Oliver Tries to Keep Support in Turbulent Council Tenure

… Councilman held state job in apparent charter violation …


By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

9:21 PM EST, November 16, 2011

The councilman wouldn’t return their calls.

Shirley Supik and her husband, Jeff, were trying to stop Baltimore County from tearing down the historic former Underground Railroad safe house they own. So, Jeff Supik stuck a note on the front door of Councilman Kenneth Oliver’s home. The politician called them, angry that the man had gone to his house, but he quickly changed his tone.

“[My husband] said, ‘I am a constituent and I need help. And you didn’t answer my call, and I was desperate,'” Shirley Supik recalled of the encounter about five years ago. “And Councilman Oliver said, ‘You are right. I’m listening now.'”

During his nearly 10 years in office, Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, has won over constituents such as the Supiks. But he’s also disappointed former allies in a tenure that’s proven turbulent.

Two years ago, Oliver pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, admitting that he wrote $2,300 in checks to himself from his campaign account. And recently he agreed to give up his job with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, because it apparently violated a county charter rule against council members holding state employment.

The latter incident led County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to propose adding teeth to the charter rule in an ethics reform package he unveiled this month, a measure council members are to vote on in December. And this week, the county Republican Party called on Oliver to return the council salary he earned while working for the state.

“People in the area are embarrassed” by Oliver’s latest stumble, said Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council. “I think people are shocked that something like this happened a second time.”

In a recent interview at his district office in Randallstown, Oliver said he doesn’t let the complaints get to him.

“As long as I’m pleasing 80 percent of my constituents, and possibly 90 percent of my constituents, I’m fine,” he said. “I don’t care what you do, somebody’s going to complain about it.”

A sharper spotlight

Supporters and critics alike describe the 66-year-old Oliver as affable. He’s a quiet man who brushes off criticism and traces his desire to improve his community to a childhood in Baltimore housing projects.

In 2002, new people showed up every Wednesday night for meetings at a two-story house that served as Oliver’s campaign headquarters as he made his first bid for public office. He was running in a newly created district in the northwestern part of the county, one that helped increase the chances that a black member would be elected to the County Council. No African-American had served on the panel before.

“They were energized,” recalled Oliver’s former campaign manager, Billy Chase. “They finally had a voice. Instead of being part of a district, they were the district.”

People were excited about Oliver’s credentials, said Leronia Josey, an attorney who challenged the councilman in last year’s primary and finished third among six candidates. He chaired the county planning board, worked in banking, and took an active role in the community.

“We were very happy to have somebody of his stature,” she said, but once he got into office, his leadership style was “bland.”

“I don’t know anybody who would say he’s not a nice man,” Josey said. “But nice doesn’t cut it, especially in a district like this.”

Josey thought Oliver should have been more outspoken about failing schools. She also contends that he hasn’t communicated well with constituents about economic development in the area.

“Maybe the man had a plan, but not many people knew about it,” she said. “Maybe Mr. Oliver is just a quiet man who works out of the limelight.”

Oliver fended off the host of challengers last year, winning re-election by 98 votes.

He is proud that he’s attended every council meeting except two: He was absent once for his father’s funeral and a second time for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, whose image adorns his wristwatch.

Born in Montgomery, Ala., Oliver moved to Baltimore when he was 3 months old. An aunt and uncle raised him in the McCulloh Homes community.

“I grew up in a household with a lot of love,” said Oliver, who has three daughters and four grandchildren.

In elementary school, he won a scholarship to the YMCA, where he learned to swim. That’s why he pushed for an indoor swimming pool at the Randallstown Community Center, a two-year-old facility behind his district office.

“I wanted other people to have the same opportunity,” he said.

The community center — the county’s largest — is among the many projects that he points to as major accomplishments in the 4th District. Others include the opening of a Home Depot in Randallstown, the construction of Windsor Mill Middle School and the expansion of the Woodlawn Library.

Oliver won’t talk much about his stint at the state agency, except to say that he didn’t know he broke any rules because he was a contract employee.

“I didn’t consider myself an employee of Maryland,” he said.

His chief goal is to rejuvenate Liberty Road, a corridor he hopes can attract more upscale restaurants and clothing stores.

Economic development has always motivated Oliver, said Chase, his former campaign manager. And Oliver got a taste of public service when he served on the planning board.

But “being a councilman and being a planning board chairman are two different worlds,” Chase said. “He wasn’t ready for the scrutiny that comes with the [council] position.”

Chase left Oliver’s 2010 campaign when Oliver endorsed Kamenetz’s opponent, Joe Bartenfelder, in the Democratic primary. Chase had advised the councilman not to take a side in the tense battle between two longtime colleagues.

Chase said Oliver’s stumbles have detracted from what he calls the real person, someone “who’s very concerned about his community and wants to see the economic development grow in that area.”

“He’s a very, very good person, a good-hearted person,” Chase said.

Unlike other council members, Oliver doesn’t have a predecessor to turn to for advice because he is the first person to ever represent the district, Chase said.

“Its more difficult in knowing what to do,” he said, “if you don’t have someone to talk to you about how it was before.”

Mixed reviews

Even Oliver’s critics say he’s a nice guy.

“He’s been re-elected primarily because of his personality,” White Campbell of the Liberty Road group said. “People basically like Ken.”

But she said the revelations about his state contract apparently violating the county charter were upsetting, especially in view of his 2009 conviction for campaign finance violations.

Some constituents also were disappointed by how Oliver handled redistricting, White Campbell said. After fighting the redistricting commission’s plans, Oliver later withdrew an amendment that would have kept certain communities in his district and voted in favor of the commission’s proposal.

“People are very upset about that, angry in fact,” White Campbell said.

Oliver doesn’t always explain himself, Supik said.

“Ken is an inward-type of person when it comes to his feelings,” she said. “He’s not going to put his feelings out there. But I think he is a focused man, he is dedicated and I know he loves this community.”

While Oliver’s deep focus is a trait that can come off as stubbornness, Supik said, “one thing our experience has shown is that you can turn him around.”

The redistricting move dismayed people because they were caught off guard, said Pat Clark, president of Fieldstone Community Group. But Clark said Oliver has listened to concerns about zoning and helped develop projects such as the community center.

“At times I think he’s been a good councilman,” Clark said. “At times I think he’s disappointed his constituents.”

Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said it’s up to voters to assess Oliver’s performance.

“At the end of the day, the individuals who matter and who count are the ones you represent,” Olszewski said. “That’s why we have elections. And it’ll be up to his constituents to decide what kind of representative he’s been.”

Oliver said he hasn’t decided whether to run again.

“That’s three years away,” he said. “I’ve got a couple more things I want to accomplish before I make that decision.”


Kenneth N. Oliver

Party: Democrat

Lives in: Randallstown

Age: 66

Family: Wife, Thelma; three daughters; four grandchildren

Education: M.B.A. in finance, Morgan State University; bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Baltimore

Work: Former vice president, commercial lending, Harbor Bank of Maryland. Former senior vice president, credit and marketing, Development Credit Fund Inc.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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