Perry Hall.

Council members Kevin Kamenetz, Joseph Bartenfelder, Stephen G. Sam Moxley and T. Bryan McIntire are all eligible for the same benefit when they finish their fourth terms next year. The policy has sparked calls for pension reform, which will likely fall to the new council.

Bartenfelder, the chairman, and Kamenetz, widely considered contenders for the executive job, would have to concede their council seats to the run for higher office. Kamenetz, who represents the 2nd District in the county's western and central areas, and Bartenfelder, the 6th District representative for White Marsh and Middle River, have yet to officially announce their plans. But both Democrats have built sizable campaign chests and are acting like contenders for the higher office.

Moxley and Kenneth Oliver face legal issues that, to varying degrees, could have an impact on their seats as well. Oliver has pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign fund violations. Moxley has been found guilty twice of drunken driving.

"Absolutely, these violations make them both vulnerable, Moxley in particular," Norris said.

Moxley, 50, said he has not ruled out a run for a fifth term, representing the southwestern area, but he is considering other offices. "Re-election is an option as is a countywide opportunity, but not county executive," he said.

Republican Steve Whisler has recently filed to run against Moxley, who has been on the council since 1994.

In September, Moxley was placed on two years' supervised probation and ordered to serve 85 hours of community service as a result of a July 23 incident in which he caused a four-car pileup in West Baltimore. It was his second such arrest in four years.

Although the election is more than a year away and voters' memories are typically short, Norris said, "those drunk-driving charges will be ammunition for anyone who runs against Moxley for any office."

Moxley conceded that possibility, but said he has also received support from constituents.

"It could possibly have an impact on my campaign, but I don't know that yet," he said. "My decision will be based on what is best for my family and for the county. I have had a lot of encouragement from the community and from businesses who want me to continue on the council, and I love what this council can accomplish."

Norris said he thought voters would be more forgiving of Oliver's legal problem - he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign fund violations. As part of a plea deal, the 64-year-old Randallstown Democrat agreed to pay a $2,500 fine and to perform 50 hours of community service. He also must serve a six-month probation.

"Those charges are way down the list with voters," Norris said. "Oliver was not convicted and can claim that he made an honest mistake that he has rectified."

Oliver, the first African-American to win a council seat, said he will seek re-election in the 4th District, the Randallstown and Security Square areas.

"I plan to keep on going," said Oliver, who has served two terms.

McIntire, the panel's only Republican, said he will definitely run again and is not expecting many challengers. Now in his fourth term representing the northern county, he would be 80 at the next swearing-in ceremony and said he does not see age as an issue.

"I feel good, enjoy life immensely and remain very active," he said. "This is such an enjoyable job with an opportunity to help others. I will likely be the senior member on the council in both age and service and can help newcomers understand the job."

Councilman John Olszewski said he intends to run for a fourth term and also said he looks forward to using his experience to help his new colleagues.

Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat who was first elected in 1998, will face at least one challenger in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, in Charles Beeler, a Dundalk resident. Beeler was the first candidate to officially file for the council race.

Districts where the popular incumbents choose not to run will likely draw several more candidates well ahead of the July 6 filing deadline, Norris said.

"It makes it a lot easier campaign when there is no powerful incumbent," he said. "But it all depends on a lot of variables that motivate and constrain candidates, like who are the constituents and what are the burning issues."

When Ted Venetoulis, an area business owner, was elected county executive in 1974, most of the council members also were new to their jobs. Today, if the new county executive should turn out to be someone "with loads of experience on the council and a familiarity with budgets and the inner workings of government," the transition should be smooth despite the number of newcomers joining the council, Venetoulis said.

"New folks show a curiosity and freshness that is always good," he said. "The veterans are engaged in government and will have a willingness to help."

At least one incumbent seeking re-election also says he doesn't expect too much change despite the potential shift in council makeup.

"It won't matter how many newcomers," Olszewski said. "The issues will be the same in the county and the districts. It is just a matter of getting out into your district and listening to constituents and working with the next county executive."

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