Prince Frederick, MD –  “Your job is worse than ours,” Calvert County Commissioners’ candidate George W. Owings III deadpanned at the end of a lengthy candidates’ forum. “You have to pick five of us.”

The selection process will begin Thursday, Oct. 23 with early voting and culminate Nov. 4 when most of Maryland’s registered voters planning to participate the in the 2014 General Election will cast their ballots.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) of Calvert County held the second in a series of three candidates’ forums prior to the General Election Monday, Oct. 20 at the St. John Vianney Family Life Center in Prince Frederick.

In addition to hearing from the candidates for register of wills and sheriff, the audience watched and listened as the field of 12 candidates answered a series of questions submitted by attendees and screened by LWV members.

The top question concerned priorities for the next four years. The three incumbent Republicans demonstrated the experience of serving for the past four years with their answers. Commissioner Steve Weems, who is running for an at-large seat, cited “the Dominion project” and dealing with the local impacts of the Maryland General Assembly’s infamous “Septic Bill as his top concerns going forward.

“The first thing you have to do is look at the budget,” said current Commissioners’ President Pat Nutter, a candidate in the Second Election District.

“Protecting the rights of citizens,” Commissioner Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. stated. Slaughenhoupt is running in the Third Election District race.

The responses from the non-incumbents dealt with the aspects of constituent service and social issues.

Third Election District candidate Kelly McConkey announced “no more taxes raised,” providing adequate funding for local education and eradicating the county’s ongoing drug problem as issues he would tackle. First Election District candidate Mike Hart, a Republican, also cited focusing on the county’s drug problem as a top priority. “We’re losing,” said Hart of the war on drugs.

Second Election District Libertarian candidate Peggy O’Donnell declared “getting input” from citizens before allowing a major project go forward was her goal. That election district’s Democratic candidate, Michael J. Moore said he wants to see impediments to local businesses in the permitting process removed, along the guaranteeing the safety of citizens living near the Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Plant in Lusby and progress in providing affordable housing.

First Election District Democratic candidate Emad Dides said the county had too many zoning codes and not enough afterschool programs.

“Fair, honest lawful government,” was the goal cited by Independent commissioner at-large candidate Paul Harrison.

“It takes three votes for anything to happen,” said Owings, a statement with which another at-large candidate, Republican Tom Hejl, agreed. Hejl pledged to dedicate himself to “relationship building” during his tenure.

Another Democrat seeking an at-large seat on the board, Joyce Stinnett Baki, said working to achieve balanced growth and balanced development in the county would be her mission.

The Cove Point project and the potential dangers to the surrounding community posed by a liquefaction unit was the subject of one of the submitted questions.

“We need to have some dialogue about HAZMAT response,” said Moore, who added the plant should have a team of responders at the facility all the time.

“There were a couple of errors that were made,” said Owings of the process leading up the export project’s approval. Owings added that the quantitative risk assessment that the plant’s neighbors have been clamoring for needs to be done. “Let’s make sure that safety is first,” he said. “We’ll worry about the money later.”

“I’d like to know what can happen,” said Hart. “I would have liked a study.”

“Now is the time to be transparent,” said Baki. “It’s time for the citizens to have that plan.”

McConkey declared Dominion was a great corporate neighbor but conceded, “I wouldn’t live next to it [plant].”

“I met with the Dominion people and they don’t explain why it [plant] is safe,” said O’Donnell. “It’s Dominion’s responsibility.”

Harrison stated that with so many homes in proximity of the plant, Calvert leaders need to lobby the state for a better escape plan in the event a disaster occurs there.

“We do study this,” Nutter declared of the process leading to the current board’s support of the export project. He also reminded the attendees that the county commissioners did not approve the project, state and federal officials did.

“I am a little bit against this,” said Dides of the Dominion project. He added that more roads were needed to provide area residents with a safe way out if there is a calamity at the plant and “Dominion should pay for all that.”

“Public safety is the most important priority,” said Slaughenhoupt, who noted county government hired Alfred Jeffery as emergency management specialist to help draft a safety plan.

Weems repeated his call for assembling an ad hoc committee of stakeholders to “hash out what is needed” to allay the anxiety of area residents regarding the plant expansion.

Hejl, who retired after a 10 year career as assistant sheriff prior to filing to run for county commissioner, indicated his personal experience from dealing with Dominion gives him confidence safety at the plant is the top priority. “Dominion wants that place to be safe just as much as the people do,” he said.
During closing statements, McConkey fired a salvo at the current board for its seemingly unbridled support of the Cove Point expansion project. “We’ve put all our eggs into one basket—property taxes—and we’re looking to Dominion to bail us out,” he said.

Two of the candidates—Harrison and Dides—used their closing statements to vent against the Department of Community Planning and Building, formerly known as Planning and Zoning. Harrison admitted his foray into local politics was sparked by “my personal battle with the county.” He added under the current leadership Calvert “seems to be ‘anti-plan.’ ”

“I had enough of Planning and Zoning,” said Dides. “All they want to do is do you harm. And that’s got to stop!” Of the department’s inspectors, Dides declared, “they lie! They keep changing their minds.”

Moore, who served as county commissioner during the early 1990s lamented that commissioner candidates nearly a quarter of a century later were “still talking about the same issues.” He declared his focus will be to expand housing opportunities, job creation and business retention.”

Nutter pledged to continue his career as “a 24/7 commissioner” if re-elected.

“I’m part of this place,” said Hejl, who recalled moving to the county during the early 1970s and subsequently raising a family.

“I benefitted from the school system,” said Baki, who grew up in Calvert. “I was raised to give back.”

The Calvert LWV has a printable voters’ guide with information about most of the candidates running in the 2014 General Election. The guide is available at www.calvert.lwvmd.org

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com