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COVID Looms Large As Olszewski Begins The Second Half Of His Term

Baltimore County

When Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski took the oath of office two years ago this week, he had some big plans. But some of those remain on the shelf as he manages the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a wide ranging interview this week with WYPR, Olszewski talked about COVID, his accomplishments, a possible run for governor and what remains undone as he reaches the half way point of his four year term.

Olszweski said COVID remains jobs one, two and three, and that the county is preparing to administer the vaccines once they are available.

“We’ve already used some of our CARES funding, for example, to buy the super chill refrigerators that are required for some of the versions,” he said. “We are already thinking about staffing levels and locations.”

Olszewski said his biggest concern regarding COVID is the promise of vaccines will give people a false sense of security.

“I think if we both take it seriously and then get to the vaccine, we will be back to that normal, that sense of normalcy, much sooner than if we throw our hands up now and get way too comfortable,” he said.

He said the COVID outbreak on the Baltimore Ravens, whose training facility is in Owings Mills, is a reminder of how serious this is. Olszewski points to a public service announcement done for the county by defensive end Calais Campbell, who tested positive. In the PSA, Campbell urges people to wear a face mask and practice social distancing.

Olszewski said the county has communicated with the Ravens about following COVID protocols.

“And that, again, is a reminder for our residents that if you don’t follow protocols, there’s a chance that this is going to get you,” he said.

Despite COVID, and a budget shortfall his first year, Olszewski said his administration has had a number of accomplishments, such as hiring an inspector general to root out waste and fraud, setting up public financing of political campaigns, creating an office of sustainability, and bringing reforms to the police department.

When it comes to reforming the police department, Republican State Senator Chris West said Olszewski, who is a Democrat, struck the right balance between putting some constraints on the police without causing disenchantment in the ranks.

“That was a big win, I thought,” West said.

West gives Olszewski an overall grade of B plus.

He said he is concerned about where Olszewski stands on a study done for the county that recommends renovations for Dulaney and Towson High Schools, rather than new buildings. When running for county executive, Olszewski promised to replace those aging schools.

West said, “If he does embrace the study, then he will be reneging on the promise that he made to the people of Towson and the people in Timonium.”

County spokesman Sean Naron said the study is an initial recommendation from a consultant as they develop a long term plan for school construction countywide.

Olszewski said he is expecting the Maryland General Assembly to send the county around $400 million for school construction this coming session. He said the county will add another $250 million.

“Having a large capital infusion locally and from the state in the middle of the economic downturn being caused by this pandemic is really fortunate because it has the added benefit of stimulating our economy and getting people back to work,” Olszewski said.

Both Senator West and Republican County Councilman David Marks are critical of Olszewski for supporting putting Red Maple Place, an affordable housing project, in a historically Black neighborhood in Towson. The residents oppose it.

Marks said Olszewski’s biggest accomplishment is being more cooperative and transparent than his predecessors.

“That is something that doesn’t require a lot of money,” Marks said. “It’s an example he can set as county executive.”

Sources tell WYPR that Olszewski is giving a run for governor a serious look. Olszewski said there will be time later to talk politics.

“At this point I am just focused on the virus response and beating COVID-19,” he said.

According to his most recent campaign financial report filed in January, Olszewski has more than $900,000 on hand.

Community College of Baltimore County political science professor John Dedie said how Olszewski handles COVID could be a winning issue for him in a gubernatorial run.

“He’s had a very good first two years,” Dedie said. “He’s managed a major crisis.

“If I had to bet, and I am a betting man, I would bet he takes the shot and runs for governor,” Dedie continued. “I think the opportunity is there.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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