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As Long as We Remember...

November 28, 2005

Common Sense Transforms Transition

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

My involvement with Mayor-elect W. Jeffrey Holtzinger dates to my time working as the chief operations officer of the City of Frederick in the administration of Mayor Jim Grimes.

The COO's job has been altered significantly since my time in the big second floor corner City Hall office overlooking Record Street. Instead of coordinating the work of all of the technical departments of city government, today's COO is mostly responsible for the civic outreach efforts of City Hall. Mayor Jennifer Dougherty felt that she wanted to manage that daily workload herself.

The whole concept of a "cabinet" came about following a detailed study of how information flowed into and out of the mayor's office. Prior to the change in management, the mayor had 13 direct-report senior city managers interacting, seeking advice and decisions. When the consultant examined the organizational dynamic, and even considering former Mayor Grimes' considerable executive business acumen, the decision was made to add a senior level of management into the mix.

Changes in government draw on a number of factors and influences. Not the least of these are the work habits, comprehension, and personal style of the incoming executive. My only other directly related experience in a change in the executive came about in 1994 while working as the city administrator in Brunswick.

I had taken the job of administrator following an interview and employment offer from Dick Goodrich, a really hard working guy who had been swept into the mayor's office in a rare recall election. Dick had been spending a ridiculous amount of time on city business, far beyond what the job demanded. He did it because he felt so strongly about the job. That pace eventually took its toll. Within weeks of my employment Dick submitted his resignation, citing health and fatigue as his primary concerns.

I was faced with my first change of executive, and, for the first time, fully understood what it means to work "at the pleasure" of the mayor. Fortunately, when Mayor Goodrich resigned, he was succeeded - according to Brunswick's Charter - by the mayor pro tem, Tom Smith. Tom kept the appointees in place, having worked with us in his capacity as a councilman.

There is absolutely no requirement for the mayor to retain any of the previous administration's appointees, though. Certainly, some continuity is a good thing. On the other hand, changes in thinking and approach are inevitable, as the new chief executive presumably has a different set of objectives and priorities than the predecessor.

A few weeks before Frederick City's November ballot, candidate Jeff Holtzinger asked me if I would lead his transition process. I'm not sure if we both were convinced Jeff was going to win, but I set about trying to create a structure around his government well before he claimed victory on November 1.

Election night was a blur. I'll never forget the look in Jeff's eyes as he walked down Market Street towards Isabella's restaurant. He didn't know he had won since his cell phone battery had died, yet Ron Young was inside awaiting Jeff's arrival so he could concede defeat in person. Side note: Ron Young's class and grace in defeat once again demonstrate his essential love for his city. Only someone whose passion for the city in which he lives is so great that he could put place above ego in such a dignified manner.

Within a few days of the election, the mayor-elect and I met to discuss the transition. He gave me some specific criteria: choose team members based on demonstrated competency; try to maintain some partisan and ideological balance; involve people who were involved in the Young campaign; and try to avoid choosing people who were either being considered for a job or wanted to be considered - their advice might be motivated by self interest, not independent judgment.

We put together a great team, one that meets the standards set by the mayor-elect. Everyone involved in this effort is a leader in the community or in their field of endeavor, and they've all committed to helping the Holtzinger Administration get off to a great start.

So the process goes something like this: Following the selection of the team and the areas to be examined, transition team members fan out across the city. Some teams focus on interviews with senior city staff. Others meet with business groups, non-profits, and special interest organizations. Some teams focus on document reviews, like the budget, annual financial statements, and the comprehensive land use plan.

Team members are looking for several things. They're looking for possible streamlining and cost savings. This effort is made more important by the revelation that expenses will likely exceed revenue for another year, forcing a belt tightening to the tune of $1.5 to $2 million dollars. They'll also be examining how satisfied the consumers of various city government services are and how well staff is meeting the expectations of the citizens. Finally, they'll test how committed senior appointed staff appears to be to the vision laid out by Mayor-elect Holtzinger.

There have already been a number of outreach efforts by appointed officials in the Dougherty Administration to secure their jobs for the future. The mayor has been careful to make complimentary statements about a number of her senior managers, especially her budget and finance team. Presumably, the positive comments reflect her true feelings. One might also suspect those comments are timed to influence transition planners as well.

Even with that lobbying, we can anticipate some major changes. The mayor-elect has some ideas for consolidating some departments in order to make services more efficient and better organized. Demonstrating an engineer's sensibility, Jeff wants the transition team to make an independent recommendation, given that his intuition might not be right. Imagine that, a mayor who can accept the fact that they might not know everything, willing to defer final judgment until independent analysis confirms or disputes their thinking.

Mayor-elect Holtzinger seizes the reigns of power with a unique perspective. His experience as an appointed official under both the Grimes and Dougherty Administrations exposed him to a number of the very people he'll find himself analyzing for his administration. It would be foolish to think that the good and bad professional experiences he shared with these folks won't be a part of his evaluation.

The one thing I've learned about Jeff Holtzinger is that emotion won't be a component of his decisions, though. He also won't use the substantial power his office gives him to seek personal retribution, either. Count on Jeff to use his own experience, the recommendations from his transition team, and sound judgment to make important decisions about starting his tenure in the mayor's office.

By way of demonstration, look at how the new mayor and Board of Aldermen have begun their new relationship. They all went to dinner at a Frederick restaurant a little over a week ago. At Mayor-elect Holtzinger's invitation, the group went out for a social evening, sort of a "get-to-know-you" dinner. Jeff had asked the aldermen-elect if the event could be sans press, since none of them have any power until January 12.

The two incumbent aldermen, Marcia Hall and Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg, have fought the open meetings battle for several years. Both expressed a preference that the media be alerted to the gathering. Acknowledging their desire, Jeff invited media coverage; hence the infamous photo of our new incoming administration gathered around a table.

They have met again since that initial sit down, and their discussions are now turning towards the future. Mayor-elect Holtzinger understands the importance of trying to craft a legislative agenda that takes into account the promises that each of the aldermen-elect made while campaigning. His logic is sound: find a way to add everyone's top issue to the list, and it will be much easier to craft his own agenda. Not surprisingly, there are common themes that emerged from every successful candidate's brochures.

We've all seen the byproduct of contention and discord in crafting public policy. One has to look no further than Annapolis to see how not to do it. Mayor-elect Jeff Holtzinger brings all of the tools for positive change to the table, along with a refreshing and long-overdue dose of common sense.

This is how transitions are meant to be done!

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