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August 20, 2012

An Odyssey Unlike Any Other

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The only people who will ever truly understand the phrase "serves at the pleasure of the mayor" is someone who actually does.


Consider this a fond memory of those relationships, as I've had many over the last two decades.


It started with Dick Goodrich, mayor of Brunswick from 1988 until 1994. Dick came into office as a result of an historic recall. A local group of activists known as VOCAL drove former Mayor Susan Fauntleroy out of office for what they termed reckless spending. In actuality much of the spending was driven by upgrades to water and sewer systems, but increasing costs to tax and ratepayers is never popular, despite the need.


Dick was a manager at IBM's Defense Systems office in Gaithersburg. He'd work an 8+ hour day, then come home to pores over city business until the wee hours of the morning.


I accepted the job of city administrator from Dick, after a more qualified candidate turned down the job. After just a few weeks, Dick resigned due to his health and the demands of his full time job.


Dick was replaced by Tom Smith, the previous mayor pro tem. A native Tennessean, Tom is as much Brunswick as any man who has lived here a lifetime. Tom may not have a Harvard MBA, but his knowledge of the Brunswick budget is encyclopedic.


His southern sensibility and fiscal conservatism were a perfect blend for a small town. He knew procurement, budget and building maintenance like no one else, and the government operated very smoothly under his stewardship. He left me alone to manage, always with the understanding that I owned my successes and failures.


Then came Jim Grimes. The single most energetic human being I have ever known, and a testament to the power of hard work, relationships and a positive outlook.


Jim Grimes is a rare breed, a successful businessman who could translate private sector leadership accomplishment into public sector achievement. I will never forget the lessons Mayor Grimes taught me, all of which have served me well in the years since. Some of his most vocal political detractors have shown themselves to be incapable of replicating his success, mostly because they never truly understood what makes him tick.


My next backstop role was behind Randy McClement, the current mayor of the City of Frederick. I campaigned hard for Randy, and when he offered me a job helping him build a government, the chance was too tempting to ignore.


It was a fun and exciting year, but unlike any previous public administration job. The job title was executive assistant to the mayor, but the work was essentially being the mayor's troubleshooter. Suffice it to say there always seemed to be trouble that needed shooting.


The job description included managing the Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NACs), basically a bitch session with self-appointed community leaders. There were 13 nighttime NAC meetings each month, in addition to the two regular Thursday night mayor and board meetings.


The stress of balancing those extra-curricular obligations was just more than a middle-aged former elected official had bargained for. I quickly concluded that being a granddad was a more important pursuit than being an executive assistant to the mayor. Once you reach a career conclusion like that, a change is inevitable.


That change brought me full circle career-wise, back to Brunswick. The intervening decade and a half had brought changes to my hometown, both good and bad. The mayor was an old friend, Carroll Jones. He was a full time mayor, a factor that presented some challenges but also offered the chance to learn a new collaborative management style working alongside an old and trusted friend.


A recent city election changed all that. Voters wanted a change, and rejected Carroll's appeal for another four year term. A progressive, activist agenda seemed to motivate the most voters, so Karin Tome is Brunswick's new mayor.


The thing about mayors and backstops is that the relationship is totally trust-based. Mayors deserve a staff director who can commit to their agenda without prejudice. If you're going to be their surrogate, you'd better be able to buy-in whole hog.


In this case, I just couldn't bring myself to that comfort level. Remember a column from 2010 entitled "Is it Just me?" Well, the new mayor of Brunswick and I had some tension over that little bit of humor writing back then. I suffered some serious employment risk thanks to friends of Ms. Tome, and I haven't forgotten the intolerance and vitriol that was openly expressed. It could easily happen again.


So, now I just pack my grip and move on to the next chapter. I may never again have the chance to be a backstop, the staff guy that a mayor could count on to solve problems, build relationships and apply political salve to a wound.


If not, I'll be forever thankful that I was the guy who had Dick Goodrich, Tom Smith, Jim Grimes, Randy McClement and Carroll Jones' back. Looking back on it, an amazing amount of important work got done at each stop along the way.


Here's hoping the new Brunswick mayor finds her own backstop and can replicate the success of her predecessors.


Time will tell…



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