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Interview: Tom Quirk's Freshman Year

District 1 councilman reflects on his first year of public office.

A second-generation native of Irvington, Tom Quirk’s family moved to Arnold, Md., when he was young. Quirk mainly grew up in Anne Arundel County, graduating from Severna Park High School in 1988. He went to Western Maryland College—now McDaniel—and graduated in 1992 majoring in economics, business and political science.

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Quirk says he “floated around for a couple of years” that included an internship at the White House and working at the Maryland Comptroller’s Office. In 1994 he began working at a stock brokerage, and he continues to operate his own certified financial planning business.

Quirk and his wife, Siri, lived in Timonium and Cockeysville before settling in Catonsville in 2002.  The Quirks have two children, an11-year old boy and a 5-year-old girl.

Although active in organizations throughout college and adult life, his 2010 campaign for county council was the first time Quirk ran for public office. November marks his first year as an elected official.

Why run for office?

I felt a need to step up. It was an important time in the economic environment. We were going through a severe economic collapse. I thought we needed more people into office with business backgrounds.

I almost felt like I had to run, to do what I could for the area. I thought I could make good decisions. It was honestly out of a sense of moral obligation. I would never, ever do this job for the money. It’s not worth it.

What are some of the unexpected things that you’ve learned in the last year?

Well, I’ll tell you, there was no honeymoon. From day one, it was exceptionally tense because we had to deal with a lot of big issues all at once. The new council members didn’t have a moment to breathe from the moment we got on there. We had to deal with the budget, we had to deal with redistricting, a lot of tough issues.

We have another budget cycle about to hit in one of the toughest economic years Baltimore County is probably ever going to see, fiscal year 2013. Fiscal year 2012, unfortunately, is a cakewalk compared to what we’re about to enter.

Governments are a lagging indicator now. In the past, in normal recessions governments were actually a leading indicator, help us come out of things. Employment wouldn’t be hit so much on the government rolls; now it is.

Baltimore County is doing an early retirement package, trying to incentivize 200 people to retire early and save $15-20 million. That’s how tough things are. We’re probably looking at teachers, paying more for health care.

I think where we’re headed is a get-real society. If we want things, we have to pay for them. If we’re not willing to pay for them, we can’t have them. The good thing about local government is that we have to balance our budget. We can’t just put things on an unlimited credit card. Because of that, Baltimore County is in a much better position to weather the storm. We’re already pretty lean and mean in the county. There’s not a whole lot of fat to trim.

It’s tough times, because there’s a lot I’d like to do and there isn’t a lot of money for it right now. I have lots of ideas for projects, and I’m just waiting for the money. In the past, council members had some discretion over money they could use. That money isn’t there anymore.

One thing I saw up close and personal is that decisions are political.  I’m used to the business world, and in the business world a decision is based on what makes sense to the bottom line. In government, sometimes relationships and politics enter into the equation.

One of the things I’m most proud of in the past year was to reform the PUD process, planned unit development process, and require that community input and agency reports come before resolutions. Before they wanted resolutions before reports for less accountability. We want to make sure we have all the facts available on the table before we consider any PUD resolution.

You raised some eyebrows with the Thistle Landing PUD, revoking a PUD that had been already been approved, which upset a lot of people.

It upset a small group of people. I think the majority of people in the community favored it, overwhelmingly so.

But from a developer’s point of view, revoking an approved PUD could have the rug pulled out from under them.

The thing was the way it had been done. It was done right before my predecessor left office, almost at the last minute. That was a strategic mistake of them. They would have been better off waiting and working with the new councilman.

Plus, Thistle Landing was an abuse of the PUD process. Why does ten townhomes on a restaurant parking lot make any sense at all? Especially with the storm water issues and the environmental issues that piece of property had. Just didn’t make any sense at all.

And that’s not what the PUD is supposed to be. The PUD is supposed to be a flexible tool that has a clear public benefit and superior quality—neither of which Thistle Landing had. The public benefit was supposed to be workforce housing. Workforce housing is for lower income, and these townhomes were going to be sold for $250,000-300,000. That’s not workforce housing. And it was not superior quality at all. They wanted to build it basically on a steep slope. Nothing about it made sense.

It’s important for the developers and the investment community to self-police what they’re doing, to have a quality control. The developers of Thistle Landing weren’t doing that.

We want to protect the PUD process because it does provide flexibility. It’s good for the big capital projects, but let’s not abuse the process. Through the Thistle Landing process, we got a much bigger win out of it. We got community input and agency reports before any PUD resolution. Now it’s more of a quality control. If people want to put in bad PUDs, they know they have to withstand the scrutiny of the public through community input and also the scrutiny of agency reports.

Spring Grove is another of your interests, isn’t it? You’d like to see something happen there?

Absolutely. I think it’s a waste of land right now. Spring Grove is a beautiful property, exceptionally under-utilized. Half of the buildings there are boarded up, filled with asbestos and have serious environmental concerns. There’s a big brown site over there that needs to be cleaned up. But it’s a wonderfully sited property.

My whole focus on that, by the way, is to make sure we get a regional park out of all that. I know UMBC will be advocating for what they want, and I support their need for expanded research facilities. I want to make sure the community gets what they deserve out of it.  Not a day goes by when I’m not reminded that we don’t have enough ball fields here, we don’t have enough active recreational space.

I think the Promenade has too much of a retail component to it. I don’t want to do anything that will hurt Arbutus or Catonsville business. A redesign of the mixed use concept, more heavily weighted toward office space and [housing for] 55-plus. I think the Promenade will be significantly different. For one, the market for retail is not there anyway. Plus, the demand for 55-plus [housing] is really huge.

What would you see envisioned at the Promenade?

Mostly offices and 55-plus residential condos, things like that. Nice condos, offices, and a smaller retail component.  We don’t want to do anything that will unintentionally hurt the businesses along Frederick Road. I don’t want a giant sucking sound so that all these wonderful businesses that have developed along Frederick Road aren’t put under pressure. I want to make sure we have that balance.

The real answer with Spring Grove changes depends on how much land is surplus. You get a much different answer if ten acres are declared surplus, versus 150 acres. It’s a 189-acre campus. If the hospital scaled down to 25 [acres], you could have a lot of good things happen there. But if there are only 40-50 acres that are available, the answer changes dramatically.

Is the infrastructure there at Spring Grove to support development?

Oh, there would have to be significant infrastructure investment there. Another reason why the decision is way off is where is the state going to get money for a new hospital? That’s ultimately what we’re going to see, a much better designed state hospital. I’d like to see the state hospital stay there, in a redesign, with a much better facility.

My number one priority is to make sure we get the recreational facilities we want and deserve.

Has the impact of political life affected your business and family life as you envisioned when you were sworn in?

I think so. I’ve been pretty intensely active since around 1994. I knew it would be pretty busy, and it has been. Fortunately my wife, Siri, stays at home with the kids and can cover for me when I’m out.  Sometimes I’m out form 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. So Mondays through Fridays I’m pretty much gone. Weekends are reserved for my family as much as possible. And we try to do a lot of family activities.

I’ve had to develop a very intensive time-blocking system. I had some of that already, because I had a decent-sized company. We block out time. We have a system where Tuesdays are council days. Thursdays are mostly all business days. Other than that, anything before 9 a.m. is council business, anything 9-4 is work work, because that’s what pays the bills. And then 4-9 p.m. is mostly council. On the weekends there can be council stuff, but I try to say no to more than two or three things on a Saturday, with a maximum of two hours. I don’t want to take time away from the kids. Sundays I don’t want to do anything but family and church.

On any given day, I have five to ten meetings. Normally, a minimum of five. So it’s pretty much on the go constantly.

The schedule must impact on your family life.

It does, but what I try to do is try to grab time. Another thing I did from a strategic standpoint. Before the election, I put my work office over there [next door, on the 800-block of Frederick Road]. It used to be by the post office. He reason I did that was so if I won, I wouldn’t have to get in the car and drive back and forth. I’ve tried to plan it so my whole life is within a 2-3 mile radius.

I’ve tried to do what I preach—livable communities; walk, work and shop all within a geographic area of your house.

Family is important. Trying to find that balance. It’s something I still have to do a lot of work on. But that time-blocking helps.

What are your thoughts on re-election? Are you going to do this again?

I think so. I’m enjoying it, just starting to get my sea legs. I’m beginning to understand the system more, the relationships better.

Do you have aspirations for higher office?

I don’t want to do anything that will affect my primary job. I really enjoy my financial planning business. I could never be in this job full-time unless I sold my company. And I have no desire to sell my company.

To me, this is all community service. We need more people in politics who are happy doing what they’re doing and not thinking of it as a springboard to some other office. I don’t see myself in full-time politics unless I could retire one day.

In light of your background as a stockbroker, what are your thoughts about the Occupy Wall Street movement?

There are some valid concerns, even though they don’t have a coherent platform. There are a lot of legitimate concerns. As a financial planner, what I saw, when things really started breaking down, is when they repealed the Glass-Steagall Act.

In the past, the way our financial companies were organized, you’d have investment banking in one boat, commercial banking in another boat, retail banking and brokerages—all these boats out there sailing. If one of them sinks, you still have the others. This whole supermarket to the world, one-stop-shopping, was a big mistake. Now everything is in one boat, and if it sinks it brings down the whole system. We still haven’t fixed that. Many of these problems are still out there.

The interesting thing is that if you look at the Tea Party, they say it’s all governments’ fault. If you look at the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they say it’s all Wall Street’s fault. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Mari November 16, 2011 at 02:09 PM
Walker, I'll disagree with you. I do respect the veterans, as did the other people in the stands around me. A lecture on the chronology and history of Veterans' Day is not honoring the veterans; it's a chance for a politician to once again show that he's the most important person around, at least in his own mind. As I noted, he should have thanked the vets for their service, which he did and which we all applauded, and moved on.
Nikki Marlatt-Young November 16, 2011 at 03:42 PM
If our 21227 residence have an issue w/ our Police, they really should come voice those concerns at the Arbutus Improvement Association Meeting so those issues & concerns can be corrected! Thats what our Community Associations are there for!
al walker November 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM
mari. like i said. shame on you. history of veterans day is honoring veterans.
Arbutus Town Crier May 23, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Mari Thank you, AS a veterans just want a "thank you", that is all we need, My family service goes far as back to Yorktown, and serve still today. You are not blind and saw soap box actions.
Arbutus Town Crier May 24, 2012 at 01:27 AM
Arbutus Improvement Association does a great job but your comment is inappropriate or you may be just misinformed, I hope the thought of this area is not considered the other side of the tracks Just go down to S.Beachfield Ave, or stop by my blog and see it (yourself Safer that way) 21229 where a sign shows "Welcome to Arbutus”. By Arbutus Improvement Association! Someone got it right at one time. I can see that if you believe your statement dividing us or you are misrepresenting Arbutus. Trying to rename the area by a street name? our town is your town This is our only forum to speak out not many of us live in Northern Arbutus, Proper representation and involvement turning a blind eye to these run down complexes, if anything could be done even though it is private Property but a spot light on the situation,It needs to be bulldozed and rebuild for humane reasons, low income people live there and deserve better conditions for human decency! Bulldoze, well that may not be the right thing to do because of the old hazardous Material use in the building of that era. But a spotlight needs to be put on it human decency, humane reasons

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