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June 14, 2010

Governing Frederick County Part 1

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

It's been quite a few years since I last wrote something for As some readers may know, I started a blog several weeks ago called the MacRo Report Blog (, and the response has been terrific; so I appreciate the invitation to pontificate in more than one place on the web!


Being active in the local land and commercial real estate business for "nigh-on" 38 years now, I've offered up a few opinions on the policies and people who influence the use and value of the product I peddle … more specifically, I often find myself frustrated with the overbearing role that government plays in impacting land use.


In addition to my livelihood, over the last 10 years as I have become heavily involved with community volunteerism – serving on the boards of trustees for a number of local businesses, charitable and educational institutions. During that time, I have come to appreciate the value that good governance practices bring to such organizations. To that end, I now find that my appreciation has grown into a passion, and that passion has evolved into a personal mission to focus on the issue of governance when I accept a seat at a boardroom table.


Now you may be asking what in the world do these two issues have to do with my headline above of "Governing Frederick County?"


Allow me to first define what I mean by governance. In the sense of good board governance, it simply means that there is a structure in place that assures the organization that a board of trustees (or a board of directors) actually does what its charter requires it to do. The duties of a governing board are often three key things: establish a vision, assure that proper leadership is in place, and then monitor the progress of leadership in its effort to meet the vision.


This simple job description makes a board's job sound way too easy, doesn't it? But as we learned from the infamous 2001 example of the very dysfunctional Enron Corporation board of directors, leadership in even large corporate giants can lose sight of their core responsibilities. The practice of assuring that proper governance structures are in place at the board level goes a long way to protect an organization against any level of internal corruption. It also allows mediocre organizations to often grow to exceed their wildest expectations.


The process of converting the board of a dysfunctional organization into one that practices good governance is often very difficult, as it pushes top leadership within management, and the board directors, out of their comfort zone, by holding them fully accountable for their actions. It often requires a serious action plan and a significant amount of turnover in personnel to get there.


Good board governance redefines the prestige of the role of a board member. No longer does the CEO/executive director hand pick his/her board members, who will bless nearly every wish he/she brings before them … and gone are the days of the wonderful exotic golf outings that are disguised as vital conferences.


The other dysfunctional extreme is one in which the chairman of the board, and/or a few of its members, micromanage all or part of the company, due to either their lack of confidence in the management team, or because they simply believe that nobody can do it better that they can. Either way the culture of the entire organization is corrupted to a point that it gets stuck in a rut and/or eventually implodes in one way or another.


The effort involved in unraveling messes like these is not easy and require a significant commitment of time and resources to assess the level of dysfunctionality and implement a plan to right the ship.


In government, as defined, "Governance is what government does." But as I have observed that Frederick County's current five commissioner form of governing known as the Board of County Commissioner system has been practicing very poor governance for many years.


This is very obvious in its relationship to the 12 incorporated towns, villages and cities with the Frederick County (Frederick City, Thurmont, Middletown, Brunswick, etc.), as well as in its tendency of late to attempt to micromanage many of the county departments. It has become very apparent to me and many others that a culture of no accountability has been bred into the system over the last several decades.


Not unlike the role of a board of directors of a private corporation, or a not for profit entity, our elected officials are elected to assure its citizens that the operations of government function properly. They, too, establish a vision, assure that proper leadership is in place, and then monitor the progress of leadership in its effort to meet the vision.


But in the case of our Board of County Commissioners, the members seem compelled to do so much more. While they have appointed a county manager, does this position really carry any authority to be a responsible party who can be held accountable for carrying out the vision of the commissioners?


How did it come about that the county has a commissioner form of government and the other jurisdictions are chartered with the mayor/burgess structure? Isn't it time for the commissioner form of government to be cast aside in favor of something better?


In Part 2, I will touch on these points, as well as draw the similarities between corporate governance and county governance. I'll cast my opinions on what lessons that our local Board of County Commissioners can learn as it grows into the 21st century. Stay tuned.



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