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County executive hopefuls court green voters

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Capital Gazette Communications
Published 10/19/10

Joshua McKerrow — The Capital Howard Ernst, author and Naval Academy professor, asks county executive candidates how they’ll pay for expensive but necessary fixes to stormwater controls in the county.   The three candidates spent more than an hour answering environmental questions during a forum last night at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis.

The three candidates for county executive, appearing at a forum in Annapolis last night, pledged to focus on the environment. Incumbent Republican John R. Leopold, Democratic challenger Joanna Conti and Green Party challenger Mike Shay navigated through sewage spills, pesticides, polluted stormwater and tight finances during the fast-moving forum. Each candidate promoted himself or herself as eco-friendly.

Leopold touted his environmental accomplishments over the years, reaching as far back as the mid-1980s, when he was a state lawmaker and voted for a ban on phosphorus in laundry detergent.

"I've always believed that the environment is not something that we own, but it's something we all belong to as a community. We have a responsibility to preserve it for future generations. As county executive, I've tried to do that," said Leopold, who has been endorsed by the county chapter of the League of Conservation Voters.

Conti painted herself as a quick study on the bay's woes, highlighting things that surprised her about the Chesapeake Bay's pollution since she moved back to the area a few years ago.

"I want to use my chemical engineering knowledge to tackle the three big problems we have in Anne Arundel County. One is with leaking septic systems. The second is with stormwater runoff problems. And the third is something that doesn't seem to get enough attention at all, and that's the amount of raw sewage we are continuing to dump into our waterways," Conti said.

Shay, an activist in south county, promoted his long involvement in fighting developers and polluters.

"My campaign is about charting a new course, it's not about doing the policies of the past. It's about bringing a vision of the future," Shay said.

The three managed to stake out unique positions.

When it comes to fixing the county's largely outdated stormwater runoff controls, many environmentalists have promoted establishing a tax or fee to raise money.

Conti said she'd first put the county's "fiscal house in order" and then, when money is rolling back into the government, would spend it on environmental fixes.

Conti also said she'd consider "an appropriate funding mechanism."

Earlier in the day, Shay announced his "Change for the Bay" plan, a fee that would average $5 per month for a typical homeowner, with the money going to stormwater fixes.

Leopold said he'd try again to pass a fee on new development. But he wouldn't endorse a fee on all property owners, saying that would basically be an increase in property taxes.

After the forum, Leopold said that if the County Council passes such a fee, he'd give it serious consideration.

Conti and Shay criticized the program that provides government funding for upgrades in septic systems to reduce pollution.

Shay said he had problems when he tried to get his own home into the program, and Conti blasted an early requirement that grant recipients can never expand their homes.

Conti said money would be better spent hooking up older neighborhoods to public sewer.

Leopold defended his administration's handling of the grant money, saying Anne Arundel has completed more septic upgrades than any other county.

But all three candidates also offered similar answers on several questions.

All three pledged to investigate limiting the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus. They also promised to look into pesticide and herbicide pollution and educate residents on bay-friendly practices, such as picking up pet waste. And all acknowledged problems with sprawling growth and infrastructure.

About 50 people attended the forum at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis. The gathering was sponsored by the Severn River Association, the Magothy River Association, the South River Federation and the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations.

The three will meet again tonight at Anne Arundel Community College, at a forum that will also feature County Council candidates. It starts at 6 p.m. at the college's Pascal Center at the main campus in Arnold.

(Revised October 2010)