Having eked out the narrowest of victories for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County Executive, John Olszewski, Jr. deserves the enthusiastic support of Democrats who backed his opponents in the primary election. Mr. Olszewski has a sound and forward-looking vision for Baltimore County that offers county residents their best hope of achieving a much-needed change in both the substance and style of county government.
During the primary campaign, Mr. Olszewski was the only candidate willing to acknowledge that Baltimore County should consider imposing a development impact fee or excise tax on builders to take the burden of paying for the public facilities needed to support new development off local property and income tax revenues. His stance took courage in a tax-adverse county with too many residents who recognize the need to improve the county’s infrastructure but who refuse to accept a role in helping pay for the improvements.
In February, the county’s Spending Affordability Committee reported that the county is facing a decision: Either increase taxes or cut back on its plans to replace aging and run-down facilities, most notably county schools. During the administration of the late Kevin Kamenetz the county ran the budgetary equivalent of a pyramid scheme, relying on taxes from new development to make ends meet.
Not only did that approach drive dubious land use decisions, it set the timer on a fiscal time bomb. As the pace of development slows, which it will, the county will come under increasing financial pressure. It is a problem without easy answers that will take courage and strong leadership to solve. “Business as usual” in Baltimore County won’t work; as pointed out by the Spending Affordability Committee, the county cannot afford to replace schools and other facilities that need replacing unless revenues are increased.
Mr. Olszewski also understands that creating more access to affordable housing is a key to the county’s future well-being. Land use and other policies that promote the creation of pockets of poverty will be the ruination of the county in the same way that it was the ruination of the City of Baltimore. The failure to prohibit landlords in the county from categorically refusing to accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers has redlined neighborhoods in the county as effectively as the refusal of banks to lend money in neighborhoods with “undesirable racial concentrations” redlined neighborhoods in the city decades ago.
Again, it took courage for Mr. Olszewski to come out in favor of the so-called HOME Act, which would prohibit county landlords from categorically refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers. The thing that many county residents seem to fear most (even more than an increase in taxes) is the out-migration of poor black families from the city to the county. Out-migration is going to occur; the only question is whether it continues to result in the expansion of the existing pockets of poverty in the county.
Supporters of State Senator Jim Brochin were suspicious of Mr. Olszewski’s commitment to ending the pay-to-play culture that dominated county government over the past two administrations and was elevated to an art form by Mr. Kamenetz. Developers contributed to Mr. Olszewski’s campaign and he is, after all, the son of former County Councilman John Olszewski, Sr., a charter member of the county’s good old boys’ club. Those suspicions did not go away when it became clear that Mr. Olszewski was the primary beneficiary of attack ads aimed at Mr. Brochin and paid for by pro-development interests, including a slate fund controlled by former County Executive Jim Smith.
I have no problem with developers having seats at the table; they should. The problem under the Kamenetz administration was that a select group of developers and their lawyers owned the table, and ordinary citizens and community groups seldom were invited to sit at it. Until proven otherwise, I will take Mr. Olszewski at his word that ordinary citizens no longer will be closed out of major decisions in the county and I believe that other voters should do so as well.
During his campaign, Mr. Olszewski repeatedly stressed his intention to make county government open, transparent and accessible, something sorely needed in Towson. Mr. Kamenetz ran what certainly was the least open, transparent and accessible local government in Maryland. Understanding that knowledge is power, Mr. Kamenetz and his appointees withheld as much information as possible from citizens, especially when that information could be used to oppose the interests of one of his favored developers. Compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act ranged from dreadful to non-existent.
The fact that Councilwoman Vicki Almond, the candidate favored by developers and the heir apparent to Mr. Kamenetz as the nominal head of the Democratic machine in Baltimore County (under the supervision of Jim Smith, of course), received less than 32% of the vote in the Democratic primary was a clear statement by Democratic voters that they are fed up with the culture of soft corruption in Towson and want a significant change in the way that their county government is run. I believe that Mr. Olszewski understands what the voters want and will provide that change.
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Leadership style also is important, and I believe that Mr. Olszewski’s general affability and inclusive style will serve him and the citizens of the county well. It certainly will be a refreshing change from the imperiousness of the Kamenetz administration in which intimidation was used to suppress public debate and overcome opposition to the county executive’s proposals.
As an aside, Mr. Olszewski called me the day before the primary election to discuss a post that I wrote suggesting that, based on poll results showing Mr. Brochin in the lead and Mr. Olszewski well behind, a vote for Mr. Olszewski was tantamount to a vote for Ms. Almond. I knew that Mr. Brochin’s lead over Ms. Almond was shrinking because of the barrage of attack ads against him.
For purposes of the Democratic primary, I was firmly in the ABV camp – anyone but Ms. Almond. I viewed the fact that there were two excellent candidates running against her – Mr. Olszewski and Mr. Brochin – to be as much a curse as a blessing, worried that they would split the “reform” vote and allow Ms. Almond’s developer buddies to retain control of the county.
During our conversation, Mr. Olszewski good-naturedly told me that I was in for a surprise on election day and took the time to explain why he believed he would win. He didn’t confront me or chastise me for my post; he just talked to me, and we had a pleasant discussion about the race. I have been around way too long to form conclusions based on a single conversation, but I liked his attitude: Politicians who recognize that people who do not entirely agree with or support them should not be treated as enemies are in short supply nowadays.
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Although this post began with a message to Democratic voters who supported Mr. Olszewski’s opponents in the primary, my message to Republicans and independents is the same: Baltimore County is at a crossroads and desperately needs new ideas and fresh leadership. The Republican candidate for County Executive, Al Redmer, Jr. is a solid candidate who has some good ideas, including establishing a county Office of Inspector General, but he is less a leader than a manager.
Mr. Redmer may appeal to voters who don’t want the county to change or want it to go back to the way it was twenty or thirty years ago, but that is not going to happen. Change is inevitable in the county, and the only question is how well the county will prepare for and adjust to it. In my opinion, Mr. Olszewski is the candidate best suited to tackle the difficult tasks ahead and to move the county forward.