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Wheels of change roll slowly through New Jersey county

Ask William McDowell to describe his first difficult days as the first county executive in the history of Bergen County, and he says simply, "This was a very stressful place." "You'd push it here, and it would pop up there," the 63-year-old politician said. The response is low-key, understated, typical McDowell.

The soft-spoken former sheriff, who says he believes in "evolution, not revolution," has won praise from many in Bergen for charting a steady course through the first turbulent years of a radical change in county government.

But some in Bergen attack the very restraint that supporters extol. They say McDowell should be more dynamic, a better lobbyist, a vocal ambassador for affluent, powerful Bergen.

"I'm not the kind of a person that jumps up and down and screams and hollers. It's not my style," said McDowell, who in the 1970s served on the commission that helped carve what is now the Meadowlands from Bergen swampland.

Before a charter change in 1985 that allowed McDowell the chance at his job, Bergen's government worked like this: Nine part-time freeholders, the equivalent of county commissioners, each headed various county departments. Every purchase, hiring, firing and other county decision had to be approved by the whole board.

Now McDowell handles executive duties, and a seven-member freeholder board is the legislature. The biggest change under the new system, McDowell says, is accountability.

"On a nine-member or a seven-member board, you can do a lot of finger-pointing. "Jeez, I'd like to help you, but I can't do that. . . .' In this form of government, I've no fingers to point."

Some freeholders aren't completely fond of the new way of doing things. They dislike rules such as the one that prohibits them from talking to county employees about county business. Official inquiries must go through the executive's office.

"The freeholders are supposed to develop policy, but we're isolated from the departments," said Freeholder Linda Baer, who served on the charter- study commission that suggested the change.

Baer believes some on the commission thought they would get a different kind of executive.

"Our executive is very low-key. He surrounds himself with people who are familiar. He's not a mover and a shaker," said Baer, a Democrat. McDowell and most freeholders are Republicans.

McDowell says he knows his job could be a springboard for those with higher ambitions but "at my age, I'm not so excited about it." Instead, he would rather concentrate on such things as Bergen 2000, a major regional planning effort that includes an attempt to buy up the rare remaining open space in heavily developed Bergen.

Interviewed in January, McDowell said he was happiest when entrenched in the day-to-day details of running Bergen County.

On Feb. 8, citing in part the social demands that come with his office and saying he was "a little tired," McDowell announced he won't run for a second term.