Ladd has learning experience as Arundel council chairman

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Soon after the five new members of the Anne Arundel County Council took office last year, the time came for the body to choose a chairman — not a particularly glamorous job, but a position that comes with the responsibility of setting the council's agendas and running the public meetings.

It was likely that a member of the Republican majority — composed entirely of freshman legislators — would take on the role.

But there wasn't exactly a fight for the job.

Many council members demurred, pointing to busy work schedules and other responsibilities. So Councilman Richard B. "Dick" Ladd, a retired career Army lieutenant colonel and first-time elected official, volunteered to serve as chairman.

"Dick was willing to step up and lead when no one was willing to step up," said Councilman and Vice Chairman Derek Fink, a Republican who represents Pasadena. "It's very difficult for anyone to step up and become the chairman on day one and minute one and have no crash course. He deserves a lot of credit for that."

After a year as chairman, during which he earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues as a fair and conscientious consensus-builder, Ladd, who piloted helicopters on combat missions during the Vietnam War, presided over his last council meeting as chairman on Nov. 21. The council chooses a new chairman annually.

During his chairmanship, the Massachusetts native and 30-year county resident led several contentious council meetings, including a debate over a controversial change to the county's binding arbitration agreement with its public safety employees, a 12-hour-marathon budget hearing and a series of emotionally charged meetings on rezoning thousands of plots of county land. Ladd had to bang his gavel on several occasions.

Ladd received some fierce criticism earlier this year when the council voted to move funding from a complete renovation of Severna Park High School and distribute it to several other schools. Ladd voted against the measure, and attempted to sway a majority of his colleagues, but was unsuccessful. After the vote, Ladd was bruised but undeterred.

"I knew there would be good days and bad days," said Ladd, 71, in a recent interview. "There were times when you sort of get pushed in one direction that maybe you shouldn't have gone in. I've made some people angry, but I get up in the morning and I look in the mirror and I say, 'I'm not mad at you.'"

Del. Cathy Vitale, who directly preceded Ladd in the council seat representing Severna Park, had advocated vigorously for funding the high school renovation during her 11 years on the council. She said she speaks to Ladd and other members of the council on a regular basis, offering institutional knowledge and occasional advice on issues.

"In terms of first-year errors, many people blame Dick Ladd for losing the high school," said Vitale, a Republican. "But the last I looked, he only had one vote. Rumors abound about why it happened. My hope is that before his term [as a councilman] is out, Severna Park High School will be back on track."

Ladd says that's his plan.

"I was very disappointed with the way the thing came down," said Ladd. "I was more disappointed in myself. I didn't handle it right. But that's OK. We haven't lost the opportunity."

Ladd gained attention for his style. He worked behind the scenes to temper public spats among members of the council, advising them to take a more statesmanlike approach. But he also struggled to keep track of the rules and procedures required when running a council meeting.

For example, he often called for a vote on a bill before it was allowed, or attempted to begin a meeting without having the ethics statement read. The frequently repeated missteps often met with eye rolls and even some laughter from his colleagues and council aides, who jumped in to correct his gaffes.

Ladd, who is 6-feet-4 and alternates between joking and a gruff New England exterior mixed with flashes of a temper, said the criticism of his mistakes while presiding over public meetings "irritates" him.

"If people want to get upset with me about that, they're underemployed," he said. "If it was that bad, somebody should have said, 'Ladd, you're relieved. Get out of here.'"

Councilman John J. Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, said he has relied on Ladd's research on a number of key issues to guide his decisions. Criticizing his ability as chairman is "silly," Grasso said.

"Dick's done the best that he can do," said Grasso. "To walk in the first year, as a neophyte, and he grabbed the bull by the horns. The last time I checked, there isn't a school to tell you how to be a councilman or the chairman. It's on-the-job training. And I take my hat off to him. He jumped right into the fire. He saved our keisters."

As chairman, Ladd logged long hours at his Annapolis office, researching the details of legislation and reporting his findings to his colleagues.

County Executive John R. Leopold said Ladd has been a "fair and effective chairman."

"He recognized the importance of carefully reading the legislation and doing the research," said Leopold, a Republican.

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, said that while he's quarreled with him over some issues, Ladd earned his respect as someone who "really cares and wants to know how things work and wants to do his best."

"Dick is very involved in the issues and likes to get down in the nuts and bolts," said Trumbauer. "At times I've been frustrated with Dick, and at times I've been impressed with him; it depends on what issue we're talking about. Being chairman over the last year was a fairly unenviable task. We all came in with different perspectives and experiences, and at times, we've been a very unruly bunch. He kind of came to the helm at a very tough time."

Ladd, who retired from the Army in 1982, grew up in Scituate, Mass. He studied mathematics at Bowdoin College in Maine and enlisted in the Army in 1962 — the same year he married his high school sweetheart. Ladd served two tours in Vietnam and also earned an MBA from Tulane University.

Like many of his generation, he's not eager to boast about his service.

"I want to be clear. I wasn't one of those guys that got shot at all the time," said Ladd. "I got shot at, but not as many times as others. I went there and I did what I was asked to do, like a lot of people."

He also served in Korea in the late 1970's as an aviation maintenance officer, overseeing the United States' fleet of aircraft. Over the years, he received four Bronze Stars and 16 Air Medals.

In 1978, he went to Washington to work at the Department of the Army at the Pentagon, and after retiring from the Army, he worked as professional staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations.

And for two decades, he worked as a Washington lobbyist for the defense industry. He sold his company in 2008.

His first wife died in 1999. He remarried the following year, tying the knot with Sabra Ladd. He has two grown daughters from his first marriage and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After he turned 70, Ladd, who lives in the Broadneck area, said he thought about the next chapter of his life and how he wanted to spend it. He decided on politics. He won his council seat easily, defeating his Democratic opponent with 63 percent of the vote.

Ladd says he enjoyed his time as chairman and is looking forward to a little more relaxed existence.

"I try to do my homework; I try to participate in the meetings," he said. "I will try to contribute substantively as I go forward. The biggest thing is the opportunity to sit back and listen a lot more."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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