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November 19, 2012

New Steps to a New Government

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Frederick County voters sent a signal on Election Day. Not satisfied with the status quo, and unswayed by the arguments of many politically connected and populist messengers, a larger than expected majority rejected our venerated commissioner form of government.


In the 2014 state election, in addition to a new governor (term-limited incumbent Martin O'Malley will be positioning himself for higher office) and revised districts for our state senators and delegates to the General Assembly, we'll be faced with the choice of a county executive, a council member for our individual council districts, and two at-large council seats.


Between now and then, the currently serving Board of County Commissioners will have the distinction of being the last-ever such group. Names like Lou Dorsey, Mary Williams, Anita Stup and Mark Hoke will remind of us of better times, when the pace was a little slower and the decisions didn't all seem so monumental.


More recently, the boards have been distinguished as much by what they did as who served on them. The David Gray Board built stuff (the Law Enforcement Center, the C. Burr Artz Library, the One-Stop Employment Center), the Lennie Thompson Board, led by the threesome of Mike Cady, John Lovell and Bruce Reeder, pushed through some controversial development proposals, while the Jan Gardner Board will be remembered for tightening the grip on growth.


The present board, led by President Blaine Young, has made good on its campaign promises to streamline county government, lower taxes and implement policies that favor business and job creation.


Almost always controversial, these policies have also had a destabilizing effect on the county workforce. It sometimes seems that to make Mr. Young's pro-biz agenda omelet, a few employee eggs have to be broken.


The political irony comes from the fact that many of Mr. Young's most vocal critics, namely one-term Commissioner Kai Hagen and his ideological allies from the Friends of Frederick County, have sounded the loudest klaxon of criticism over the charter proposal, mostly because it came from Mr. Young's own board.


Had any of them bothered to ask Commissioner Young, he was actually opposed to the charter document created by his own appointed commission. According to the talk show-host-turned- politician, he supports charter generally, but not the specific charter that was on the ballot.


The difference between his position and that of his antagonists is that he recognizes that the new charter includes the tools by which it can be amended and improved. The Friends (and others) just advocated outright rejection. They got their collective clocks cleaned by the electorate. Talk about rejection, this now makes the aforementioned Kai Hagen 0 for 2, as he lost his re-election in 2010, and he lost this charter battle.


So, now the Young Board of County Commissioners will begin the process of undoing more than a century of government to prepare for the new form. Not content to wait until the 2014 election is upon us, they're doing the smart thing and starting the work right now.


County Manager Lori Depies, by all accounts a highly skilled management professional, finds herself in the unenviable position of helping to work herself right out of a job.


How would the county justify paying a $100K-plus salary to a county manager (Depies) when voters are electing a county executive making $95,000, who is responsible for running the day-to-day operation?


Instead of the county manager's daily coordination with the dozen-plus county department directors, those duties would obviously shift to the new executive. The executive will need to be capable of absorbing tons of incredibly detailed daily briefings, establishing and communicating priorities, and interacting with elected officials from the smallest towns to the highest federal bureaucracy.


Streamlining all this organizational detail can start almost immediately. One easy way to do it would be for the outgoing commissioners to redirect all senior staff input and decision flow into Ms. Depies' more-than-capable hands.


Allowing her to set up the mechanics of reporting relationships and the structure of executive decision-making would then allow the newly elected executive in 2014 to step right in and pick up the ball. To do that, the current commissioners would need to accept the slight ego downgrade. They're already lame ducks as a group, so why not?


The smart move is to build the foundation right now. Ease the Board of County Commissioners out of the dual executive and legislative role now, by focusing on the legislative tasks they must accomplish by ordinance and transferring personnel, workload priorities, and staff coordination to the county manager's office.


The next steps toward our new form of government should be taken right now. If done wisely, we'll be better positioned for our new executive to be successful in 2014. Isn't that what we all want in the end?


Well, maybe not everyone...


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