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March 24, 2006

City Hall Toodle-loo

Roy Meachum

These first two months (plus two weeks) have been very hard on those who feed off City Hall's comings-and-goings to give them a life.

From that statement, please exempt The Gazette's Katherine Heerbrandt and The Frederick News-Post's Liam Farrell. It's what they do. It's their job to keep citizens informed on the progress of government.

As an observer, not daily participant in the process, I feel my role is to butt out, allowing newly elected officials to grope their way. This is not an attitude peculiar to Mayor Jeff Holtzinger.

His predecessor was held exempt from criticism in this corner until her egregious tampering with The Weinberg Center could not be ignored. For the first six months, I attempted to defend Her Honor from what I considered, at the time, aldermanic interference with her duly designated authority.

As time proved, I was wrong. Her handling of Weinberg Director Stuart Seale foreshadowed the cavalier and brutal treatment dumped on other experienced and respected city employees, including the city engineer: the current mayor.

Jeff Holtzinger brought to Frederick's top office more than valuable knowledge from his previous post, resigned in protest to his predecessor's harassment, which some considered pay-back for his rapport with former Mayor Jim Grimes.

Attorney-engineer Holtzinger also possessed hands-on knowledge of the official and bureaucratic web that effectively runs local governments. He enjoyed the reputation as a professional, more interested in getting the job done than promoting himself. In a real sense this is the quality that got him elected.

In last autumn's atmosphere of anger and recriminations, charge and countercharge, his lack of public record and quiet demeanor stood him in good stead. His was the fresh face, unmarked by innuendo and allegations.

Past January 12's inauguration, the circumstances clearly demanded patience on the part of the public and professional observers.

While he was still sorting out the view from City Hall's most elegant office, the mayor became the target for his supposed lack of openness, chiefly from supporters of the previous regime that had demonstrated a talent for masked and closed-door operations.

Confusing the issue in Mr. Holtzinger's early days was his abandonment of the weekly press conference, which was created by his predecessor it seems from here, as a ritual of deception. Most Tuesday mornings the media were fed tidbits, rarely anything of substance.

The forum appeared, in fact, a form of show-and-tell, a child's game totally commanded by Her Honor. It made absolutely no difference there was little to report: the end-all, be-all of the weekly sessions became the ritualistic gathering.

At some point, I gather, the message finally got through: Mr. Holtzinger was so much engaged in wrestling with his diverse responsibilities that he couldn't deliver a box-score due to the constantly changing situation. Tomorrow's progress promised hopefully ever to overtake today's.

Running in tandem with the press briefings was the issue of where the new mayor really lived. (Let us not again rehearse the matter of the peculiar circumstances surrounding last fall's races; a federal judge rendered the subject moot.)

Having spent years in the family house no more than a hefty throw from the city line, once elected, the code demanded establishment of a residence within the municipality.

While still a candidate, he announced the move had been made. Since neither opponent, Joe Baldi nor Ron Young, raised the issue, like many Fredericktonians, I accepted his compliance.

Both before and after the voting, I trusted nosier folks to maintain vigil over where the new mayor slept or didn't sleep. As long as he met the law's requirements, I could care less about where the postal service delivers his personal mail. (After the fact, his predecessor moved to plug up the gap that allowed him to run; a non-resident on the ballot is not likely to happen again.)

With tumult and noise worthy of a cuckolded spouse seeking out the errant mate, a hardcore within the community demanded his exact address, in the manner of Thomas the Apostle insisting on sticking fingers in the wounds, in order to believe, the Resurrection.

In the event, the media responded. Having found out the house, they responded to His Honor's request to help protect his family from unwanted intruders.

Let me confess, among his four predecessors, I was in only Paul Gordon's house, for a post-election 1989 "victory party. Also present for the affair was then-FOP president Pat O'Brien, destined to fight off the new mayor's efforts to castrate the union, which pushed me firmly into Mr. Gordon's opposition camp.

The residency piffle lingered until blown aside by the combined county-city boards' announcement that the Potomac River Water Service Agreement had been approved; ratification followed quickly, ending years of bitter quarreling.

As expected, survivors of City Hall's old, and discredited, regime issued protests that amounted to little more than wheezy bleating. In the end, the aldermen offered unanimous support.

Commissioners' President John "Lennie" Thompson weighed in for the negative, claiming the city might default, leaving Winchester Hall stuck with the bills. When that argument failed to sway his colleagues, he retreated to his mantra: only developers would profit.

With no regard for the droughts that afflicted the county in the recent past and no memory of the rationing, the lowering of ground water table that endangered present residence, he did as expected.

As he has consistently resisted upgrading schools and roads, he was the sole commissioner to vote against the agreement that will protect the city and much of the county from, quite simply, running out of water. Mr. Thompson voted against.

Having fulfilled his campaign's primary goal, Mr. Holtzinger found himself accused of being aligned with those who would further despoil Frederick by simply doing what he had promised.

Gathering momentum in the wings was the accusation of vile nepotism. He put his sister-in-law on the city payroll!

From the outset, even before his inauguration, as the leader of his transition team, Del. Rick Weldon, told media, they had discussed the possibility of hiring Donna Folden as a project manager. She's married to his wife's brother.

With limited insight into those dizzying days I learned snippets of the chaos that afflicted the evolving administration. Every change in City Hall's "big chair" results inevitably in confusion; this one was more frantic because of the very nature of Mr. Holtzinger's out-of-the-blue victory.

First returns from November's general election seemed to confirm his pessimism. Communications crippled by a dead cell battery, Mr. Holtzinger was struggling with the proposition of congratulating his opponent when told former Mayor Ron Young had conceded.

In the turbulence of the election and the ensuing wild transition, Mr. Weldon said he didn't warn the new mayor off. Receiving no objections when hiring Ms. Folden was run by the human relations department may not be acceptable to some. Cynics can say all this has nothing to do with the act of brazen nepotism. After all, as an attorney familiar with the city code, he should have known better. The accused would probably be the last to disagree.

As it turned out, however, the principal source for the ethical transgression was Mr. Holtzinger himself! At the very least, he made absolutely no effort to dodge culpability.

Since the matter has been referred to state, county and city ethics commissions, those offended should draw comfort: any alleged black deed will not pass without censure.

The new budget this week should, it is to be hoped, occupy all those idle minds, trying desperately to find a there that's not there, not yet.

William Jefferson Holtzinger has every right, as mayor, to make his own mistakes. So far his detractors have presented no calamitous error. Until that happens, if I don't figure out for myself, I trust someone will let me know.

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