An Old-Fashioned Political Battle to Lead Frederick County's New Government
It’s a campaign where one candidate says her opponent doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, and where the other says his opponent cannot be trusted. On the issues they cannot be further apart and they delight in picking apart each other’s campaign claims, statistics and interpretations of recent history. For months, they have taken many political broadsides at each other, both personally and through emissaries, in a race that percolates louder every day. “I’ve waited a long time for charter government and what makes me sad is that we have two people who really hate each other and are throwing mud at each other,” says J. Anita Stup, a Republican who served as both a state delegate and county commissioner during the 1980s and ‘90s. “It’s a sandbox fight and very disappointing to me.”
Welcome to Blaine Young vs. Jan Gardner.
Their campaign signs blanket the landscape, they wave in parades and go door-to-door, shaking hands and meeting voters. Yet, behind the smiles, Young and Gardner are embroiled in a bitter fight to be the first executive of Frederick County. When voters head to the polls on Nov. 4 to elect the first county executive in the new charter form of government, it will put an end to months of hard-hitting, down-in-the-dirt political campaigning.
Though the election will usher in a new form of government, both Young, a Republican, and Gardner, a Democrat, are seasoned politicians in Frederick County—politicians that don’t see eye-to-eye. It matters little that Gardner served as president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners from 2006 to 2010, and Young currently serves as president. They share little in common.
As a radio talk show host with Frederick’s WFMD, Stup says she has seen firsthand the snarky exchanges between Young and Gardner, a back-and-forth on issues ranging from the sale of the Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living (something Young supports and Gardner does not), to differences over the state of the county’s finances. “I think their major difference is their personality,” Stup says. “Blaine is abrasive and Jan is a strong woman. You can be strong without being abrasive and I think you can be strong without being ugly.”
Both candidates, who agree they don’t see eye-to-eye on most issues, say they want to run a positive campaign.
“I think their major difference is their personality,” Stup says.
“I really want to stay positive and stay on the county issues,” Gardner says. “I want to share our vision. That’s what it’s all about. I will do everything campaigns do. I have signs, I will go knocking on doors, [placing] radio ads and meeting people. I look forward to sticking to the issues and sharing our vision.”
Campaigning by her side is Commissioner David P. Gray, a Republican who served with Gardner and is currently on the Young board. In the primary election, Gray was beaten by Young, leaving some to speculate that he only ran to take votes (and campaign dollars) away from Young. Gray disputes those claims. “I really wanted to win,” he says. “I’m not playing games with people. I would have loved the job. But I support Jan. She has the people skills and a basic honesty. She listens to people, Blaine doesn’t. He always has to show he is in charge. I believe it’s a power trip.”
Young insists he will run a campaign on the issues only. “Me, personally, I don’t get dirty,” he says. “I had stuff given to me by people that I won’t use. I’m going to win on the issues. The fact is people like where I stand. I don’t beat around the bush.”
But neither Young nor Gardner shy away from criticizing the other. “He twists the issues around and changes the subject,” Gardner says. “He doesn’t take responsibility for his own decisions and that’s what people want in a leader. … I hear from people who say there is a lack of honesty in government and a lack of trust. There are deals being done behind the scenes without a public process, and I hear a lot of personal stories, especially county employees, who live in fear they will lose their jobs. I also hear from people that say they will leave the county if he gets elected. They’re embarrassed to say they’re from Frederick County. We have a tarnished reputation.”
Young has his own biting assessment of his opponent. “You can’t trust her,” he says. “You talk to a lot of municipal leaders and businesses and they’ll tell you. Many of them say they were double-crossed by Jan.”
TROUBLE FROM THE START
To understand the current animosity between Young and Gardner, you don’t have to look any further than their past and a local landowner’s group, Defenders of Citizens Rights Inc. Defenders was formed in 2001 by a group of business owners and farmers who owned property along U.S. 15 and felt threatened by the county’s proposed down-zoning of their properties.
At the time, in its revision of the Frederick Region Plan, the Frederick County Planning Commission suggested changing their zoning from commercial to agricultural or from residential to resource conservation. Landowners charged that the down-zoning would make it impossible to sell their businesses or subdivide their property for development. Under pressure, the planning commission retracted most of its proposal. Defenders continued and became powerful enough that in 2002, they forced the re-writing of the county’s zoning ordinance, which dictates how property in the county can be used.
Defenders also publicly opposed Gardner and her efforts to curb residential growth. But in 2006, Gardner was elected commissioners president, and as part of the county’s long-term plans for growth, her board rezoned about 700 properties. In many cases, the zoning was changed from commercial, residential or industrial use to agricultural or resource conservation. The change meant that landowners could lose millions of dollars they stood to gain if they were allowed to sell their land to developers.
When Young, an active member of Defenders of Citizens Rights, was elected commissioners’ president in 2010, his pro-growth board quickly worked to restore those development rights, much to Gardner’s disapproval.
But Young claims animosity ignited earlier that same year when he was first appointed to the Gardner board to fill the vacancy of former Commissioner Charles A. Jenkins. “I was the only one appointed by the Republican Central Committee to fill that vacancy, yet she wouldn’t allow me to walk in the back [offices] to start working with [an administrative assistant],” he says. “I was the only name sent down to the governor for the appointment, and she still wouldn’t let me meet with staff. It was a miserable time.” Gardner disputes Young’s claims. “This is complete nonsense,” she says.
Early on, Young pledged to only run for one term as commissioner. “I knew very tough, unpopular decisions had to be made to clean up the financial mess we were left with and to help get the local economy going again. I sought and even approached viable Republican candidates to run for county executive and could not get anyone interested in running for the position,” he says.
“I knew very tough, unpopular decisions had to be made to clean up the financial mess we were left with and to help get the local economy going again.” –Blaine Young
“I spoke with Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, Sen. David Brinkley, Del. Kelly Schulz and [former State’s Attorney] Scott Rolle about running for the position and none had any interest. I even called [Sen.] David Brinkley on the day of the filing deadline and recommended to him to run for county executive. I did not think I would be running in this election cycle … [but] I felt I owed it to those who are supporting me and I did not want to see the county return to the anti-growth, anti-business and tax-and-spend policies of Jan Gardner.”
THE GREAT DIVIDE(S)
With his trademark coifed hair—most recently clipped into a new style—his tall, imposing figure and boisterous personality perfected after years hosting a radio show, Young took Winchester Hall by storm in 2010 as the newly elected president of the board. Using his fast-paced management style, Young began his term issuing press releases at a fevered pitch. At the time, Young said it was important to show his critics that he could do it all—juggle his job as co-owner of Yellow Cab, host a politically charged afternoon radio show on WFMD-AM and run Frederick County government.
At the top of Young’s agenda was consolidating departments, eliminating services and cutting staff. In an effort to cut the cost of government, the Young board began looking at what services could be handled by the private sector. In a series of hearings, the commissioners listened as, one by one, county employees came before them asking that they not outsource their jobs. In the end, Young said the county went from 2,646 full-time employees in 2009 to a current 1,977—something he’s proud of. “I don’t know how Jan can run from that,” Young says.
But Gardner contests those numbers. “In December of 2010, when the Young board came into office, the number of full-time employees was 2,447,” she says. “Blaine takes credit for employee reductions that happened during the final two years of the Gardner board when the county budget was reduced. Second, it’s an odd thing to be proud of. He privatized most of these positions at a higher cost to county taxpayers, resulting in bigger government, increased spending and a larger budget. He also cost local families their jobs and negatively impacted the local economy.”
Gardner says she would eliminate privatization and invest the money in education, infrastructure and small businesses. “I will reinstate long-term conservative budgeting to keep the AAA-bond rating earned during my term as president of the county commissioners,” she says. “I will control spending. I am proud to have led the only board in adopting two operating budgets smaller than the year before.”
Gardner attacks what she says is Young’s tax-and-spend record. “Blaine raised property taxes when the fire tax was merged into the property tax rate and he increased the county budget by $87 million from $438 million to $525 million, a 20 percent increase over four years,” she says. “Even if you factor out the fire tax districts, Blaine still has increased spending by $47 million, more than 20 times the spending of the Gardner board. County taxpayers cannot afford four more years of Blaine Young’s tax-and-spend policies. He has left Frederick County in terrible financial condition as evidenced by this year’s $30 million deficit [addressed by] raiding the cash in fleet reserves.”
“I will control spending. I am proud to have led the only board in adopting two operating budgets smaller than the year before.” –Jan Gardner
Young counters with recent favorable ratings from the three leading bond agencies as proof his budget decisions and fiscal management style are working.
He says the county’s $525.6 million operating budget for fiscal year 2015 is less than a 2 percent increase, and for the first time in six years, county employees will get a 2 percent cost of living raise and merit increase. The budget restores $1 million in funding to Frederick Community College, expands the senior tax credit and provides more than $100,000 in additional funding to the county’s Department of Aging for a case manager position. Property taxes, the county’s largest revenue source, are budgeted to increase by 1.5 percent.
Yet Gardner accuses Young of cutting deals to give away $190 million in property taxes to developers, instead of requiring them to pay their way for needed infrastructure. “Never before has Frederick County government given away property taxes to residential developers,” she says. “Property tax dollars should be going to core county services like education, public safety, roads and other essential services. This is a financial disaster that will haunt taxpayers for the next 30 years.”
For example, Young’s decision in 2011 was to cut the building excise tax from 75 cents per square foot for commercial buildings and 25 cents per square foot for housing to zero. The decision was intended to make it less expensive for developers to build and, ultimately, create jobs. The tax, before its 2011 cut, generated $925,000 annually for road and highway improvements.
“People are upset about traffic,” Gardner says. “All you hear is traffic, traffic, traffic. Who wants a developer to give zero toward traffic improvements? Only this board. They will have to pay zero for transportation! How is that beneficial to the county?”
Young counters that the Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreements (DRRA), started in 2012, takes care of those road improvements. These binding pacts give the developers the right to build homes and businesses that cannot be undone by a newly elected board. They also stipulate the infrastructure improvements—schools, roads, water and sewer service—the builder must make to accommodate the new growth. “I’ve made developers pay more than ever,” he says. “We’re planning for prosperity. The DRRA is not a guarantee they can build, because if they don’t fulfill their responsibilities they don’t get their rights.”
IN IT TO WIN IT
With the campaigns in full swing, both Gardner and Young say they are ready for any mud that may fly.
“He can’t run from his record,” Gardner says. “I’m braced for it and I’m ready to go. I want to run with the big boys.” She is sticking to her vision for the county.
“I want to make Frederick County the best place to live, work and raise a family,” she says. “I want the county to grow in a way that preserves our rural, agricultural heritage and protects our historical and cultural amenities. I want to create jobs so more people can live and work here. …There is a stark contrast between me and my opponent. I believe I bring the experience and leadership to move Frederick County forward and restore trust in government.”
Young says he expects the attacks. “Look, they threw David Gray at me,” he says. “They’ve said they’ll do everything to stop Blaine. One thousand Democrats switched parties just to vote against me. They’ve attacked my family, they’ve run boycotts against me and my [cab] business, they’ve run boycotts against my radio show. This just explains to me why business owners don’t want to be in politics.”
Commissioner Gray is just hoping for a Wizard of Oz movie ending. “I want the county to get back to normal,” he says. “Maybe when we wake up in November the county will be back in Kansas.”