Tonight I took the easy jaunt eastward on Old Ocean City Road and found myself in Pittsville to check out the latest candidate forum. Around 70 people or so were there to hear from both candidates for Sheriff, 7 of the 13 hopefuls for County Council, and two of the three County Executive officeseekers.
Mike Farlow was the moderator of this event, which focused heavily on issues affecting the public service community, firefighters in particular. It was natural since the event was held in Pittsville’s fire hall, which is one of the nicer facilities around. While Farlow is a member of my opposite number (Democratic Central Committee) I thought for the most part he did a good job in selecting fair and nonpartisan questions that encouraged thoughtful answers.
The evening started with a few introductions. A few candidates who were present but not on the speaking bill were recognized. They were Orphans Court Judge Peter Evans and Clerk of the Court candidates James Gillespie and Mark Bowen. Also introduced was my fellow Central Commiteeman Dave Goslee, Sr. (I wasn’t introduced but that’s no biggie.) Later during the program it was also noted that Orphans Court Judge Melissa Pollitt Bright had arrived so she was given her due. Audience questions were encouraged, said Farlow, but nothing Clintonesque like “boxers or briefs”, questions were to be kept clean, fair to all candidates, and to the point.
Opening the candidate portion of the forum were Mike Lewis and Kirk Daugherty, both of whom seek the office of Wicomico County Sheriff. The pair were given time for opening and closing statements and ended up answering nine questions supplied by Farlow and various audience members who filled out cards for that purpose. These questions dealt with the role of the fire police, future staffing needs, the substation in Pittsville, communications between the various law enforcement agencies, cooperation in the event of a natural disaster, gambling (as a function for nonprofits), mounted patrol, and two questions regarding safety in schools. Because Lewis spoke first, his summary starts this report.
Mike Lewis isn’t ready to retire at 42, so he’s running for the “job” of Wicomico County Sheriff. Lewis had enough time in his open to cite what he considered the two biggest problems the county faces as far as law enforcement goes, the “rampant” drugs and guns. He began the question and answer session by praising the fire police as “unsung heroes” and advocated a yearly banquet in their honor.
Lewis continued his case by advocating increased staffing as the county developed, wanting also to “raise the standard you can expect” from the Sheriff’s Department. And while the Pittsville substation looked to be ready to go, Mike wanted to use the substations as places to work with other law enforcement agencies like his native Maryland State Police, seeking to combat a problem he termed as “organized crime vs. disorganized law enforcement.” Furthering the theme in the next question, Lewis stated he’d spoken to the chiefs in the three largest Wicomico communities (Salisbury, Fruitland, Delmar) about cooperation and training in his specialty, drug interdiction. One goal was to teach local police about looking for contraband during a routine traffic stop.
Mike had an interesting response to the question on disaster preparation – rather than reinvent the wheel, he advocated looking to adapt a program that was instituted as a response to Hurricane Katrina last year. Also, while he was a supporter of instituting a mounted patrol in the county, a bigger priority to him was establishing a motorcycle patrol unit.
As for school safety, Lewis cautioned that “we can only do so much to prepare” for a situation like that occurring in Pennsylvania last week. But one thing that Mike brought up which I didn’t know is that Wicomico County’s Board of Education is funding the nine school deputies to the tune of $471,000, which is the most in the state and that Wicomico is the only county where the Board funds the deputies to that degree. Lewis closed by stressing his experience, awards, and expertise in drug interdiction, noting a concern about a “lack of service” in our county’s smaller communities.
Kirk Daugherty also talked about experience, as he spent 26 years in the Maryland State Police before switching over to the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Department to serve as chief deputy for a time. The current president of the Maryland Troopers Association pointed to his experience there and in the WCSD as time where he learned to prepare budgets. The crime rate in Wicomico County “concerns me very much” he stated, also citing concerns about the needs of seniors and youth as far as law enforcement goes.
He lauded the fire police as moneysavers as they freed up manpower from other first response agencies, telling the assembled that because of the presence of the fire police at accident scenes it allowed more time to investigate the accident without the worry of traffic control, tending to the injured, etc. This was a good thing, as he also noted the Maryland State Police hadn’t been able to keep up with the growing Wicomico population so local law enforcement has had to pick up the slack.
With the growing population, Kirk felt it was imperative to reopen the substations and “very important” to institute community policing so people could build a trust with the deputies. Daugherty wanted to place more personnel in the rural areas of the county, yet also have the deputies interact with the municipal departments rather than have “lines in the sand.”
In speaking about disaster preparation, Kirk expressed concern about the deputies and their families, citing the need for a plan for the families’ safety as well as the officers. He further noted that, in the event of a coastal hurricane hitting the Ocean City area, the Route 13 bypass would become a “parking lot.” Daugherty didn’t really see the need for a mounted patrol himself, so that questioner was probably frustrated with the responses he or she got.
School safety was addressed by Kirk in the manner of having the deputies in schools present to “build trust” among youth and reminding them that the deputies “are the good guys.” He also wanted deputies trained in rapid response to assist in a better fashion should the unthinkable occur like events in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. And Daugherty didn’t see law enforcement as the only protection, calling on officers to communicate with outside agencies if they see a problem child as well as citizens needing to speak out about suspicious behavior.
Noting finally that “I care about you”, Kirk promised that if he were elected the Sheriff’s Department would become more “effective and efficient.”
Then we turned to the County Council races. There were six of the 13 candidates there to begin the evening, at-large candidate John Cannon arrived just before the end and got a couple minutes to make remarks after his second, David Ennis, had made a short speech on his behalf. By happenstance Cannon’s and Ennis’s remarks turned out to be complementary and not repetitive. However, the six who did come will have their due first.
The roll call of those attending the full program was at-large candidates M.J. Caldwell and Bill McCain, District 1 winner (barring a late write-in candidate) Sheree Sample-Hughes, District 3 challenger Mike Pretl, and both District 5 candidates – Joe Holloway and Ed Werkheiser. Oddly enough, the candidates sat in such an order that they were fairly close to where I’d perceive them on the political spectrum – on the far right (and speaking first) was M.J. Caldwell, followed in order by Holloway, McCain, Werkheiser, Sample-Hughes, and Pretl. Sending their regrets were District 2 Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman (also unopposed), District 3 Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich, District 4 candidate David MacLeod, and at-large candidate Brenda Hughey-Jones. There was no mention of District 4 candidate Bryan Brushmiller or recent at-large write-in repeat candidate Lucy Graf.
With six candidates there was by necessity fewer questions; they only were asked about their knowledge of the fire service, enhancing revenues for fire services, alcohol permits, and improving the safety of our rivers. I found that the answers to the first question were relatively similar, generally stressing the sense of community that the fire department brought, so I’ll skip that question in my summaries.
M.J. Caldwell began by kidding about the large crowd, he was used to speaking to 12 people in a box. Yes, he’s an attorney. But Caldwell “wants to see changes” in Wicomico County and strives to make it the best county in Maryland. To that end, he stated that the county needs to “set priorities”, saying the ones they have now are “gray and mishmash.”
Caldwell is quite the fiscal conservative, vowing not to vote for new taxes and chiding his Democrat opponents for calling “revenue” what should be properly known as “taxes.” His number one priority was the “safety and security of the citizens” with his second priority being neighborhood schools. The fact that three county high schools are located in a small area around Salisbury (rather than spread through the county) was hard for him to fathom when he first moved here. He called for the relocated Bennett High School to be placed on the eastern end of the county.
M.J. also separated himself a little bit by commending the question regarding a yearlong liquor permit for nonprofit organizations like fire halls as a “great idea” and called it a practical solution from the community rather than government. Caldwell wanted the county to be “more community proactive.” Another thing M.J. wanted the county to be was to be the operator of a countywide sewer and water commission in his answer to the rivers question, an idea he claimed has been gathering dust since it was first proposed forty years ago. Finally, Caldwell touched on another pet issue in his closing statement, that of improving the disability system for the Sheriff’s Department.
District 5’s Joe Holloway had been interested in politics for awhile but finally made the plunge this year. Much of his passion came from talking and debating with customers of his store that he ran for nearly two decades before he sold it in 2004. Because of that retail experience, he could relate to the liquor permit question, talking about having to jump through those hoops on a yearly basis.
As far as monetary matters went, Holloway remarked that “we gotta live with the tax cap” and spent a little bit of time catering to the hosts – citing figures that showed the parks and recreation budget in the county was larger than the fire budget and was growing at a faster rate. All the while, he continued, the county-owned Civic Center still charged local high schools money to hold their commencement exercises, which drove the high school graduations out of the Civic Center.
Joe’s most notable quip was in response to the river question – “don’t eat the fish.” More seriously, he stated that the county’s growth was partly to blame for river conditions.
Third on the council hit parade was at-large hopeful Bill McCain. His reason for running was his desire to “give back to the community” where he’d started a business with one employee and grown into a successful operation with a staff of 22. With his chosen field of real estate appraisal, continued Bill, it gave him an opportunity to work all through the county.
Four main points McCain touched on as planks of his campaign were education, growth, crime, and the county’s image. Education and public safety topped the list as far as budgetary priorities went, and he promised to lobby the County Executive for their budgets. Bill wanted to keep “open ears and an open mind” for solutions such as one for the question raised about liquor permits.
An avid outdoorsman, McCain also wanted to fund more fully agricultural preservation programs and rural legacy districts to preserve farmland. But key among his selling points was his claim that he would bring diversity to the County Council, make proactive decisions, and “do the right thing”, things he was “willing to make the sacrifice” for, including being away from his family this evening to attend the forum.
Ed Werkheiser was probably the most at home since his avocation was that of working in the fire department. He claimed it would give him a perspective no one else could offer. Ed saw one solution to supplemental funding of the fire community as writing grants to get federal dollars for local needs. Werkheiser also showed support for impact fees, and called on local firehouse to combine and “speak up” with one voice to procure a better budget number. Where Ed didn’t have as much expertise (such as on the rivers question) he called upon the county to listen to the experts in that field and look for state resources to combat the problem.
Oddly enough, Sheree Sample-Hughes had perspective on the grants comment since that’s part of her “real” job, albeit she focuses on children and family issues. Still, she saw Werkheiser’s idea as one “worth researching.” Sheree spent her opening time going through her experiences in public service, working for Pocomoke City for a time on sewer separation and Section 8 housing issues before taking a job with then-lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s office promoting volunteerism.
Because she’s all but assured of being sworn in come December, Sample-Hughes cited her studies of some of the issues that had come before the forum such as listening to Chesapeake Bay Foundation presentations on problems with the Wicomico River, and wanting to work with proficient people as a “strong proponent of strategic and long-range planning” with a “passion to serve.”
Mike Pretl also thrived on the question of environment. The head of the Wicomico Environmental Trust billed himself as the “smart-growth” candidate and pointed to his fight against a large housing development in “the worst possible place” near Whiton as a key component in this endeavor. Saying that his outside experience (he’s a fairly recent arrival to the area) could be helpful to County Council, Pretl hammered on the growth theme for much of his time. The only time he departed from that was when he called the liquor laws “archaic” and “ripe for change.”
Mike also made the point that growth needed to be constrained to core areas where infrastructure exists (in other words, enforce the comprehensive plan currently in place) and additionally, that environmental projects such as river cleanup needed to have more community support. He also cautioned that grant dollars would be harder to match with the revenue cap in place.
As noted before, John Cannon was a latecomer so he didn’t answer the questions. While Ennis in his remarks opined that Cannon had the “right set of qualifications” and that John’s priorities would be to review and enforce the comprehensive plan and support public education in the county, Cannon himself went through his family and business background and touted himself as a “successful” lobbyist who would use common sense and make “progressive” decisions. Of course, he joked about being tardy, saying that he was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy on the way and wasn’t sure whether he should say he was for Lewis or Daugherty, so he held his tongue.
Another candidate who had input was District 3’s Gail Bartkovich. While she couldn’t attend because of a previous out-of-town engagement, she wrote a letter stating her regrets for not being able to make it. In reading the note for myself, I found this to be its most intriguing passage:
“I am a member of the Republican Club, but no other groups or organizations because I believe it is my obligation and responsibility to represent each and every one of you equally and without prejudice.”
Finally, we got to the two County Executive candidates who were at the event. Because Ron Alessi had a scheduling conflict, he chose not to attend and his second was Joe Ollinger, who got to speak during the interim between questions and closing remarks for the two aspirants present. He did not have to answer the questions, which dealt with what each candidate knew about the local fire services (similar to County Council’s question), funding EMS personnel, employee retention, sprinkler systems in new homes, growth, reducing property taxes for fixed income folks, and what each would do in their first 100 days.
Drawing first blood was Rick Pollitt, who touted his family’s 300 year history in the area but sought to make the county the home of “stay-heres.” In a bow to the hosts, he also used part of his opening statement to note that the fire department in Fruitland has a seat on their planning and zoning board, which gave them input on egress issues, among others. He continued by saying that he “would do better by fire companies” in the budget but the budget had to be prioritized. In fact, Pollitt claimed that each year he started the Fruitland city budget from scratch and built it as a whole (rather than the federal style of baseline budgeting.) Pollitt advocated a “climate of thrift and economy” with incentives for department heads to save money.
I saw Rick’s answer on the sprinkler question as telling – it was “unfortunately” up to the individuals whether or not to install sprinklers in new single-family dwellings. Where growth was concerned, Pollitt claimed to be running on his record of making “growth pay for growth” with impact fees and other measures like making developers build out the “paper streets” found in most developments (these are stub streets that would connect to future subdivisions.) Rick also claimed that the trouble with reducing property taxes for seasoned citizens lay in the assessments.
In his first 100 days in office, Pollitt vowed to start by “building bridges and establishing relationships” and would immediately begin working on the education portion of the budget instead of waiting until the spring as has been the usual case.
Pollitt closed by pleading guilty to the charge brought by his opponents of being a bureaucrat and said he did so “with a lot of pride.” He “knows the limits of government” and agreed with the residents cited by Jannace in his remarks that water and sewer bills in Fruitland were too high – Rick promised to establish a “blue-ribbon panel” to study putting together a countywide water and sewer authority. If you control the water and sewer, Pollitt claimed, you can control growth. He finished by stating that he was “motivated by his children” and hoped there would be another 300 years of Pollitts in the area.
The newcomer in the field, Charles Jannace introduced himself as a “refugee” from New York City and a “true conservative.” No matter how much you take out, Jannace continued, you can always find waste in government. He had just enough time to state his number one priority was public safety.
(In answering his questions, I kept getting the impression Charles was a tad frustrated and would’ve liked maybe 10 more seconds just by his mannerisms.)
But Charles did sneak into the fire service question a mention of establishing a countywide police department, which he stated was endorsed by Sheriff hopeful Mike Lewis. Jannace also complemented the way the county fire department is run – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He particularly admired the spirit inherent in the fire service and wished it was present in other areas of county government.
Jannace correctly stated on the sprinkler question that the cost would be passed on to the buyer unless the developer was made to be held responsible for it. But more controversial was his call for a moratorium on growth in Wicomico County, with APFO’s as needed until the infrastructure caught up. His highest priority, he claimed, was the agricultural industry and land preservation and he’d give farmers “a seat at the table” come budget time.
CJ also stated that he as County Executive couldn’t reduce property taxes under the county charter. But when he started to talk about how Fruitland’s taxes and fees were “higher than they should be” Jannace ran out of time, which drew an audible “thank you!” from Pollitt and a laugh from the audience.
In his first 100 days, Charles said that his first task would be to hire “the Republican who should be sitting up here”, B.J. Corbin, as Director of Administration. He continued by saying that if you wanted a bureaucrat, you should vote for Rick Pollitt. But people were tired of high taxes and fees. (This is what led Pollitt to say in his response that “I’m a people” but that he was proud to be a bureaucrat.)
It was the closing remarks from Jannace that brought about a reaction. Because of the way the event was set up, Joe Ollinger, speaking on behalf of Ron Alessi, made his statements (that I’ll characterize below) between the “100 days” question and closing remarks. Out of the chute Charles opined that it was ironic that Ollinger got to speak for the absent Alessi while Jannace was excluded from the PACE debate. When CJ stated that this was at Alessi’s behest, Ollinger called out “not true!” from the crowd. But Charles continued and used his closing remarks to talk about the county’s school system.
First of all, he showed the audience a copy of the Board of Education budget, which is a thick volume as downloaded. Jannace told the group that the budget needed to be scrutinized. He also had what I thought was an interesting concept, citing a 2004 federal law which allowed honorably retired law enforcement officers to carry a concealed weapon. Why not use these retired officers to supplement the deputies in the schools? This way the county could be proactive when it comes to situations like those encountered recently in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Jannace then blasted the “obsolete” school (the new Bennett HS) that was planned and noted measures used in other places that could be integrated into the design to make kids safer, such as isolation zones and smart cards that can track a child’s whereabouts.
Now to backtrack a bit, Joe Ollinger was the second for the absent County Executive hopeful Ron Alessi. With apologies for Alessi’s absence, Ollinger went through some county budget statistics over the last 3 years. Salaries have gone up 2-4% per year, while county revenues increased 5.5% annually, and income tax revenues 9.4% annually. Over the last 3 years, the budget grew at a 9% annual clip while the Board of Education’s portion went up 8% per annum. Ollinger continued that Ron Alessi wanted the most government for the fewest dollars and that Alessi would keep the revenue cap. But most tellingly, Ollinger spoke of Alessi’s “opponent”, using a singular form instead of plural.
Now a personal note. With my impending move I’ll likely be offline for much of the weekend, which means I don’t get to moderate comments until I get back online. So be patient if you have a comment, I’m not blowing you off. I might be doing it from the floor of my new house (because of a carpet snafu I can’t put my table in my new office) but hopefully I’ll have the Election Calendar on its regular Sunday date.