- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

The last seven weeks are probably times that Anne Arundel's (Md.) rookie County Executive Janet Owens would rather forget.
It has been one exploding cigar after another for the executive, causing people to ask:
What emboldened her personnel chief to rig a typing test for a county employee who was his friend?
Why did the police chief, who works for Mrs. Owens, release the son of a former County Council member after he was charged with burglary?
Finally, why did the 1998 long-shot winner of the county's top job recently hand over a chunk of county land to a country club free of charge?
That is a lot of explaining to do in just a 49-day span.
Mrs. Owens declined to be interviewed for this story, allowing her spokesman to do her talking, but her public comment has been that she is trying to change the "culture" of her county's government.
She has some breathing room now, however.
The county ethics commission has decided not to investigate her transfer of county land without council approval to a country club owned by friends and associates.
There's growing consensus that her action corrected a 9-year-old error through which the club gave the land, rather than simply a required easement, to the county to protect a flood plain where development is banned.
But answers to that complaint, provided more than two weeks ago, won't end her troubles.
Almost the next day, county police officers were complaining to commissioners that their chief shouldn't have released the son of a former council member who is Mrs. Owens' friend from jail, without bail after he was charged with burglarizing the home of an elderly neighbor.
It didn't help that the man a firefighter who had been released to his father's custody for medical treatment had been charged twice with drunken driving and later turned up knocking on doors looking for a "dance."
Criticism didn't lessen after her administration found that county personnel official Joseph W. Alton III, son of Anne Arundel's first county executive, rigged a typing test to help a friend.
Residents and County Council members say they still are waiting to find out why Mrs. Owens' chief administrative officer, who investigated and accepted Mr. Alton's resignation, accompanied him to an interview for a job at Anne Arundel Community College.
The unnamed secretary for whom Mr. Alton rigged the test resigned in August, but that didn't end the rancor in the office where she worked.
Her former boss, James M. Hurley, was suspended for three weeks without pay and demoted from deputy public works director to business manager of the county jail at almost the same pay.
Although Mrs. Owens' upset 1998 victory in the Democratic primary and her defeat of Republican incumbent John Gary later that year were fueled largely by her advocacy of "slow growth" in a county beset with development pressures, she now is embroiled in disputes with county residents who don't want roads and development coming through neighboring natural areas and their back yards.
In the case of a commercial development anchored by Safeway supermarkets in Deale that some say threatens wetlands, Mrs. Owens believes the plan is "out of scale," her spokesman Andrew Carpenter said.
"But she has to uphold the law allowing it to go through," he added.
Mrs. Owens shares the "smart growth" vision of her friend and fellow Democrat, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Mrs. Owens has secured preservation of a record 1,700 acres of farmland in Anne Arundel during her 22 months in office compared to 5,000 acres in the previous 20 years, according to Mr. Carpenter.
She also makes much of her family's farm roots in the county's rural southern end. But saving land there has meant concentrating new development in areas already strained by growth like the corridor between residential areas in west Annapolis and businesses along Route 50 toward Parole.
Council member Barbara Samorajczyk a fellow first-term county official who also ran on a slow-growth platform said she was livid that Mrs. Owens watched bulldozers begin leveling trees and land in a ecologically sensitive area while opponents awaited an appeal hearing that county officials had delayed.
"After the county requested a continuance, she directed the contractor to destroy the asset that was the subject of the hearing," Ms. Samorajczyk said. "How do you explain that?"
The construction firm was fulfilling the terms of its contract under a ruling from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Mr. Carpenter replied.
Democrats took over control of Anne Arundel's government in 1998, partly through the election of former Republicans who ran as Democrats.
Insiders say Mrs. Owens is working hard to gain her footing so no more cigars explode around her but that it hasn't been as easy for her as it might have been for Diane Evans, the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic establishment, who was courted and converted from the Republican Party.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. expressed a common sentiment about Mrs. Owens when he said "she's a very fine person."
Mr. Miller, a Democrat whose district includes part of Anne Arundel, said "minor setbacks" are not unusual in the period of transition for a new administration.
Mr. Carpenter said county residents still are stinging from the style and policies of Mr. Gary, which have been described as autocratic and unstintingly pro-development.
Some fault Mrs. Owens' advisers for the administration's missteps; others say she is responsible for the counsel she keeps and decisions she makes.
"I don't think there's a nefarious agenda, I think there's some sloppy administration," said John J. Klocko III, the only veteran Republican member remaining on the County Council.
"At some point the [county] executive needs to challenge her staff when they are astray and critically evaluate the information put before her."

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