Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) is turning to the electronic media in what she describes as an effort to "improve confidence in government, make it accessible, and get out the news about county services."
Owens's campaign isn't cheap. She has hired a communications director, Judith Pedersen, at an annual salary of $60,000 while retaining an office spokesman. She has also persuaded the County Council to budget $20,000 to televise its biweekly meetings. Owens said the expense is necessary.
"For the past 10 months I have been going to every possible event to meet with citizens and talk about government, and it's still not enough," she said.
The results of Owens's efforts will be evident in coming weeks.
She sat in on a radio call-in show on WNAV-AM last week and is negotiating with the station to do such a show every other week.
Her proposal for televised council meetings will come to fruition Nov. 15, according to council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman (D-Glen Burnie). The council sessions will appear on Channel 20 in Annapolis and Channel 99 in the northern part of the county.
On Nov. 18, Owens will appear on Maryland Public Television to talk about her first year in office. The next day she and other county leaders will tape a Y2K preparedness video that will be broadcast on a local cable channel through the end of the year.
"The local papers run a lot of stories about 'government, government, government,' " explained spokesman, Andrew Carpenter. "There's nothing wrong with those stories, but they can lead people to think that government is just inside baseball or this week's hot issue. The county executive wants people to know their government is a lot more than that."
In the future, Owens said, she hopes to get Comcast, the county's cable franchise, to produce shows about the county's recycling campaign, its senior centers and the Parks and Recreation Department.
The county negotiates such services with the cable company as a condition of granting the contract to provide cable to residents. For example, the $125,000 required to outfit the council chamber with four robotic cameras and high-intensity lights came out of funds paid by Jones Communications, a cable provider that has since been bought by Comcast.
Owens defended the expense of hiring Pedersen while retaining Carpenter. "Judith's experience in cable and in local government is going to be a big plus in getting these new programs on the air," she said.
She said she was not using public money to promote herself.
"This isn't tooting my own horn," she said. "This is tooting the horn of our county employees."
Owens said she wants to do the radio call-in show regularly to stay in touch with constituents.
"In my job, things are delivered up to me by people in the administration and it's inevitable that people want to put a good face on things. That's not necessarily wrong, but it can prevent you from learning."
One of the first WNAV listeners to call Owens on the air last week was the wife of a county police officer. The caller noted that police salaries are much higher in Harford and Baltimore counties than in Anne Arundel. "Personally I find that unacceptable," Owens replied, saying that she hoped to raise police pay during upcoming labor negotiations.
A caller named Norma complained that she had to pay a $40 county permit fee before she could install a $200 water heater.
"That's terrible," Owens said. "I didn't know that."
A caller named Bill claimed that Anne Arundel isn't licensing bed and breakfasts to do business in the county. Owens promised to look into the matter.
"What I like about these things," she said later, "is that people will ask about anything and everything."