Leadership change in Prince George's brings challenges and stirs hope

Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County's executive, was arrested Nov. 12 as federal investigators executed search warrants at the County Administration Building. His wife, Leslie Johnson, was also arrested. Each was charged with evidence tempering and destroying evidence.
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 9:24 AM

For Rushern L. Baker III, the long journey to the Prince George's County executive suite ends Monday - with a swearing-in ceremony in Upper Marlboro.

But the sense of accomplishment is clouded by a county government struggling to find its way after Jack B. Johnson, the departing county executive, and Leslie Johnson (D) were charged with evidence tampering and destruction of evidence last month.

Leslie Johnson is expected to take office Monday along with eight others on the County Council while her husband was term limited and could not run again. Prince George's residents' distress over the arrests, the distraction of a corruption investigation and the county's vexing financial balance sheet could hover over Baker's administration for years.

Baker ran unsuccessfully twice before for the county's top job, touting his ability to run a clean government. Now he gets his chance.

"I want to take the county in a new direction," Baker, 52, said in an interview with The Washington Post a few days before his inauguration. "My job as county executive is to promote Prince George's County and to grow it. I can't be deterred from that."

"We have challenges but they are outweighed by the opportunities."

Lofty promises

Within a few hours of taking office and hosting a public open house Monday, Baker (D) is expected to fire or accept resignations from most of Johnson's political appointees. And after an evening inaugural gala at National Harbor's Gaylord resort, Baker must immerse himself in the details of running the government.

He has made lofty promises - no furloughs for teachers, firefighters and police, more money for education and possibly a longer school day - all of which cost money. He has told state officials he will be seeking more state dollars, noting that Prince George's delivered a huge Democratic majority to Gov. Martin O'Malley and to lawmakers in Annapolis. But in tight fiscal times, the county's political contributions may not be enough.

His first week, he said in the interview, will be spent poring over the county's $2.6 billion budget, something he had hoped to do before taking office. However, he said the Johnson administration did not provide as detailed a picture as he needs.

"We don't exactly know what the picture looks like in terms of the deficit. We probably won't have a complete answer until I take over," he said. "I am concerned. We will take a hard look at the number once we get in there."

The solutions to money problems are limited, partly because of a voter-imposed tax cap that makes it virtually impossible to raise property taxes, and partly due to a lower overall tax base than in more affluent neighbors in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. While he hopes to expand the commercial tax base by attracting more business, he also plans to institute a broad examination of government efficiencies, and will use a system known as CountyStat to ascertain how county funds are being spent.

"We clearly want to make sure that people understand how the government is functioning and how we are using each and every dollar they are giving us. We are going to make some tough choices, and we will ask the residents of the county to support those tough choices," he said.

For now, Baker said he expected to hire some former officials as acting heads of government agencies, while he conducts searches for permanent cabinet-level appointments. He wants cabinet officers who come from the private sector and have already had to find ways to do more with less. And he plans a thorough examination of agencies, including the police and housing departments. Baker is expected to fire Police Chief Roberto Hylton on Monday, despite complaints from some Hylton backers that the chief should stay in his post.

Also, observers said, Baker will need to be alert to a potential fifth column of Johnson loyalists, including some political appointees who have burrowed into the career bureaucracy and would be difficult to dislodge.

The hopes of many

Baker's inaugural theme - On the Path to Greatness - embodies the hopes of many county residents who say they are tired of the image of mediocrity and aura of corruption that have plagued the county for years.

Michelle Haywood, who is planning the inaugural ball at National Harbor, said she was drawn to Baker's candidacy eight years ago because she thought the county had much potential but wasn't moving forward fast enough.

Like many in the county, she was dissatisfied with the public schools and, for a time, home-schooled her young son and daughter. She would explain to them the importance of staying abreast of politics and understanding who represents them in government.

"It occurred to me that I had not lived up to what I was telling them," she said.

She and her husband became involved in Bowie city affairs, and met Baker in 2002 as he was beginning his first race for executive. Haywood ended up being a loyal supporter and fundraiser, and now, his chief party planner.

Ericka Farrell, president of the PTA at John Hanson French Immersion School in Oxon Hill, did not vote for Baker in the five-way Democratic primary in September but is eager to see change, particularly in the 128,000-student public school system. "I know that is his focus, but unless they get some teachers in the schools who want to teach our kids, nothing is going to change," she said.

State Del. Barbara Frush (D-Prince George's), a longtime Baker supporter, has high hopes.

"He is going to come in and make dramatic changes," she said.

"It is a huge challenge but I think he is up for it," she said. And despite the specter of the Johnsons' legal issues, and the difficulties ahead for the nascent administration, Frush said Baker is looking forward to whatever lies ahead.

"He's always positive, one of those 'I can do it' types. And he is willing to make the tough decisions," she said.

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