Prince George's election is chance to start fresh chapter

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 9:17 PM

Will Campos hopes to find a way to complete the arts district on Route 1. Obie Patterson wants to help wayward youths. Ingrid M. Turner is eager to renovate aging school buildings and make school more challenging. Eric C. Olson says more sustainable communities are needed so people can bike and walk to work or stores.

Karen Toles wants to capitalize on the five Metro stations in her district, and Mel Franklin wants to preserve his district's rural character and create development around public transit. Mary A. Lehman envisions improving schools as well as attracting "smart growth" and jobs. Andrea Fletcher Harrison hopes for job development so residents can live and work nearby. And Leslie E. Johnson worries about education, unemployment and crippling foreclosures.

Prince George's County is poised to usher in a new political order in Upper Marlboro on Tuesday with the election of a new county executive, county council, state's attorney, sheriff and dozens of General Assembly members. The nonpartisan school board's nine seats are the only ones in serious contention.

Some of the coming change in political leadership is a byproduct of term limits, and some a result of the probable election of many Democrats who promise to change the way the county conducts business. On the campaign trail, many of the newcomers have pledged to end what critics have called the county's persistent cronyism that has favored insiders who are close to top officials with contracts and business deals. They also say they will bring in an era of cooperation as they try to build on the county's progress in schools, economic development and crime reduction.

Peter A. Shapiro, a Hyattsville Democrat who was council chairman when County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) took office in 2002, characterized the relationship between Johnson and the council as often "nothing but combative." Shapiro, who stepped down in 2004, said the feuds devolved into power struggles, rather than disagreements about substance.

Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), who is stepping down after eight years on the council, said the relationship had its "ups and downs" but that tensions escalated recently.

"In the waning hours of this administration, we have been having some real problems getting information. Over time, that has been one of the problems we have had to deal with," he said. Without the details, Dean said, the council has had to slow down legislation.

If the mood is to change in Upper Marlboro, it will be up to the new executive and the council, which is likely to have a five-woman majority for the first time. The council also is expected to include three lawyers, several community activists and at least three members who grew up in the districts they hope to represent.

Eight of the nine Democratic council candidates agreed to be interviewed about their goals; Harrison declined to be interviewed but did answer questions for The Washington Post Voters Guide.

Those interviewed said they hope to set a new tone.

"The council and the county executive-elect all care about moving Prince George's County forward. I am confident that we will work together to ensure that the priorities and needs of the citizens are met to the highest degree," said Toles, who backed presumptive county executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) in the Sept. 14 primary.

Turner is optimistic that she will beat back a challenge from Fiona Moodie, the only Republican in the council races, and win a second term representing a northern slice of the county where she grew up. She said she doubted there would be a repeat of the divisiveness and tensions of recent years: "I have no reason to believe we will not get the information we need and that [Baker] will not be forthcoming." Moodie believes that the county must focus on attracting jobs and improving schools.

Leslie Johnson, a lawyer who is married to the departing county executive, said her district is economically diverse, leaving it with a range of challenges.

"I will be representing all of the citizens in that district," she said.

But even up to their last session Tuesday, current council members were embroiled in disagreements with Johnson over several issues - pay raises for nonunionized employees, funding the county's ailing public hospital, and financing an emergency call center that would literally put police and firefighters on the same wavelength as others in the region.

In the past two weeks, council members have complained repeatedly that the Johnson administration has not been forthcoming with information on the county's fiscal condition but has asked members to vote on bills Johnson wants.

"It's a very bad way for us to end the eight years we have been together," Dean said at a recent council meeting. Campos termed the information flow "ridiculous."

Although county budget chief Jonathan R. Seeman acknowledged that the executive had allocated some funds without council knowledge, he said the funding was legal. Johnson's spokesman, Jim Keary, said the council has been kept informed.

Many of those who expect to take office in December say they are hoping for calm and cooperation. "I really think we have a unique opportunity to work in unity in a way that hasn't happened in a very long time," said Franklin, one of the three lawyers likely to join the council. Franklin is running unopposed to represent the county's southern tier, which is in many ways a microcosm of the Washington region, with urban, suburban and rural sectors.

As the presumptive council members watch the current council wrap up business, they are preparing to take on some of the county's continuing challenges: building up the commercial tax base and improving lagging public schools.

"I understand that I am not running for the Board of Education, but this is the biggest issue facing this county," Lehman said of the public schools. "Sixty-two cents out of every tax dollar are going to the schools, but people are not confident they are getting their money's worth. We have made tons of progress in terms of academic achievement, but it is the behavior and the safety issues that must be solved."

Mindful of how much he needs the council, which holds the power of the purse in the $2.6 billion government, Baker has reached out to probable council members, seeking their ideas and support in one-on-one meetings. He would need their backing to help deliver on his campaign pledges to end furloughs for teachers and public safety employees as well as establish an inspector general's office to root out waste and fraud.

"People are excited to get started," said Campos (D-Hyattsville). "I think they are willing to work together, learn together, try to figure out the makeup of the new council. As a government body, I think that is interesting and promising."

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