Ex-councilman, newcomer vie for Aberdeen area seat on Harford council

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Robert Wagner, the Republican candidate for the District E seat on the Harford County Council, is asking voters to return him to the seat he held for 12 years in the 1990s and early 2000s.

His Democratic opponent, Bridgette Johnson, who is making her first run for public office this year, is asking voters to look “forward to the future” by electing her to the seat.

District E, one of six councilmanic districts in Harford County, includes the City of Aberdeen, Churchville and communities just east of Bel Air along the Route 543 and Route 22 corridor.

The seat is open in this year’s election as the current officeholder, Republican Councilman Patrick Vincenti, is running for council president.

Wagner also served four years as council president from 2002 through 2006, losing his re-election bid in the latter year in the Republican primary. He also ran unsuccessfully for county executive in 2010.

Wagner won the Republican primary in June with 50.76 percent of the vote, beating Diane Sengstacke by 38 votes, 1,264 votes to 1,226, according to data from the Harford County Board of Elections website.

Johnson ran unopposed in her party’s primary, receiving 1,860 votes, according to county elections data.

Robert Wagner

“I think I have a wealth of knowledge that not another candidate that’s running has,” Wagner, 61, said, citing his previous time in county government.

Wagner is one of three people to have served 16 years on the council, joining Richard Slutzky, who is retiring this year after representing District E for 12 years and serving the last four as council president, and the late John W. Schafer, who represented District C from 1974 to 1990.

Wagner is semi-retired, working as a landlord operating rental properties and in farming. He lives in the Fountain Green area east of Bel Air.

“I welcome the opportunity to serve the next four years,” he said in a recent interview. “I think there’s a lot of things that we have to address.”

Those issues facing Harford County, according to Wagner, include opioid addiction, mental health issues that go “hand in hand” with substance abuse, affordable housing, promoting business growth and the need for long-range planning to sustain quality of life.

“It’s all the same things that we were aware of going into the primary race,” he said.

Wagner is looking toward the future, with a proposal for long-range planning looking out at least 50 years.

“You’re changing the landscape forever, and you need to look at how ... you really want to do that,” he said. “Whatever we create today is going to be the future for the generation that comes.”

Wagner hopes, with that level of long-range planning, that it creates an environment where Harford’s young people decide to live in the county where they grew up.

Wagner said he wants to create more opportunities for affordable housing for members of the local workforce, but to also balance the market so it does not become “something that slides so far in a way that it costs you as a community.”

He also is in favor of expanding the number of mental health treatment facilities in Harford, because there are not enough facilities “within a stone’s throw” of where adults and youths in need of treatment live.

“A great deal of those [patients] need to go out of county to get the help that they need,” Wagner said.

The county government has been working with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health and other community partners to develop a behavioral crisis center for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Upper Chesapeake is also working to build a standalone medical center, with a separate behavioral health inpatient treatment center, in Havre de Grace as part of its Vision 2020 plan — the health system recently submitted a site plan to develop its medical center in Aberdeen, as it has faced extensive pushback from Havre de Grace residents and city leaders over its plans in that community.

Wagner cited his prior experience on the council, which includes working with several county executives, and experience in business as reasons why he is the best candidate for District E. He said he is straightforward with people and is the “conservative voice” and the “logical voice” for the district.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be welcomed by a lot of people,” Wagner said of his time on the campaign trail. “They welcome me back to serve again, remembering how it was when I was there.”

Bridgett Johnson

Johnson, 48, grew up in Havre de Grace and lives in Aberdeen. She is the president and CEO of Bridgeline Solutions LLC, a consulting firm she founded in 2017, and she is the consultant for the Harford Development Corporation. Johnson founded that nonprofit in 2016 to help bring private investment to initiatives related to property development, employment, housing or transportation.

The Army veteran has previously worked for the City of Havre de Grace and the Harford County Office of Economic Development.

Johnson said each of District E’s three communities has different needs and desires, such as more economic development and job growth opportunities — plus a parks and recreation facility — in Aberdeen.

Churchville residents, at the same time, want to preserve the agricultural and historical character of their community. People east of Bel Air are concerned about traffic congestion on Route 22 and Route 543, plus Route 136, and over-development of rural areas that could create more congestion, according to Johnson.

She said members of each community want to ensure they are represented on an equal basis by their council member.

“What we have a need for is growth, planned growth and equal representation,” Johnson said.

District E also includes part of the Route 40 corridor, running through Aberdeen.

“It’s one of the reasons why I got into the race, because of what I feel is neglect and indifference to the Route 40 corridor,” Johnson said.

She said there must be more affordable housing, better job opportunities and transportation options for people living along the corridor. She praised efforts by Harford Community College, the county government and business community to research building an applied technology center, or satellite community college campus, on Route 40 — the college, government and business leaders launched a feasibility study over the summer.

“We need vision and fresh ideas to redevelop the Route 40 corridor,” Johnson said. “We are not looking backwards, we are looking forward to the future.”

Johnson also seeks revisions of the 2015 legislation establishing a 6 percent hotel occupancy tax to raise revenue to fund tourism and activities related to tourism in the county.

Under the law, 50 percent of the revenue collected through a hotel within the limits of any of Harford’s three municipalities goes to the city or town, and the rest goes to the county to distribute to organizations that attract tourism to Harford County.

Johnson said little to no funding has gone to organizations in Harford areas that have the majority of hotel rooms such as Edgewood, Joppa and Riverside/Belcamp. She wants to revise Bill 14-035 by redefining or eliminating the “tourism and or tourism-related activities” qualifier for funding from the bill and ensure a “dedicated percentage” of revenue goes toward community development projects in areas such as Edgewood and Belcamp.

Johnson said she also wants to be “a bridge” between her constituents and Harford County school system officials on matters of school safety.

She said she will support all local, state and federal legislation to combat the opioid epidemic. She also wants to tackle homelessness, which includes people living outside and people who work but cannot afford housing and must live in motels along Route 40.

Johnson said she would encourage development of more affordable housing and expand the number of homeless shelters.

She said she would also like to see greater diversity on the seven-member council, which is all male. Among this year’s candidates for County Council are four women, Democrats Johnson, Karen Kukurin (District C) and Wini Roche (District F), and Republican Donna Blasdell (District A).

“The future is forward,” Johnson said, citing her campaign slogan. “We need fresh ideas, diversity of knowledge, experience, education, gender on the Harford County Council.”

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