Baltimore County Executive candidates Al Redmer and John Olszewski Jr.

Baltimore County Executive candidates John Olszewski Jr. and Al Redmer didn’t exactly face off during a candidate’s forum last week hosted by the Essex-Middle River Civic Council in Bowley’s Quarters, but they did have something to say about each other.

Republican candidate Redmer led off the event, which also included the major party candidates for the Sixth and Seventh district seats on the Baltimore County Council.

Olszewski, who had a prior commitment to appear at an event on the west side, took the stage later in the evening after the county council candidates were finished.

The event was structured as a forum, not a debate, with the candidates presented with a question and each allowed a certain amount of time to answer.

Each candidate was also given three minutes to introduce themselves and three minutes for a closing speech.

(While Olszewski was not present during Redmer’s segment, he did have representatives from his campaign staff watching.)

Sanctuary Status

When asked what, as county executive, he would do to stop violent criminal gangs from establishing a presence and operating in Baltimore County, Redmer said the first thing he would do is eliminate Baltimore County’s status as a sanctuary county.

(Sanctuary counties and cities are those where law enforcement is ordered not to cooperate with federal authorities in finding and taking into custody illegal immigrants. Baltimore County became a sanctuary county under former county executive, the late Kevin Kamenetz.)

“It makes no sense to have law enforcement agencies out there, albeit federal, and Baltimore County police are not able to cooperate with them.”

As the audience applauded, Redmer noted “My opponent supports continuing the sanctuary status.”

During his closing remarks, Redmer said his opponent had supported over 50 tax increases while a member of the House of Delegates.

Section 8, and the federal consent decree

On a question regarding Section 8 housing vouchers, Baltimore City residents using them to move to Baltimore County and Section 8 tenants seemingly concentrated in the east and southeast areas of the county, Redmer referred to a federal housing consent decree the county signed a few years ago.

In the decree, the county agreed to build 1,000 new housing units and spend $30 million over the next 10 years to create incentives for developers to build Section 8 housing.

“I will take that settlement to federal court and fight it,” Redmer said. “It was signed without county council support or a vote. The agreement is discriminatory in itself, in that there is literally a map that directs new Section 8 vouchers to certain, specific neighborhoods. I believe that’s inappropriate.”

Presented with the same question, Olszewski said “My opponent thinks we can rip up an agreement with the federal court. It doesn’t work like that. We would lose the lawsuit and waste millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

“My opponent would take us on a wild goose chase and fight the federal government on an issue we wold lose. That’s irresponsible.”

In his specific response to the question, Olszewski said Baltimore County has a fixed amount of Section 8 housing vouchers, and that number was not going to increase.

“I support de-concentrating the vouchers, so no one community bears the burden of having all those vouchers, all that poverty in one area. We should spread those pockets of poverty throughout the county,” he said.

Olszewski also said the requirement to build 1,000 “affordable housing units, workforce housing,” benefits the county.

Long-term vs. immediate needs

In response to a question as to where to find more money to put towards public safety and the infrastructure, Redmer said the county needed to think long-term, with a 10-year plan.

“We have no long-term plan, no multi-year budget,” he said. “It’s an annual budget and an annual fight for discretionary funds. I will develop a process to look at identifying short-term needs and solutions, and develop a long-term plan.”

Olszewski, for his part, said the county was owed $200 million from the state and he would see the county gets that money.

“We need to continue to make some investments, we need to do things upfront, do it now, get economies of scale and we don’t lose those years,” he said.

“My opponent likes to talk about 10-year plans. But when a first-grader gets involved in a 10-year plan, at the end of 10 years, she’s graduated. We failed that kid. We can’t wait 10 years, we need to do it now.”

In regards to Baltimore County’s status as a sanctuary county, and violent gangs, Olszewski said “I think everyone deserves to feel safe in their neighborhoods. There was an effort by the county council to require county employees to cooperate with federal police.

“But my focus is on the residents of the county; I’m not going to ask the residents of the county to pay for enforcing federal policy.”

That was greeted with angry grumbling from some members of the audience.

Regarding concerns about gang activity in the county, Olszewski said “we have to engage young people at every age, and equip law enforcement to be able to do their job.

“We need more police officers [a point also raised by Redmer], learn community concerns and where the hot spots are. Use analytics to get a better sense of where crime is emerging and get ahead of it.”

Not a tax supporter

Asked afterwards about the 50 tax increases he was said to have supported while a state delegate, Olszewski pointed out he had voted against increasing the state sales tax, voted against increasing the gas and alcohol taxes, opposed raising the cost of tolls to $4 and voted to lower state income taxes for 90 percent of Marylanders.

“Factually inaccurate,” Olszewski called the statement he supported tax increases while a delegate.

School issues: discipline vs. infrastructure

Asked what they considered to be the biggest issue facing county schools, Redmer said discipline and Olszewski named infrastructure.

“We have teachers who occasionally are assaulted, teachers who are verbally assaulted on a regular basis,” Redmer said. “Teachers are not able to maintain control in the classroom, not able to discipline kids, not even able to appropriately grade them.

“That’s what we need to fix first.”

Olszewski, a former classroom teacher at Patapsco High and Center for the Arts, said “Hands down, the most pressing concern is our infrastructure in our schools. For too long, we haven’t met the needs and we’ve delayed our investment.”

While a project to install air conditioning in all schools is close to completion, “we still have further to go,” Olszewski said. “We have schools crumbling to the ground like Lansdowne ... schools in the southeast part of the county are over-capacity and need to be replaced, added-on to, or renovated.

“Giving students and teachers a 21st-century learning environment is my top priority.”

Community associations: input welcomed

Both candidates responded to a question concerning the role of community associations in county government by saying they would welcome all input from community associations, and both said they would be opposed if the state tried to build a third bridge over the Chesapeake Bay with one end starting in Baltimore County (surely a pressing concern).

Both Olszewski and Redmer also repeatedly stressed their administrations would be open and transparent.

Out of our jurisdiction

The two candidates also agreed the situation concerning run-off coming into the Chesapeake Bay from the Conowingo Dam was a bit outside the purview of the Baltimore County Executive.

Redmer announced his concern for the environment and dealing with run-off into the Bay, the importance of the Bay considering parts of the county are on the waterfront and his desire to preserve as much open space in the county as he could.

“There is no comparison in this race when it comes to taking care of the environment,” Olszewski said. “I’ve consistently had a 90 percent score from environmental groups, while my opponent has an 18 percent score. The Sierra Club has endorsed me.”

Zoning, and a broken government culture

Redmer stressed his great relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan (being a member of Hogan’s cabinet) and his business experience.

“As a businessman who currently runs a large state agency, we need to have appropriate expectations standards and accountability,” Redmer said. “A Section 8 tenant signs a lease with the terms they will not illegally possess a gun, will not engage in drug activity and will not engage in criminal activity.

“Too often, these terms are not enforced. I will see they are enforced.”

Saying the culture in Baltimore County government is “broken,” Redmer said “we will bring in process-improvement folks. We’re going to audit contracts, go through every department in a businesslike, methodical way, we’re going to audit what it is we do, why do we do it, and how can we make it more effective, and cost-effective, than we do now.”

These statements were in response to questions concerning county code enforcement and the zoning process.

Olszewski also talked about empowering county auditors to do a sweep, and said people should be able to go online and request information about zoning changes.

“We need to empower people to participate in the process”, he said.

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